The Future of Energy and Water: a Virtual Journey with the Smithsonian, Part 2

Mike Ballard, Vice President, Industry Strategy

Mike Ballard, vice president, industry strategy, for Oracle Energy and Water, describes his journey to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It was a career high that catapulted Mike and his colleagues into the metaverse.

Part 2: “Dad, this is really cool!”

So, to recap: Oracle has taken on a challenge to develop a Future of Energy virtual reality experience for the Smithsonian FUTURES exhibition. We have now around eight weeks to design, build, test, and install an activation that will be used by thousands of visitors at various times over a nine-month period.

Our partners at EDX Technologies were on board and had already started sharing their time travel ideas. But we needed more help.

EDX Technologies (led by their unflappable CEO Roger Skidmore) are experts in three-dimensional spatial development for industrial use cases like utilities and emergency services. But we were building a game. An educational game, but a game nonetheless.

They introduced us to Froliq, a part of Zpryme. Froliq checked all the boxes:

  • Zpryme are experts in research, media and events related to the energy sector.
  • Oracle has been working with Zpryme for years.
  • Froliq develop gamified VR experiences for training and education.
  • Froliq had already worked with Austin Energy on an EV education experience.

I was introduced to Jorge Ortiz and Rebekah Diaz, the creative minds tasked with turning my fever dreams into reality. Seriously, until I met Jorge and Rebekah I really wasn’t sleeping.

We had built the dream team.

  • Oracle - driving the vision, the scripts and all the supporting industry content.
  • Froliq - developing the experience (they would use Unity running on a Valve Index headset)
  • EDX - taking the Froliq build and testing it to within an inch of its life.

And it wasn’t only the skills and experience that were vital to our success, but also the attitude of the team: creative, committed and pragmatic!

The entire project was run via Zoom. I’m based here in the UK. Froliq and EDX are in the US. We used the six-hour time difference to our advantage, but there were some long, late nights as we iterated on the design and the build.

The rules of the game

As the weak link in the development chain, I was reading everything I could about using virtual reality to engage and educate. There were four key findings that I kept reminding myself of as we developed the experience.

  1. 95% of visitors will have never used virtual reality before. Giving time for visitors to orientate themselves before asking them to do something would be critical.
  2. VR can make some people nauseous. Keep motion to a minimum and keep frame rates high.
  3. VR has the power to affect people like no other medium. The story you tell, the environment you build, its sounds and the proximity and movement of objects around the user can have a real impact on them.
  4. Time perception can change inside VR. The degree of immersion, interactive activity and sounds can cause users to underestimate how much time they have been inside the experience.

It turned out this last one would have real world implications for The Smithsonian.

The future of energy journey

We assumed that many visitors to our experience would be trying it out because it was virtual reality, not because they were particularly invested in learning about the future of energy.

With a good narrative and supporting visual effects we had the chance to lay out the reasons why energy, its history, and its future were relevant to our visitors and what agency they had in that future.

As I covered in the previous episode of this series, we wanted to start our future of energy journey in the past. We would then move forward in time, showing, as the world evolved, how our harnessing of energy (specifically electricity) has driven the transformation of our world. This time travel would extend from 1860 (before electric power arrived in our communities) all the way to 2050 (the reference date of the FUTURES exhibition).

To help Froliq build their changing three-dimensional world, Oracle ran a research activity to map out the major shifts in those everyday things like transport, roads, buildings, clothes, shops and, most importantly, power stations and power lines.

research activity to map shows the major shifts in everyday things like transport, roads, buildings, clothes, shops and, most importantly, power stations and power lines

We laid them out on a timeline and provided Froliq with sample images from those times.

The magic arrived as both Rebekah and Jorge began to source appropriate 3D models and weave their arrival and departure according to the timeline we had laid out. And Froliq had to develop a special framework in Unity to manage the time travel orchestration.

In the end, over 450 individual assets were choreographed into a beautiful 60-second dance: a world transformed by energy, morphing around the visitor.

And all the while, I was the providing the voiceover (channelling my hero David Attenborough), setting the stage for the next part of the experience: how each of us has a role to play in the future of energy.

Up to this point, the visitor’s role in the experience was passive. They could look around in any direction, stare at the floor, stare up at the clouds, but they couldn’t move, and they couldn’t interact with anything. This was deliberate.

We needed the experience to be accessible to a wide variety of people with differing ages and experience with digital platforms of any kind. We wanted the key messages of sustainability and personal agency to be taken on. And, importantly, allowing any walking around would have meant developing an even larger world.

As one young user at the Smithsonian found out when we forgot to turn off the ability to move, our world was like a Hollywood film set: one sneaky look around the corner and the fourth wall is broken. The magic is lost. And (as our young intrepid explorer found out) if you venture too far, you can literally fall of the edge and tumble into an infinite void, watching the flat world float up and away from you, forever!

