Supermodel Hannah Davis is used to doing photo shoots with tons of people around, surrounded by crew members fixing her makeup, hair, and eyelashes and giving her all manner of direction about what to do while the camera clicks.
But when the 2015 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue cover model was on a beach in the Dominican Republic not too long ago, there was no one else to be seen. It was just her, the sand, and the waves. And an odd jumble of GoPros mounted on a pole.
Welcome to the SI Swimsuit virtual reality shoot.
"I felt like I had no direction, so I just had to do my own thing," Davis told Fast Company exclusively. "Being myself, [I was] really alone. Everyone’s hiding, being really quiet. ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Is there right and wrong?' It’s a very bizarre experience."
Davis, along with fellow Swimsuit cover models Irina Shayk and Nina Agdal, represented SI's first-ever foray into virtual reality. That the magazine started out with VR for the annual Swimsuit issue, almost certainly the most popular parade of nearly-nude women this side of the new Playboy, highlights how the technology transports people into scenes and brings them closer than ever before to subject matter.
The goal of the VR project? "We wanted to answer the question we get asked every day," says SI’s creative director Chris Hercik: "What is it like to be on a Sports Illustrated [Swimsuit] photo shoot?"
Thanks to a series of special VR cameras that braved heavy waves and even an aggressive jellyfish, "Now we’re able to say to them, you can be standing there, seeing what we shoot," Hercik says.
For anyone who hasn’t been around a teenage boy in the last 50 years, the SI Swimsuit issue has earned what Hercik called "iconic" status. Last year, both in print and in its digital forms—including a daily Swimsuit section on SI.com, it had more than 70 million adult viewers. That includes more 18- to 34-year-old males than watched the 2015 Super Bowl, and even 16 million women.
Hercik pointed out that SI broke new ground four years ago with the first-ever fashion shoot in Antarctica, and then again two years later with the first zero-gravity photo shoot, both featuring supermodel Kate Upton.
Turning to VR to bring Upton’s fellow cover models Davis, Shayk, and Agdal to the masses is SI’s latest move. As Hercik put it, "Holistically, [Swimsuit] is a brand that is reaching audiences on every platform, and VR is just another way to enhance that experience."
SI is making its VR experience available via the iOS or Android Swimsuit app, and it can be viewed either with a VR viewer like Google Cardboard, or on higher-end hardware like Samsung’s Gear VR or, later this year, on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. The magazine is folding half a million custom Cardboard headsets into special newsstand editions of the Swimsuit issue, as The New York Times did last year.
The project was produced by Wevr, a Los Angeles-based VR studio that recently closed a $25 million round of funding and unveiled its own innovation, a cross-platform VR network known as Transport.
Initially, viewers will get five free videos—more will be added later, for a fee—that each showcase one of the models on location. There will also be a video aimed at VR virgins in which Agdal demonstrates how to get intimate with the technology.
"What happens with the VR version of Swimsuit [is that] when you put the headset on, you are sitting right there," says Anthony Batt, the cofounder of Wevr. "We’ve been looking at the pictures for years. Then you watch video, and now you’re standing in [the middle of] it. So there’s this immediate connection . . . We’re re-creating the covers, where you can actually stand in them. It’s a pretty beautiful experience."
During a normal SI Swimsuit photo shoot, the set is heavy with crew, from the model and photographer to photo editors and many, many others.
Not so during some of the VR shoots, since the special camera rig that the magazine used captured everything around it, in 360 degrees. That's why the VR shoots featured just the models and the camera, and no one giving direction. That meant the models had to get creative.
"This experience felt a little more organic, because it’s just you on a beach," Davis says. "They’d get everything set up, and I’d do my thing for a few minutes."
One thing that was different than a normal shoot, she says, is that she was asked to move around the camera in slow motion, so she did just that.
The models "were having fun with it," Hercik says. "They were playing around coming [toward] the camera, acting as if it’s a viewer standing right there.
In other words, with that VR headset on, Swimsuit fans can tune the world out and pretend it’s just them and Hannah Davis, alone on a world-class Caribbean beach.
Though it’s too early to tell how the Swimsuit VR project will perform, SI has every expectation it will be a big hit, and already expects that the 2017 version will be "even more immersive," Hercik says.
As a medium, VR is evolving quickly, and there’s every reason to believe it will be substantially more advanced a year from now than it is today. No one really knows how quickly the technology will take off, but many people think that 2016, with the release of the Oculus Rift, the Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR, will be the year that VR really goes mainstream. Analysts say things may go a little slower, but predict that the market for VR hardware and content will be worth $30 billion by 2020. Content alone could be a $5.4 billion business by 2025.
For SI, the Swimsuit VR project is just the beginning. Hercik says the project is 100% exploratory when it comes to seeing how the publication can apply virtual reality across all the areas it covers. Sports, of course, are considered a natural VR subject, and there have already been interesting experiments, such as a live VR broadcast of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors opening night game, which showcase the genre’s potential.
For now, though, SI’s VR efforts are all about swimsuits. Here’s betting the VR powers that be couldn’t be happier about that, because the project may make readers happier than ever before.
"I think if you’re a true fan, you can’t really get any closer than this," Davis says. "It’s as if you’re there with me on the beach, walking on the water, looking up into the sky, seeing what I see. I don’t know where we go from this. How can we make the fan experience more intimate than this? I don’t know."