Todd Marks – Mindgrub


ABOUT: Hollywood was definitely a huge influence on my passion for VR. I was fascinated with the movie Minority Report in the early 2000s, which shows a lot of futuristic concepts and ideas. Those mainly included swipe gestures on a screen and haptic feedback, but it also brought up the idea of biometrics. There’s a scene where Tom Cruise is walking through a mall that has a bunch of retina scanners that trigger personalized advertising. When he enters The Gap, for instance, his new eyes are scanned and he is welcomed as the former owner of those eyes.

At the time, I was working with a business partner, and we thought that instead of storing retinal information, customer data can be stored on a handheld device. That thinking actually spawned a product we built called viaPlace, which is used for providing location-based services through your smartphone. We also envisioned that information would one day jump off the screen in the form of projection or through digital glasses, known today as augmented reality.

I also remember seeing The Matrix around the same time. That movie featured the concept of a neural implant, through which information could be instantly available to the user.

Back to the Future was another great movie. When they go into the future, there is a scene where a shark gobbles a guy up, but it’s actually a hologram.

Needless to say, we were inspired by what was once thought of as impossible. We had this vision of users receiving information based on where they are and providing them with immersive experiences. We got super excited when Google Glass was released. When Oculus Rift came out, we got even more excited. Then there was Vive and some others as well, but for me, getting into virtual reality was because of Hollywood.

While we got into XR because of the creativity of Hollywood, we’ve been applying those technologies often in the education space. That’s the other intersection for me; I’m a former educator. One example is we worked on a tool for Mercy Medical Center to help improve training outcomes while also reducing costs: It’s a 3D crash cart simulation program to help nurses become familiar with operating room tools and processes in emergency situations. I enjoy being at that intersection of engineering, education, and VR technology.


How did your company get into VR?

– I quit my job in New York and started Mindgrub when Apple released its SDK. One of the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) conferences I attended showcased a lot of different technologies like 4K video, drones, 3D printed arms, and new video capture devices. Then there was stitching, where you could see stitched video. After that there was the emergence of Oculus. At the time, these technologies didn’t quite integrate with one another; they were still disparate.

By the time of the NAB Show that same year, someone had an Oculus headset. The presenters were showing footage from a drone that recorded video of a lake from the first-person perspective in the headset. As soon as I saw that video could be recorded and redisplayed like that, I thought, if it’s video, it can be produced digitally, through Unity (a programming platform we were using to produce 3D games).

So right there, I thought, “Wow, we need to get our hands on the Oculus.” We were able to get a beta version and got to work. That’s how we got into VR. We were so impressed and dedicated to developing VR software that we later built a Holodeck in our office, a safe and controlled environment dedicated to testing virtual reality apps and games.


What is it like working with your company? What can I, as a customer, expect in terms of communication and collaboration? 

– We start all of our projects using a discovery process where we really dive into a client’s business and make sure everyone (the client and our team members) is on the same page before any work begins. We then make prototypes, wireframes, and visual designs. Once those concepts and visuals are approved, we build things out, test the product, and deploy it with digital and traditional marketing.


How would you describe your company culture?

– We celebrate authenticity, initiative, and ingenuity. Using these core values as our guide, we create spaces, programs, processes, and teams that help foster more creativity and solve bigger problems. Our employees enjoy internal committees and clubs (e.g., fun committee, adventure club, beer club), free snacks and monthly lunches, and activities in the office such as ping pong, video games, and a rock climbing wall. Mindgrub has been named one of the Best Places to Work by Baltimore Magazine, a Best Workplace by Inc. Magazine, and has been on the Inc. 5000 for six years running.


What is your company’s core expertise?

– Our expertise is in mobile technology, web development, creative design, user experience, systems integration, and marketing. We strive to provide a complete digital package to our customers because doing so helps make sure they are well-positioned in their markets.


Do you offer any type of satisfaction guarantee or revisions of completed work?

– We offer a 30-day defect-free guarantee post-launch of any product. We have a dedicated Quality Assurance (QA) team who makes sure the experiences we create are optimized on an ongoing basis, as well.


I’ve been living in a cave for the last few years and just got back to work in the marketing department, can you explain to me why I should invest in a VR marketing campaign?

– I would need to know a little bit more about you and your work. But if your work involves physical space, VR might be the best way for you to market or test your product.

For instance, if you are a real estate developer and you want to show your client in Dubai what it’s like to walk around in his apartment without flying him to your location in the U.S., you should absolutely invest in a VR marketing campaign. It’ll help you be more competitive.

If you are an auto manufacturer and you want to give someone the experience of riding in one of your cars without physically being in the car, you should invest in a VR marketing campaign because it’s much easier for customers to have the experience where they are rather than traveling long distances to shop around for what they want.

