But take a closer look under the hood — there are actually three things that are very clever about that Samsung commercial for the Gear VR.
First of all, the Samsung Gear virtual reality device itself doesn’t appear in the Samsung ad until the final outro. The ad’s all about LeBron James, but he never actually wears the device. Contrast that to a typical technology company ad, where the device is front-and-center from the opening credits. The reason is simple – Samsung wanted to avoid the geeky stereotype that surrounds virtual reality in general. Just Google “Palmer Luckey Oculus TIME cover” if you need a reminder of how ridiculous it can look to have a black box strapped to your face.
Secondly, the entire Samsung ad focuses on one theme: “Let’s Go to Work.” This is key – Samsung is positioning the device as a way to live cool experiences, rather than as a way to play cool games. What could be better than learning about the real-life training regimen of arguably the world’s greatest athlete? In this case, the actual VR experience was created, directed, and produced by Felix & Paul Studios, a Montreal-based virtual reality studio.
It’s possible to immediately imagine a whole host of other people lining up to create their own “Let’s go to work” series – chefs, artists, football players, ballet dancers, construction welders or teachers.
This points to the changing way that people will come to see devices such as the Samsung VR — not as a pure gaming device, but as a way to have new experiences and view the world through other peoples’ eyes. The New York Times did it with their Google Cardboard VR experiment, too, showing what it was like to live the life of a migrant in places such as Ukraine and Syria. But that was arguably a more journalistic experience, more suited to the consumption habits of a typical newspaper subscriber than to a young millennial who’s perfectly at home singing the lyrics of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.”
In this Samsung ad, you see LeBron running over a bridge and poking his head into a gym. You also see people on a subway car, people working underground and people walking through a crowded restaurant (a brief scene that’s reminiscent of that famous “Goodfellas” Steadicam long take in a nightclub restaurant). It’s non-stop action, set to an urban rhythm (Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”), giving you a feel for what it’s like to experience VR, tilting and moving and angling in unexpected ways.
Thirdly, Samsung caps the new LeBron James virtual reality experience (not the ad itself) at 12 minutes, turning virtual reality into more of a bite-size experience that’s somewhere between an extended song and a 30-minute sitcom. (It’s possible to download the entire 12-minute film on the Oculus store or via the Samsung Milk VR app.) Again, with a reference back to the New York Times’ “The Displaced” experience, that too, had a running length of just under 12 minutes. That seems to be about the amount of time that people can experience VR without starting to feel a certain amount of disorientation.
By keeping the new “Striving for Greatness” content at under 12 minutes, Samsung ensures that the new LeBron James VR experience is not seen as a gaming experience, where you’re spending hours on your couch playing VR games with a mask strapped to your face. There are just so many great VR experiences that are increasingly becoming available. With virtual reality, you can indulge your inner Walter Mitty. Instead of just admiring the Instagram lifestyle of King James, you can now get inside that lifestyle even deeper.
UPDATE: This piece has been updated to mention the role of Felix & Paul Studios, a Montreal-based virtual reality studio.