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Balenciaga Embraces Gamification to Draw Young Shoppers


French label Balenciaga blazed into completely new territory with the release of Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, a video game built to showcase their Fall 2021 collection

Balenciaga Embraces Gamification to Draw Young Shoppers

While the fashion industry is known for a willingness to break boundaries and try new things, digitisation has so far not been one of them. Yet its key demographic of Gen Z and Millennials—now the largest consumer group—live online. To stay relevant, fashion needs to embrace all things digital. Fortunately, some brands are blazing a new trail.

One company at the forefront of fashion’s digital evolution is Balenciaga. Last year, the French label blazed into completely new territory with the release of Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, a video game built to showcase their Fall 2021 collection.

Described by Vogue Runway as a 'quantum leap for fashion,' Afterworld is a totally new way to market clothes that also breaks new ground in the industry, creating a demand for sophisticated immersive experiences designed to boost online commerce.

Unlocking the infinite possibilities of virtual worlds

We have long known that the internet provides fertile interactive ground for brands to build customer relationships and reach new consumers, all at once. An immersive adventure set in the near future of 2031, Afterworld lets players pick from a range of diverse avatars before exploring different zones of the game, interacting with pieces from Balenciaga’s collection along the way. It’s a totally new way to showcase fashion and could just be the jumpstart that other brands need to wake up to the creative possibilities that can be unlocked by new technologies.

Image courtesy of Balenciaga

A true labor of love, Afterworld was born from a collaboration of creative minds around the globe. But Balenciaga’s Creative Director Demna Gvasalia was the first to recognise the power in marrying gaming and fashion, dreaming up the game’s vivid landscape.

The project began in April 2020, after a conversation between Substance & Inhalt and Wilson J. Tang of Yumebau Inc. From there, Streamline Media Group handled the game development and Dimension Studios provided volumetric video capture, with Substance acting as Creative Consultant.

“In cooking terms, we were the chef working with great cooks from around the world to deliver a delicious meal for a highly discerning patron,” says CEO and Co-Founder Alexander Fernandez.

The project presented unique challenges, requiring a delicate mix of expertise from the seemingly disparate worlds of fashion and games. It also happened to be one of the largest projects Streamline had worked on when it came to the number of stakeholders. “This cross-pollination of ideas demonstrated to us how video games have really come into their own, first in entertainment and now in enterprise,” says Fernandez.

Image courtesy of Balenciaga

Gvasalia had an epic, far-reaching vision and Streamline was determined to get it right, managing initial R&D to figure out what was possible—and at what quality level. The team used Unreal Engine to build the game environment, quickly and easily setting up functionality using the engine’s Blueprint visual scripting system and populating the world with photorealistic 3D scans from Quixel’s Megascans library. “Unreal Engine was made for this type of work,” he says.

Streamline was also responsible for bringing volumetrically captured digital models created by Dimension Studios into Unreal Engine, as well as building the different levels of the game and populating them with vehicles, background characters, and animals. 

Image courtesy of Balenciaga

Ushering a project like this from conception to completion is no small task, particularly on a short timeline. In this case, the team had three months to deliver the finished product. But for Fernandez, the experience was exhilarating. “Working with people from non-games was incredible,” he says. “We were able to take their ideas and find a way to make it work with the technology and time available. This was where our vast experience in creative and technical problem solving came into play.”

In addition to the creative stakeholders, Streamline collaborated with numerous other teams to bring the project to fruition. These included Builders Club, who supplied pre-rendered cinematics for in-game transitions, and Ubitus, who helped optimise and test the experience for deployment in the cloud.

Co-founder and joint managing director at Dimension Studios, Simon Windsor has worked at the bleeding edge of immersive and extended reality (XR) technology for over a decade. He led the team that created 50 digital models for Afterworld, using state of the art volumetric filming on the Polymotion Stage, a collaboration between Dimension Studios, Nikon, and MRMC. It is thought to be the largest volumetric video project ever undertaken. 

The 4D digital models created by Dimension act as game characters throughout the five levels of Afterworld. The team faithfully recreated the characters’ Balenciaga garments by capturing them volumetrically using Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture technology, which preserved the look and feel of the apparel including the way different fabrics flow. These assets were then encoded into a compact, streamable form.

