From Space to Sky to Sea in VR with GE

Kelly Donahue

Associate Director of Content & Programming


Marni: Hi, this is Marni Edelhart, Producer of VRevolution, on the line with Kelly Donahue, Associate Director of Content & Programming at GE. Hi Kelly.

 Kelly: Hi. How are you?

Marni: I am doing well. I am so pleased to be speaking with you again.

Kelly: Yeah, you too!

Marni: I’m hoping you could start by simply telling us a bit about your background and experience, particularly as it relates to VR.

Kelly: Sure. I mean, probably like many people my experience is only a year. My background is in content. I worked at a lot of ad agencies both as a producer and account person. I also worked at Coca-Cola. So I’ve been doing a lot of TV, a lot of content production for a very long time. But when I started at GE, it was really built into my job description that I essentially educate myself and become a resident kind of VR expert for the company and for marketing within the company. So it’s been a lot of self-education, a lot of reading of blogs and then the production of at the stage three different experiences directly and kind of consult on several other experiences that other teams are developing here at GE. 

Marni: Great, thanks. And you mentioned blogs, I was wondering are there any specific ones you would point people to as resources that have been particularly helpful for you?

 Kelly: I go to primarily. I would say that they seem to have the most up-to-date information and also know how to explain it to people who are not just developers or techies. I follow them on Twitter as well. That’s kind of my number one go to source, but I would say also the wires and the fastcos of the world whenever they do features.

 Marni: Thank you. Can you describe one VR experience that you’ve built at GE that you find especially exciting?

 Kelly: At GE, yeah, we did an experience, a customer experience for Vive called the GE Store. So the GE Store is sort of our term for how we apply technology innovation across businesses. So for instance we take x-ray scanning and apply it to deep sea oil pipeline maintenance. Or we take digital innovation and like the concept of a digital twin which basically creates digital replicas of big machines to pull big data analytics. So we apply that to wind farms that are 20 turbines across 5 miles. So anyway those kinds of stories are obviously very difficult to tell and obviously very time consuming and expensive to tell as well. So we’ve built kind of an immersive VR experience where you can almost be inside of a GE super warehouse, I guess for lack of a better word, and kind of pick and choose different GE businesses to connect and see how one business and innovation within one business impacted the other. So you are doing things like going to a global research center and then going 30,000 feet up in the air to be next to a plane engine. And see how chemical and the chemistry innovation impacted the mechanics of what goes into that engine. You are also going under the sea, you are going into space. So its stuff, its stories that we couldn’t otherwise tell I think, at least we couldn’t tell as efficiently, without VR. So I am really excited about that one. We built it for Vive but we have versions for Gear Cardboard and YouTube 360 as well.

 Marni: Very cool. How about a VR experience that wasn’t made in GE that you found especially inspiring?

 Kelly: We just did our first live action VR which will come out in January and kind of in preparation for that I was watching a lot of just different kind of short films. There was this one called New Wave by a guy named Samir Mallal, I think is his name. It’s on the Within App. And it was the first time I had seen somebody really play with audio in this particular way, but basically if you kind of look to the left side you would hear the audio sort of the inner monologue of the woman in the film. And then if you look to the right side you would hear the inner monologue of the man in the film. And really they were both going on at the same time, the whole time. And it was a matter of sort of choosing which one you wanted to tune into at any given moment. It was really interesting. I had never seen the, the medium sort of used like that. I thought that was really inspiring and kind of gave me a lot of ideas.

 Marni: Yeah, I want to try that one now. I have to look at it.

 Kelly: Yeah, it’s great.

 Marni: So where do you see the enterprise opportunities developing for VR?

 Kelly: We talk a lot about this here because, I mean, what I do within GE is VR for marketing which is really only one small piece. We also, within our global research team, are doing a lot of just undirected research with VR. But we really see opportunities in training and in long distance collaboration. So it is difficult to get somebody trained on massive wind turbines or engines without putting those things out of service to train them. You lose time by putting engines out of service. You lose money. So if we can kind of recreate those experiences in VR, and enable new employees to kind of learn their jobs, like these high tech manufacturing jobs to learn them through virtual reality, that’s really big cost savings for us in the long term. So we are really investing in figuring out how to use VR for those ends.

And then similarly because GE specifically has so many kind of complex stories to tell, digital industrial stories, we really are kind of trying to figure out how to create VR experiences that are really sales tools. Like how can we be bringing gears into meetings and using gears, to get people to wrap their heads around our products in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to show them before. So those are two areas where we spend a lot of time kind of focusing on the opportunity for growth for enterprise.

 Marni: And what are some of the most notable roadblocks that you’ve come up against or that you’ve heard about in terms of rolling out VR initiatives, both enterprise or customer facing?

 Kelly: Sure, I mean, we … I focused on this a lot from a marketing standpoint. We are seeing huge, both physical roadblocks and psychological roadblocks. So I think one of the key challenges we’ve had historically to be totally honest is we’ve fallen in love with a concept and not set aside enough money to make sure that we can get it to the masses. Given the install base, you know if you take out gear which maybe cross to million, if the install base for Vive and Oculus is under 300,000 400,000 right now, to create something there and not have a plan for getting it out, you know, it’s a mistake. So I think there is still this massive install base roadblock and I think not setting aside funds to build the physical experience around the content experience is a huge roadblock. And I think that that is a stumbling point that a lot of brands were early to the space, still fall into and frankly we fell into when we first started experimenting here.

And then the second is when you do invest the right money and get to the right event and build the right experience around the VR, I still think even at a micro level, you have to create the right psychological setup to allow somebody to feel comfortable inside the headset. So one thing we are seeing is people are very uncomfortable, basically completely turning themselves off to the world. They don’t want to be photographed, they don’t want to look stupid. And they don’t know who’s around them and so what we are finding is if you set up a very public Vive experience where people are lined up behind you, the person tends to put the thing on for about 15 seconds and take it off and say cool and move on. They are not quite ready to get totally immersed because they are worried they are holding people up, or they are worried they look really silly. And so I think that there is not enough attention being paid right now to creating the ideal environment to actually get your message through in VR.

 Marni: Yeah, I have definitely been a person who’s like afraid to stay in one too long especially when there’s a weight so …

 Kelly: Yeah. Exactly.

 Marni: So with so much money flowing into AR and VR how do you think brands can deliver on the huge investment?

 Kelly: So I mean I think in my mind for the next couple of years the money is going to be on building customer experiences with clear, specific install and rollout plans. So I think what Audi has done, where they’ve built a custom sales experience where you can look at all 52 cars and they have installed Vive across every single one of their dealerships. Those kinds of experiences are how brands are going to really capitalize on these investments. I think partnering with the major apps and content creators that are already in the VR space is another area where brands can capitalize. I think the watch-out is again just trying to just experiment for experiment’s sake because the territory is so specific right now that you have to kind of piggyback onto the experts or make sure you are building something that is truly interactive and also has a clear rollout plan. So I would say for brands to efficiently deliver they have to make sure that what they are building is not just creatively led, it’s also really, really hand in hand with media. And when I say media I mean distribution strategy, and I mean audience targeting.

 Marni: Kelly, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I can’t wait to continue learning from you at VRevolution on December 16.

 Kelly: Thank you.