While not without some laudable adventures (see Samsung’s “space as an interface” ARAR project Dreamground), phygital retail – brand experiences where the physical and digital worlds intersect – has notoriously been weakened by unimaginative staging, leaving a wasteland of sad screens, glitchy apps and awkward headsets in store in its wake. British immersive VR company Xydrobe is now offering, echoing the mainstreaming of immersive yet physically dedicated entertainment seen at the avatar-fronted pop concerts of ABBA Voyage and the new mega-arena The Sphere in Las Vegas.
Entering Bain & Company’s predictions that new breeds of technology-driven activities, including the metaversal but also branded media content, will drive an additional $63-126 billion in luxury sales by 2030, the new haute health happening PAUSE will feature cult aestheticians, anti- inflammatory skin care pioneer Dr. Barbara Sturm. More than a new revenue stream, the London-based luxury experience, which combines low-level immersive theatre, virtual reality and spa therapy, demonstrates how mixed reality mined “elegantly” can drive escapism, empathy and act as a powerful emotional primer for subsequent physical experiences.
Prestige XR: What and who is Xydrobe?
Xydrobe custom creates (ticketed) multisensory immersive experiences for brands, deploying VR within spherical fiberglass capsules via technology including “fighter-pilot-level vision goggles” that track eye movements (to avoid inducing nausea), cinematic surround sound and/or specialized audio ear pods. Micro-chambers of atmospheric suppleness, the enigmatic globes also emit fragrance and change temperature to complement each 360° visual experience. Before entering the pods, visitors experience artfully constructed, set-worthy real spaces – liminal zones to set the mood and cut the cord of everyday banality.
It was created to serve luxury brands (fashion, jewelry, beauty, automotive) for which virtual concepts, most of which are too resource-intensive to properly execute in-house, have so far lacked the sensory seduction that warrants prestige status.
However, it has the capacity to serve any company with an artistic backbone or component (more on this a little later) thanks to the trans-industrial nous of the three co-founders: CEO Nell Lloyd-Malcolm has more than a decade of experience as a Hollywood VFX producer (credits includes Star Wars and Impossible mission), Chief Brand Officer Isabella Gallucci is a former stylist and fashion consultant with six years on the clock with Matches.com, while CMO Michael Pegrum boasts 15+ years as a marketer for brands including Vivienne Westwood and Perry Ellis.
For at least the next three years, Xydrobe will reside in a pocket of extreme affluence on Carlos Place in the heart of London’s Mayfair – opposite the Connaught Hotel and neighboring Celine, Dior, Balenciaga and Simone Rocha (among others) as well as MatchesFashion’s five-storey mothership.
PAUSE: Theatrical foreplay & transformative sensations
The cornerstone of PAUSE is a holistic approach to immersion where a soft theatrical prelude eases visitors into the main virtual event; When you enter, you’re greeted by a Sturm assistant in a white sweatshirt (think sport-luxe rather than orderly) and given a glass cup of the brand’s herbal Skin Tea before entering the tub. The tea is an introduction to molecular cosmetic products, which never appear in the VR content; in this experience, the products are located solely within the peripheral scene.
Once inside, you begin a soothing journey down a river at dusk, guided by a talk-track that kicks off basic breathing exercises (even NikeNKE now has its own lead trainer, the acclaimed Stuart Sandeman) and a gentle breeze and subtle wafts of scent from who knows where (the perverse beauty of having your senses disturbed by a powerful headset and headphones) gradually heightens the sensory seduction.
The experience kicks up a notch when you slide underwater into physically impossible territory—a virtualized rendition of an out-of-body experience that pulls what might otherwise feel like a fancy-pants version of the Headspace app into a more enchanting world.
Notably, you are completely disembodied, there is no avatar or other physical form to connect your slowly reality-ending brain to. According to Lloyd-Malcolm, “It’s partly because of all the different variations we’d have to create, but mostly because recognizable physicality can root you in a way that’s too limiting, it inhibits the sense of being in a transformative experience. This is not about marketing a product, it’s about how we can make people feel. Virtual experiences can create very real memories; we use VR to evoke real emotions that participants can sit with and in.”