To facilitate their use, Microsoft provides a plugin that enables volumetric assets to be easily integrated into Unreal Engine projects, enabling users to take full advantage of its advanced rendering pipeline. “The convergence of volumetric capture and Unreal Engine was perfectly timed for Balenciaga to push the boundaries with Afterworld,” says Windsor.

Image courtesy of MRMC, a Nikon Company

Reflective surfaces like eyewear are difficult to capture in volumetric video, and Balenciaga's Fall 2021 collection just happens to feature some unique and intricate designs—including shiny metal armor.

Dimension developed an advanced processing pipeline that enabled these more challenging materials and forms to be faithfully recreated and tracked onto the final digital models. Elements like reflective sunglasses and stiletto heels were virtually modelled, then replaced in post-production. And the results speak for themselves. As players move through the game they can see the garments in 360 degrees, creating a stunning and wholly unique lookbook for the luxury fashion brand.

The project also allowed Windsor to explore an idea that has long captured his imagination: that as digital content evolves, it will move off traditional screens and blend with the physical world.

He likens Afterworld to the OASIS, the virtual universe introduced in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. “Balenciaga’s Afterworld is an example of an exclusive, curated experience, but one that’s available to anyone around the world,” he explains. “It allows the brand to do much more than a traditional lookbook or even an in-person fashion show.”

What Balenciaga foresaw—and other fashion houses are starting to catch on to—is that immersive, interactive experiences will soon become common, whether online or on the high street.

Image courtesy of Balenciaga 

The tech is there, ready and able to fulfill our wildest creative visions—and game engines like Unreal Engine will be the bedrock on which they are built, serving as “the heart of a storytelling and content revolution,” says Windsor.


Digital humans: the future of fashion

Digital dressing rooms, MetaHumans, digital supermodels, and virtual catwalks are just a taste of the disruptive opportunities shaping the future of fashion. Smart brands like Balenciaga saw this future coming and are well-poised to reap the benefits. But they're not content to rest on their laurels. They will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible, dreaming up ever bigger and better experiences to delight audiences.

Image courtesy of Balenciaga

It’s a point not lost on Fernandez. “Digital humans and virtual worlds are just a first step for fashion and brands in general,” he says. “It’s not hard to see what comes next with trying on clothes or seeing yourself represented in the world.”

Possibilities include a deeper melding of fashion and virtual worlds, like the opportunity to go shopping for the latest fashions with friends on the other side of the globe. “It’s going to be great,” he says.  

3D technology touches myriad worlds, enabling everything from dynamic virtual camera angles for sports broadcasters to interactive, immersive musical events. “As these technologies continue to converge, we'll see even more creative magic happen,” says Windsor.


The Metaverse is coming—and fashion can thrive in it

Looking to the future, Windsor predicts that digital fashion will only continue to grow. “The Metaverse, the holodeck—whatever you call it, vast persistent virtual worlds are coming and fashion brands will live and thrive creatively in these bold new worlds,” he says. “As our digital personas evolve beyond social media and digital expression as we know it, manifesting in our own virtual avatars that become a natural extension of who we are—or want to be—in the Metaverse, so we’ll see the virtual economy for fashion boom.”

Fernandez predicts that the evolution of virtual worlds will have major implications over the next couple of decades, resulting in worlds that are completely driven by brands. “The entire concept of design, luxury, and service will be redefined by video games,” he says.  

We are already seeing this come to fruition, agrees Windsor, from virtual influencers and AR runways to Fortnite fashion shows and the creation of Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. “Uniquely creative and wonderful virtual fashion experiences are coming,” he says.

For Fernandez, fashion’s digital shift will completely rework the concept of brand loyalty and engagement. “Virtual worlds will transform not just the way we sell, market, and interact with products, but how companies structure their organisations to meet the needs of their team members and stakeholders,” he says. “Enterprise video games represent digital transformation of the global economy—and this is only the beginning.”  

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Epic Games, Mon, 12 Apr 2021 10:35:34 GMT