Providing agency

Whilst the time travel experience is a highlight for many visitors, to make energy relevant to people today, we needed to make a stop in the 2020s. There, the visitor would get to explore a home. They would get to interact with various in-home appliances to find ways they can make their energy use more sustainable and more affordable.

But what advice should we be giving? Every person entering our virtual world has their unique circumstances. As I mentioned in the last episode, Oracle knows a thing or two about engaging consumers in matters of energy. Opower insights are highly personalized. We needed to provide a broad set of tips where at least one tip would resonate with visitors of all backgrounds and ages.

So, we selected eight of the most impactful actions that most individuals and families can take. We made sure that many were either free to do (like switching off idle devices) or very low cost (like swapping out old light bulbs with LEDs).

We wanted visitors to search the house for these insights but not make them so hard to find that they missed out on them. We added didactic prompts when they arrived to help them understand what was expected of them.

Some of the items, like weatherizing your home (you point at the window right in front of you) and the TV, are very easy to find. Others, like the hot water furnace/boiler, are hidden inside a cupboard.

One of the brainwaves from Jorge was to capture the usage data for each session to see which parts of the house were most visited and which were getting missed. We’ll examine the insights from that usage data in a future episode.

Hidden gems!

One of the great powers of virtual reality is its power to transport you to anywhere you can imagine. It was proving a challenge to condense the rich insights of Opower into tight 30-second sound bites. For some, the energy efficiency CliffsNotes were enough, but other users wanted more.

So, we built these bizarre floating platforms in space, where a more thorough exploration of each of the eight insights could be found.

And while you were there you could pick up and play with the subject of the insight (like a games controller, a thermostat or even a refrigerator!)

I cannot tell you how much the kids just loved picking up and throwing those objects off the platform into space!

Unlocking these rooms required users to actively click on the area of the home (the TV, or the window, etc.) to reveal a small blue “i" symbol. They would then have to click on that symbol. I think this was a blocker to some users getting access to these insights. But once visitors understood how they could access these secret rooms they became very popular.

One of my favourite gems in the whole experience was our light bulb carousel.

One of my colleagues, Kim Grego, researched the cost, lifespan, and efficiency of every type of light bulb manufactured, from the original Edison bulb to the latest LED bulbs.

When you pick them up, they glow (at the correct level for the type of bulb), and their characteristics are shown as infographics orbiting the bulb like a moon orbits a planet.

It looked amazing and was a favourite feature for many.

Exit to the future

At any point the vistor can leave the house and continue their time travel journey to 2050. But we wanted to keep them looking for all eight insights.

We did notice a few users acidentally clicking the exit sign and leaving prematurely. There’s probably a confirmation step we could have added here.

So now we are outside. It’s 2020 and we are about to talk about the future. Not a sci-fi inspired future. No flying cars. We wanted instead to demystify some of the emerging energy trends.

We wanted to broaden the discussion to include the actions needed by corporations, governments, and regulators.

But 2050 is still a way off, and predicting any specific future wasn’t the purpose of this exhibition. So, we crafted a narrative that explored the changes we will see to people’s homes, to transportation, and to the generation, storage, and delivery of energy to communities and businesses. Agreeing what to include (we crammed in a lot) involved collaboration with many people inside Oracle, at the Smithsonian and elsewhere.

One particularly engaged stakeholder was the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon team. This team has been running design-and-build competitions for sustainable homes for many years. We were honoured to be allowed to include one of the winning homes (a Chilean entry called Casa FENIX 2.0) as an example of the sustainable homes that will be built in the future.

Another key learning—how subtitles work in virtual reality—can also be seen in the shot above. In two dimensions, placing subtitles at the bottom of the screen makes total sense. But in immersive 3D, that doesn’t work. As Jorge explained, it would be like someone holding a piece of paper right up against your face while you are trying to look around.

We solved this with some conveniently placed translucent boards, hovering in the real world, to allow the hearing impaired to engage in the experience, too.

One of my favourite scenes in our time travel from 1860 to 2020 was the elegant way the power poles rose up out of the ground in the 1900s.

In the future scene, by burying power lines (an increasingly popular measure to improve grid reliability) we get to provide symmetry. You also see the coal-fired power stations and the smokestacks being returned to the earth.

It’s a neat way to round off the story.

A call to action

After we have completely blown their minds, what will they take away with them? What have they learned about their role in the future of energy?

We wanted to ask visitors to pick one thing from all the insights we shared that they would do when they went home.

And we saved their choice and kept a tally.

The act of having to actively click on one thing helps reinforce their behavior change.

But what reinforced and even expanded their engagement was then showing how their choice compared to those of other visitors, a classic Opower technique.

Visitors would perhaps now take away more than one action: the one they chose and the next most popular choice of other visitors.

As one of our test subjects exclaimed (my 15 year old son who I rarely impress anymore) - “Dad, this is really cool!”

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