The era of online immersion is almost upon us. By which, I don’t just mean we’re about to finally disappear up the back side of the Zoomternet (there’s no fighting that one), but that the frequently underwhelming world of digital brand experiences, and the attendant ecommerce, is on the cusp of becoming infinitely more compelling – regardless of whether you own any VR kit or live to noodle around on Fortnite.

Primed for a 2021 in which the acceleration of digital commerce will subject weak e-experiences to scrutiny unlike ever before (fashion e-tail alone may increase to a whopping 35-55% of total sales in key sectors by next year) and gaming worlds will become a social media norm, today sees the unveiling of a new collaboration uniting a trio of forces: London College of Fashion’s future-gazing Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA); virtual immersive e-commerce specialists, AnamXR (an XR-focused company at the intersection of gaming, architecture and cinematic quality visual design); and Pangaia – a pioneering collective of sustainable materials innovators working under the alluring umbrella ethos of “high-tech naturalism”.

Acutely aware of how eco-ethical brands have too-often failed to seduce consumers beyond an ardent (already converted) fanbase, the initiative focuses on Pangaia’s much-vaunted FLWRDWN puffer jackets – an extraordinary ethical alternative to traditional goose and duck down jackets created using a biodegradable composite of natural wild flowers and a biopolymer, infused with an aerogel for high product performance.

The concept? A self-exploratory virtual experience that dives into Pangaia’s philosophical headspace surrounding the FLWRDWN range, accessible via the most democratic of tools: the desktop/mobile.

Here’s what happened, what really worked, and the incoming tools the team are incubating to harness next generation digital brand storytelling:

Delivering the Desktop Atmospherics

‘Desktop virtual’ tends to lean towards the comedic; cardboard cut-out ambassador-avatars hawking haute merch like QVC
never happened. The Pangaia experience transcends these by far, trading on atmospherics that evolve what’s arguably still the best precursor to this breed of low-fi immersion: Kenzo’s Grace to the Nth Power back in 2014 – a mobile-first virtual gallery experience that also made great use of what was then advanced 3D modelling and in-experience video.

Using a rich combination of 3D modelling, animation & rendering applications plus dynamic cloth simulation software built into a gaming engine (Unreal), ‘visitors’ enter a virtual scenescape modelled on Antarctica, supported by precise and enchanting movement-mirroring sounds of snow crunching underfoot and whistling wind. A color system loosely guides explorers through the space to each virtual garment. Moving the cursors or a trackpad gearstick showcases panoramic views of the landscape as far as the digital eye can see, smoothly shifting in line with even with tiniest incremental nudges. Everything is self-steered.

Such free-roaming atmospherics are far from the icing on the cake. According to Dr. Amanda Parkes, an acclaimed bio-media designer (she’s a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab), fashion technologist and Pangaia’s chief innovation officer, “We’re doing this to create a visual but also metaphorical connection to the products [and their holistic discovery], because people have become extremely disconnected to the source of their garments. As the scientific adage goes, you don’t teach a lesson, you set up the conditions to elicit a meaningful experience. There has to be a degree of self-discovery.”

Open World Experiences & Rallying Around Real-Time

A broader sense of discovery will be advanced in future versions, including potentially switching up the virtual environment. According to AnamXR’s cofounders, Irene-Marie Seelig & Matthew Pril (CEO and CTO respectively), because the virtual space is built using a gaming engine it can be updated near-constantly, offering the exhilarating promise of ever-changing user experiences: “There’s a big focus in fashion at the moment on creating fixed digital assets [products, environments] but we were very conscious of not creating assets that would effectively ‘die’ or become stagnant. Our technology and environments are living, evolving virtual spaces.”

It’s a sentiment deeply applicable to adding spontaneity, including allowing users to stray beyond the designated portal points where they engage with specific garments (something extremely limited in the present version). Matthew Drinkwater, head of the FIA and a global expert in emergent technologies reveals they’ve discussed dabbling in what’s known in gaming terms as the Easter Egg approach (i.e. including an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software, effectively adding a joke or a bonus) and in-experience mechanics that prioritise freestyling over completing tasks.