After the 13-minute long in-pod experience is an opportunity to participate in an infrared light therapy. In total, the session costs £159/$198 for 50 minutes, with around 70 people expected daily (eight visiting the venue every hour). Booking the entire space for the day is also an option.
Beyond Haute Health: Virtual Recces & Tech-powered “Emotion Primers”
Using immersive technology to serve the increased interest in wellness post-pandemic is increasingly recognized – 65% of US consumers are eager to use virtual worlds to improve their health, while Verizon recently partnered with senior-focused VR platform Rendever on “reminiscence therapy” for to alleviate loneliness and combat depression But the mind-body connection evoked by multi-sensory cues, conscious or otherwise, also illustrates how mixed reality technology has the capacity to prepare consumers/fans/audiences for additional physical experiences – feasible for everything from plays to art to fashion shows.
Earlier this year, British company Box Office used VR immersive technology to evoke emotions in theatergoers watching Smiling (a play about the late Dundee United football manager Jim McLean) at Dundee Repertory Theatre, Scotland. Before the show, they wore a VR headset to be transported to a dressing room at halftime and a very visceral dressing down from a virtual McLean.
Lloyd-Malcolm understands the sentiment and is no stranger to using XR to capture emotional resonance: “In my previous role I worked with virtual visualizations of cinematic scenarios to prepare specific film scenes, which is something we continue to consider with the storytelling we’ recreate for brands. Pre-experience – the idea of priming someone to influence their perspective – can be very powerful for everyone from brand fans to sports stars to actors. For example, I’m interested in reconstructing or simulating the situations and atmosphere of live events like Wimbledon, where someone can be taken from outside and straight into center court.”
Is there room to explore darker or more complex emotional states? “I think there’s a huge opportunity for all emotions to be evoked, if they’re done elegantly.”
Reality checks: 360° video Add new social perspectives
Although its core customers are based on the fantasy of the most luxurious derivations, Lloyd-Malcolm reveals Xydrobe’s interest in using the technology to stop social division: “We are currently exploring immersive 360° movies to (almost) virtually recreate an event, for example, to be able to put people in a march or a festival environment. We explore research around wider avenues that connect to arts, culture and philanthropy – especially topics and scenarios that people have difficulty understanding right now, such as conflict situations. We want to provide more context, to offer different lenses on a particular situation.”
Could biometrics, where the experience changes according to the participant’s heart rate or neurotransmitters, play a role in this? “Sure. Right now we haven’t gone there because it didn’t feel like it supported a luxury experience. That’s also why it’s not interactive – the ease of use, the feeling of being immersed in a guided journey where learning isn’t necessary knowing how to use the technology or thinking about something new felt more conducive to having a transformative experience. But it’s absolutely possible for other experiences.”
What’s next for Xydrobe? New markets and mastering co-presence
To highlight the ever-growing Xydrobe repertoire, according to Pegrum, Xydrobe will hit NYC in 2024, Tokyo and Hong Kong in 2025, and the Middle East in 2026. Brands will include online publisher Hypebeast (“imagine a chaotic journey into the early noughties, which crap on TV”), Givenchy (“a dystopian virtual maze where catching a virtual bag means winning it in real life”) and Valentino (“like walking into a beautiful snow globe”).
Apart from infinitely varied content, multiple destinations will provide an opportunity to play with co-presence, i.e. trans-global interactivity: “Having multiple destinations is key to this,” says Lloyd-Malcolm, “people in different places will be able to communicate together, to share a lived experience, albeit a virtual one, in a way that isn’t the metaverse. We don’t need these lofty ideologies (like Meta) of world domination, we’re just interested in using VR to create amazing and connecting content .”
PAUSE is at 11 Carlos Place until December 15th.
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