In 2020, Metaxu.studio collaborated with Power of Chi to accelerate the build of a wintery wonderland. SantaVR was an immersive festive experience for adults and children to visit a Christmas wonderland and meet Santa. Guests would have snowball fights, help Santa deliver presents and explore his wintery home.
Watch the video below to see how SantaVR worked.
How we built the space
At Metaxu.studio, for the last 6 months, we have used successfully the Mozilla Hubs open-source platform which affords anyone with an internet browser to access the virtual experience, whatever their device (mobile, tablet, laptop, or a headset). We now have invested in a more robust solution by subscribing to Mozilla Hubs Cloud hosted on Amazon Web Service which gives us a couple of servers and CPU dedicated to support the VR experience. From a design standpoint, SantaVR was created in a couple of rapid iterations using an original workflow. The environment was modelled in VR using Medium Adobe, then optimised in Blender, then textured using Substance, then imported in blender again to be exported as a .gltf file format to import into Spoke. Most of the assets, like sounds, props (snowballs, snow man, deers, presents,…) we also imported into Spoke where the whole scene was put together before being published on our dedicated Mozilla Hubs Cloud server.
How we safeguarded and supported the guests
As a live event using families who were likely inexperienced in using VR we also needed to set processes up to safeguard and support the user throughout their session. Once you clicked the link to your session and you entered the lobby, those guests could hear everything going on in the space. Therefore it was essential that there was no risk of other families or people in general to have access to their session. From the guest perspective, visually, it was exactly the same space. On the backend, each session was an entirely separate instance.
This worked perfectly to ensure those spaces were entirely private and mitigated as much risk as possible for a potential VR version of a Zoom Bombing. It is important to state here that it was incredibly challenging to fully ensure privacy when using Mozilla Hubs, an open-source platform without altering the code. We had to push the existing system to its limit by creating dozens of Hubs room with their revocable URL in advance. At the end it worked and was much cheaper than building a VR platform entirely from scratch.
How we managed the ticketing
Separate instances worked exceptionally well in mitigating the safeguarding concerns for our guests. In doing so, it created a challenge in the ticketing management. Many event tools in existence were initially set up for live physical events. They then rapidly created functionality to link the likes of Zoom and other online video platforms and then further accommodated the need for Zoom codes and passwords for additional security.
However, in this circumstance, the event is usually one or just a few static links to a space. We had a separate link per session. How could we distribute the personalised link to the guest while replicating that same link to the master database so that both Santa/Elf and the guest arrived in the correct instance without it becoming an unscalable task, the more tickets we sold?
Our answer in this case was Zapier. We created a zap that connected our spreadsheet for the Santa/Elf and delivery team to gmail. Each time we created a new instance, we would complete that line in Sheets (including name, time, date and other information about their ticket) and an automated email would arrive into the inbox of the guest. This way, our delivery team had up to date information on where they need to be and at what time and our guests would have clear communication on their side too.
Ticket tailor was the platform we used for ticket sales. The speed in which we rolled this project out, it would be unfair to say whether it was the preferred tool to use or not as we just didn’t have time to fully explore its functionality. One area was creating multiple occurrences of the same ticket; a scale up ambition that meant, should tickets sell, we could run multiple SantaVR experiences simultaneously. In this project, we didn’t fully test this as our lead up time meant we had enough sales to just run one occurrence only. That’s not to say it isn’t possible but the set up would need to be watertight to ensure the email/personalised link automation is reliable.
How we trained the talent
In any live event, briefing the team is essential. The guests must feel that they are entering a space set up seamlessly for them to immersive themselves in the experience. Until now, not many live events were fully delivered remotely and online entirely. In this case, it was one step further, using technology that was not only remote and online, but through a virtual 3D world very different to video conferencing.
Training was essential to ensure our team of talent knew how to use the tech, to troubleshoot tech challenges and to effectively onboarding guests who had minimal experience using VR even on desktop.
We produced a training pack filled with introductory videos, simulations, and briefing docs which was then distributed to the talent. Santas and Elves were also given a SantaVR instance to visit and practice in. The intention for training (which was also completely remote and virtual) was to allow talent to implement and test out what they’re learning, immediately. We also created a VR dressing room for our talent to enter first, choose the Santa or Elf avatar, change their name and get in the skin or their character before entering the next session.
Ideally, we would have had 1-2 live video sessions to onboard and Q&A before going live with the events. In this case, we just didn’t have time. Therefore, we set up a whatsapp group, a welcome video and a Q&A document.
Over the course of the 6 days of delivery, two of the team involved in developing the space and the concept took on the avatar of floating red balloons. We were able to observe the session delivered by our performer playing Santa and Elf and message in the whatsapp group for anything needed in that real-time moment to support them . In a proof of concept phase this gave us enormous insight into the user experience pros and cons, audio communication and other development requirements.
2020 was the year that disrupted everything we knew to be normal.
Almost overnight, one simultaneous movement of extreme measures around the world and our entire global hand was forced to seek connection over the internet.
A plethora of Zoom bombings, mute ‘mares and pixilated videos descended. Zoom fatigue set in and the stilted ability to hear each other in real time reminded us of the human connection we progressively missed. From children to the elderly, we sought to find ways to feel less alone.
Then came Christmas. A dawning realisation that the time old tradition of visiting Santa was now an impossibility. Children who had already missed months of interaction with friends, teachers and teams, now faced one more barrier to building on their imagination.
SantaVR was a labour of love from a group of people who wanted to reconnect the joy of immersive experience than technology can afford.
VR has been around for several years with a staunch following of those with niche interest. It has yet to penetrate the domestic or professional domains for immersive, real time experience and solution.
“For any one not able to visit Santa, this was fantastic! I was the worst custmor, forgot I booked (got a text reminding me). We had a few technical issues and had to change devices. However, they were so patience, helpful and accomodating. We put a present at our back door for her to find and it all worked perfectly!”
” We threw presents and snowballs over a cliff. When you throw the presents you have to think of the person you want it to go to and it goes there (this is how Santa is delivering presents this year!) Desia thought of her friend Sophie. So we put a present outside Sophies’s house (Desia didn’t know, then we called her to see if she got it! So extra magic for the kids! Obviously, your’re able to tell them so much about the child when you book, so it’s great! You choose an avatar and walk around. My fiancee was really impressed as he though it would be just a video.” Gina Wallace.