The mindset echoes a wider sea-change in gaming culture shown in things like No-Man’s Sky that’s rooted in ‘infinite generation’. Drinkwater even cites Red Dead Redemption 2 as an (his) inspiration point – “by which I’m referring to the open-world mechanics that allow you to free roam and simply explore the beauty that surrounds you. These things are enormously engaging. It will be fascinating to see how storytelling within fashion and retail will evolve in similar platforms, as brand storytelling shifts into ‘story living’.”

Maria Srivastava, chief communications officer at Pangaia confirms that “we’re already looking at how we can build this into a sequence of potentially micro experiences.”

UX to Centralize & Stabilize the Visitor

While peripatetic engagement may be coming soon, Pril describes the value of creating a stabilizing ambience: “It’s very important understanding of how, visually, the environment unfolds, moment to moment, and how light directs the viewer throughout a space. When building the Pangaia project we looked at how natural elements interact with designed structures to help frame products and develop interesting compositions. Our ‘wagon wheel’ inspired central layout has been used throughout history including in the city development of Paris, France as well as the creation of Walt Disney’s Disneyland – allowing the user to understand their central position without ever feeling lost.”

Perusing the Virtual Product

Getting up close to the product is a satisfying process, too. The individual garments are rendered in ultra-photo-realistic 3D visuals that can be shown in close-up, flipped into a new colorway or spun 360°.

An accompanying video next to each garment’s station (and this is where it gets really meta) contains animated 3D materials, providing another opportunity to leap into a micro rabbit hole of virtual storytelling connected to the garment. The aim is not to tell the story in a way that makes visitors feel strong-armed into observing the sustainable narrative, but to allow them to indulge in a far more enticing world of creative innovation.

Commercial Clunk

As yet, the user experience somewhat awkwardly separates the inspiration from the sell. While that’s sometimes laudable, with such a focus on hero products it’s a frustrating barrier not to be able to click on the product info to buy, share or save for later. To buy in the beta version a ‘Shop Now’ button redirects users back to the brand’s main e-commerce page, breaking that critical atmospheric spell. But it’s not far off: Seelig confirms that the capacity to buy and wish-list directly will be available within the web-based experience by the beginning of Q2 2021, commercializing the curiosity in full.

Digi-Lonely? Hello Squad Shopping & Virtual Reality Guidance

As is probably fair enough, being that the experience is based in Antarctica, this version of a journey into the Pangaia universe has some fairly lonely moments. But it’s an issue common to many virtual experiences still grappling with how to bring the buzz of the best flagship or even far subtler, more poignant experiential moments into a virtual scenario. The current rise of audio-based social networks such as TTYL and Clubhouse are already setting a compelling precedent.

According to Seelig, this is also very much on their radar: “We’re looking at introducing multiplayer possibilities, or ‘squad shopping’ so you could see and engage with someone else in the virtual space as an avatar or ‘spry’ (light or dot), invite other people into your space or be guided, if you wish, via an audio or voice tool – connected to an expert or other form of brand ambassador. Presently, it’s very consciously been devised as a solo experience, so we can observe users’ reactions, but there will be ways to break out of that.” ‘Squad shopping’ and guided VR is slated to be introduced to the experience by the beginning of Q2 2021also.

Platform Agnostic: Added-Value Full VR

While part of the brilliance of the current concept is its capacity to hit mainstream audiences, according to Drinkwater it’s also “completely platform agnostic – transferrable across mobile, desktop and wearables,” so those who do have the full VR set-up can immerse themselves to an even deeper level.

In any instance it’s a micro taste of the metaverse – a world where gaming meets brand land beyond the schmaltz of straightforward sponsorship – that all e-brands need heed for 2021.