If you have a new roller coaster concept that you want to test out before you build it, which was one of the first use cases of VR, you would want to use a VR campaign to get feedback from potential riders. The feedback could completely change your perspective and the design of the roller coaster, ultimately making it more likely to be popular once it’s released to the public.

Anyone involved in building and developing products using CAD (computer-aided design) or Revit might also want to consider VR marketing campaigns to show their buyers what their new products will be like before investing in the production of those products. There’s a lot of cost savings potential in manufacturing and design that companies like Lockheed Martin are already realizing.


What is your best tip for a brand looking to launch its first VR experience? How should they think and act?

– The best tip I have for a brand is to think about the best distribution channels for your target audience. For example, Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute attracts students from all over the world, and they wanted to show students what it would be like on campus without them having to physically be there. In order to deliver on this project, we had to consider the delivery channel. We posted the 360 videos on Vimeo and created a splash page website to give as many people access to it as possible.

But if a brand is trying to show someone in Dubai what it’s like to live in an apartment in the U.S., for example, and they want it to be a true VR experience (not just seeing it on a 2D screen), they might want to send an Oculus headset to the potential buyer for a more immersive experience.

Brands need to know how they are delivering the experience (e.g., Google Cardboard, the internet, HTC Vive) and where. You have to think about that hardware because that’s where the sticking point is right now. My advice would be to think about the way you are going to get the content to your audience well in advance of producing any content.


What sort of VR experiences do you think we will see in the future, in terms of marketing? 

– Some haptic feedback is already available on some of the VR controllers. Ideally, VR would be able to recreate four of the human senses: sight, hearing, touch, and smell. For example, Disney World and Universal Studios are already a few steps ahead with immersive movies and performances that now have emitters in the theater that spray water or scents. Other VR experiences could include a new car smell for automotive campaigns or the smell of fresh paint for real estate development campaigns.


What are the risks and pitfalls with VR marketing? Describe what you would advise against doing.

– Some of the risks or pitfalls of VR marketing include the issue of getting the device to their customers and the cost of producing a high-quality experience. A little over 50% of people surveyed by HubSpot in 2018 said they did not plan on investing in VR hardware personally, which means we can’t rely on a broader audience being able to access VR experiences in their homes and offices. What we can do, however, is bring that hardware to where people are (events, trade shows, attractions, etc.) to give them an easy way of experiencing the technology and your brand.


Pick a brand and product that you like and tell me what sort of campaign you would create, given total freedom and an unlimited budget.

– I’d produce a nonlinear recreation of Game of Thrones. The key here is to have it be nonlinear where all activities are occurring in real-time and the user would need to explore them, rewinding and fast-forwarding the timeline as needed. The show would just take place and the user would have to piece it all together by listening to and reading the plots. For example, the user might read about something that is happening in King’s Landing and would need to jump over there to find the same characters. An exact path would not be set out for the users; the user would need to teleport all over the place, listen in, and figure out what was happening with those stories.

I would also create a first-potato VR experience for Martin’s Potato Rolls (my favorite potato rolls in the world). I’d want to show the process of how they are made, from where the ingredients are sourced to gathering the grains and potatoes to the processing that occurs in the factory to getting baked and finally coming out fluffy, warm with butter. At the end, I would eat one and the screen would go black. Providing an experience like this gives the user a better understanding of where the ingredients come from and the effort required to produce the final product. Storytelling is a good way for brands to connect with their audiences, and doing it through VR is truly memorable.


How big can VR marketing get and what will it take for it to get there?

– VR marketing can get as big as video marketing is today, provided that these devices become as ubiquitous as screens are currently. That starts to get into AR, though, with glasses that are easy to put on and walk around with. So VR marketing could probably only get as big as video on TVs, provided VR goggles are as inexpensive and ubiquitous per household as the cost of their TV. For example, a family of four that purchased a TV for $1,000 could spend $250 on a piece of VR. The content itself would need to be as inexpensive and of the same quality as regular 2D video content. Right now VR devices and content are just too expensive.


How would you define a successful VR marketing experience?

– The feedback from consumers of a VR marketing experience would need to be significantly more impactful and powerful than any other marketing format in order to be successful.


What is it about VR that gets you excited?

– The capability of having physical experiences in a digital world.


What VR experience do you fantasize about experiencing in your lifetime?

– Going through a black hole. I’d expect to feel dizzy and compressed, but it’s VR so it’s all about what you think you are experiencing.


What’s the next big thing in VR?

– VR devices will become less expensive, and more portable. We are still a long way out from having better processing to support rich multi-person experiences. It’ll be huge when everyone can work remotely and, at the same time, be able to experience a work environment, such as attending a virtual meeting; everyone would be sitting at the same table together and be able to see each other’s body language, in addition to hearing their voices.


STUDIO: Mindgrub

VR May 30, 2019 by Rick