The days of TV being a single-screen experience may be numbered. At least, if Nickelodeon’s recent announcement of Meet the Voxels, an animated TV show in development that includes augmented and virtual reality is any indication.
Meet the Voxels is part of Nickelodeon’s push to create kids’ content that turns a traditionally passive experience into an interactive one. “Technology is not just transforming how we make things, but it is informing the types of things we make,” says Chris Young, senior vice president, Nickelodeon Entertainment Lab, who spearheaded Meet the Voxels. “With every new medium comes a chance to create new forms of entertainment. Since the dawn of time, creators have looked for ways to further immerse audiences into their story universes. VR and AR represent another step in the evolution of storytelling. It’s a new door to open, with new opportunities to discover.”
This is particularly important given Nick’s target audience: kids ages six to 11. They’re a generation raised with tablets, smartphones and streaming services who move seamlessly between devices and platforms.
“We’re want to be at the forefront of where kids will be playing next,” says Tim Adams, vice president of emerging products at Nickelodeon. He and his team, known as the “digital sandbox,” work hand-in-hand with Young’s Entertainment Lab to create entertainment around
AR, voice interaction, and computer vision. (How a device’s camera identifies real world objects.) “Computer vision has both entertainment and educational potential. These new technologies can add a layer of interactivity to a kid’s real world surroundings in a totally new and exciting way.”
Meet the Voxels (working title), which follows a family of video game characters, will use game technology instead of a traditional CG animation pipeline, allowing creators to easily extend the characters beyond TV into games, VR, and AR experiences. That’s because game engines leverage realtime rendering capabilities, unlike traditional CG pipelines which rely on off-line rendering and time consuming post compositing workflows. Authoring in-engine allows the storytelling to evolve beyond just a linear execution, making it easier for creators to craft interactive or immersive experiences.
The Lab recently highlighted its AR and VR capabilities by designing a mixed reality experience for reporters at Comic-Con. Reporters interviewed the cast of the upcoming series, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a virtual press junket.
The Do Not Touch AR app, a collaboration between the Lab and Adams’ emerging products team, was released in March. When users start the App, 3-D versions of Nick characters like SpongeBob pop-up in the real world. The App experiments with a lot of AR content types, from mini games to silly visual pranks like a pile of whoopee cushions scattered across the floor. They are updated weekly based on events, linear shows and the time of year.
“When it aligns really well with what your brand is, it makes complete sense to find engaging experiences that allow you to take IP off the TV console and bring it to the real world in an AR video game,” says Mike Lisavich, head of demand products Tapjoy, a firm that links creators with advertisers.
Value Tested, Kid Approved
Before developing a prototype of a new product or experience, each new idea goes through a scoring system to predict its likelihood for success. The committee examines market potential, ability to monetize and the value to kids. Low scored ideas are tossed.
Once created, kids test the prototype. Sometimes an idea that creators thought would work well turns out to be too difficult for the age group. Designers and kid testers go back and forth, tweaking it.
Another challenge is the outdated technology kids tend to use since they’re often given their parents’ used devices. The teams need to make sure they’re designing experiences that will work on a wide range of devices.
So far, some of the most successful products in terms of how much time spent on them are games on the smart speaker, Alexa. Nickelodeon partnered with Amazon last September, when Alexa launched kid-directed skills, to create “The SpongeBob Challenge.” The memory game asks players to act as servers at the Krusty Krab alongside SpongeBob, Squidward, and Mr. Krabs. The orders get harder as the game proceeds.
When Amazon launched the “Echo Dot Kids Edition” in April, Nick introduced the trivia game “No Way That’s True” and the interactive puzzle game, “The Loud House Challenge.” Research shows that kids are spending an average of 15 minutes playing the games. “Amazon has also told us that level of engagement is pretty shocking,” says Adams.
These platforms can be powerful marketing tools if they’re authentic and are aligned with what the brand is trying accomplish. “They take the connections that brands have with their audiences to the next level,” says David Weinberg, a strategy consultant at Interbrand. “It allows them to connect with people in a more tangible, hands-on way.”
Authentically Integrated Ads
The next challenge, though, is figuring out the best way to monetize these products without alienating users. It’s something Diego Medina, vice president, advanced advertising product development, is experimenting with.
One way is creating ads that are games. For instance, to promote the movie How to Train Your Dragon, they created a connect the dots game that was accessible through Nickelodeon.com. When the user connected all the dots, a dragon appeared and flew away.
Medina is testing a similar concept with Screens Up, an AR app that launched during the Kids Sports Awards last July. The app has games and silly AR stickers with Nickelodeon characters, but it also serves as a companion to big Nick TV moments. A virtual basketball game was created for users to play during the Kids Sports Awards. In the future, that basketball backboard can be branded for an advertiser.
Other ideas: Putting a virtual claw game in the app (like the ones at amusement parks) that picks up characters from upcoming movies. Advertiser’s with well-known IP can integrate them into the app’s sticker function. For the upcoming Wreck it Ralph sequel, Ralph can be a sticker that punches a virtual hole in your wall.
“It’s an authentic way to engage with the audience,” says Medina. “The more that we can find new ways of engaging our audiences, the more ways we can position advertiser messages.”