We know Oculus Rift is kind of cool and funky, and Mark Zuckerberg got so excited he splashed out US$2 billion for the company.

But what do you actually do with it? And can media companies really make any money from that big, clunky headset?

Well, here is our experience so far. It’s been very positive, and I suspect there are lessons for everyone – from capturing the original idea through to technical execution.

Virtual reality allowed Perth community members to see the future before construction on a community project began.
Virtual reality allowed Perth community members to see the future before construction on a community project began.

Our journey started with a pitch for a digital advertising contract. The government was looking for ways to promote a series of big infrastructure projects being built in Perth. The projects are interesting and included a children’s hospital, football stadium, and waterfront development.

But there’s nothing sexy about dirt and diggers. So, our challenge was find a way to tell a story about the future.

We gathered key stakeholders for a spirited brainstorming session that left us feeling pretty happy about our excellent ideas. But it was the guy who said the least who made the biggest contribution.

This one developer in the room walked upstairs and immediately told his colleague, Joel Hopson, what had just gone on. He knew Joel had been playing around in his garage with an Oculus Rift development kit.

Unbeknownst to everyone else, Joel went home that night and started building a virtual reality version of what Perth’s new waterfront could look like. He pieced together some existing 3D models of Perth landmarks with other bits of Brooklyn bridges and boardwalks from around the world.

Quite simply, what he built was phenomenal.

The next day we were all took turns strapping on the headset and were blown away with what he had created. Swiftly, our “brilliant” brainstormed ideas were tossed aside in favour of Joel’s garage wizardry.

We duly won the six-figure government contract, but ran straight into an unexpected problem. They wanted the first virtual project – the children’s hospital – to be built within a month.

The problem was the consumer model Oculus Rift sets hadn’t been released in Australia yet, and we needed two of them. But it’s a small world these days, and you can shop around for anything on eBay – even Oculus Rif. We made the deadline, and so far Joel has built two projects – the children’s hospital and a 60,000-seat football stadium.

As part of the advertising campaign, the virtual reality experience was made available to the public.
As part of the advertising campaign, the virtual reality experience was made available to the public.

The advertising execution involved outfitting a bus with the two Rift headsets, then driving it to prominent spots in the city for locals to queue up to view this vision of the future. It’s been really popular, and all of us – and especially Joel – have learned a hell of a lot along the way.

His first challenge was to establish a technical workflow between the architects’ models and Oculus Rift.

Most architects use the 3D building design software Revit, which, as he found out, is incredibly detailed. A typical building design includes every light switch, power point, tap, air-conditioning blade, exhaust fan, etc. This is polygon overload for the poor Oculus Rift, which doesn’t need all this visual and performance clutter.

So, painstakingly, every unnecessary fixture had to be removed piece by piece using Revit and Autodesk 3ds Max software, which are popular among video game developers.

The final VR executions ended resembling Hollywood movie sets. If you peered around the back of the stadium or hospital there was nothing there. It was just a façade. Every spare piece of computer space needed to be carefully nurtured.

The other problem with Revit is it’s very bland to look at it – “50 Shades of Grey” doesn’t come close to describing its colour palette, so Joel needed to bring his stripped down models to life with burst of colour and grass.

The final piece of the puzzle was to put it into a gaming software engine, which displayed the Revit/3ds milkshake in a format viewable on the Oculus Rift. Somewhere in the middle of this software jigsaw puzzle, Joel needed to tell a story to captivate viewers without making them throw up. Movies and games run at about 30 frames/second. The Oculus needs to be at least 75 frames, otherwise swiveling your head too fast will induce nausea.

Joel learned from the first hospital version not to overload the viewer with too much voice-over information, because they were too busy being wowed by the visual experience to hear anything. So, for the stadium he cut the words and amped up the experience. It included footballers running onto stadium through cascading confetti. In the final scene firework exploded overhead during a rock concert.

It was absolutely stunning.

One of Zuckerberg’s ultimate aims to is to use Oculus Rift to allow users to simultaneously experience a live event together – like sitting front row next to Jay Z and Beyoncé watching the Lakers. Until then, the headset is one-on-one experience, so the challenge is to maximise the impact one person at a time.

Last time I saw Joel, he was creating a show reel of potential VR experiences for advertisers while enthusiastically discussing his garage experiments of taking VR to the next level.

I didn’t fully understand it what he said — but I didn’t doubt him for a second.