When the continuing coronavirus pandemic precluded holding its usual large first-quarter corporate meetings in person, Walmart turned to xR production to go virtual with the annual Investment Community Meeting (ICM) and A Year Beginning Meeting (YBM). Tennessee-based experiential event company LEO Events, which produced the two shows, brought Xite Labs on board to provide technical and creative services in support of LEO’s master show direction. Xite delivered custom set designs, virtual environments, AR content production and on-site editorial as well as designed, built, calibrated and operated the xR stage on location.
The ICM and its theme of investing for accelerated growth targeted some 20,000 viewers in the investment community with Walmart’s fourth quarter financial results and an update on strategic priorities. Presentations by the executive management team were followed by a live Q&A session.
The YBM shared company strategies, PR news releases and marketing messaging with more than 7,000 Walmart managers.
Presenters in both shows had unique AR moments featuring a mixture of 2D and 3D graphics, which highlighted important information and provided valuable insight into the content of the presentations.
To show Walmart how xR production would work for the shows, Xite Labs initially prepared a virtual technology demo, shooting a short presentation with Walmart branding on the company’s own xR stage in Calabasas, California. “We immediately got a very strong and positive response,” recalls Creative Director Greg Russell, who is partnered with Vello Virkhaus in Xite Labs.
To facilitate xR production for Walmart and avoid executives having to travel across the country, Xite created an xR-stage-to-go that it could build in the David Glass Auditorium at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. While an Xite team set up that stage another team worked in parallel in LA designing and building the virtual sets, testing them for functionality, programming the graphics and sending video tests and files to LEO Events and the team on location.
“The David Glass Auditorium was a nice big space, and the xR stage had a small footprint within it,” notes Russell. “A control room off stage was very convenient.
“The configuration of the xR stage was basically the same as our stage in LA: an LED floor from Evolve Technologies and an LED back wall with 45º side walls from ANC. We implemented our own technical workflow with gear and equipment provided by Evolve.”
“We’ve had a lot of practice building xR stages so our team was very prepared to execute the stage build; there was no doubt we could do it,” says Virkhaus. “We can replicate our xR stage anywhere.”
Both the ICM and YBM shows were programmed and operated using the disguise xR workflow and hardware. All virtual environments and 3D AR graphics were created with CINEMA 4D and Notch real-time graphics; After Effects was used for 2D motion graphics. The camera tracking and talent tracking system was from stYpe.
Each show had a distinctive look and feel. “We had an unexpected amount of creative freedom in designing the sets,” notes Creative Director Vello Virkhaus. The ICM featured a clean-lined news-style virtual set while the YBM had a more playful backdrop featuring a 3D cubic cubbyhole concept. “The cubes could flatten into a 16×9 shape and separate into individual cubes, so they were fun to work with,” he says. “Some of the cubes’ spaces could be simple color design and some had multiple images – 10 or 20 associates or customers at the same time. That gave nice flexibility to the content teams at LEO and Xite.”
Both sets featured Walmart’s signature blue and yellow color palette and logo with spark device. Innovative AR moments and graphic layers, which appeared alongside presenters, took statistics, charts, numerical data and maps to another level. A semicircular virtual wall rose up then receded into the circular floor to reveal presenters in the ICM. A cylindrical virtual chandelier suspended overhead in the YBM provided a name reveal above talent then panned down to the set with a dynamic camera.
The shows were shot with three cameras, including one camera on a jib. The ICM content, which was not built into the set included elements from PowerPoint presentations generated by the Walmart and LEO Events’ teams. Some of the YBM’s AR elements took the form of a graphic puzzle and a rotating cube with icons.
“Walmart was happy with the way everything looked and how easy it was to use the xR stage. For the ICM there was just a short run through with pre-programming and testing by our staff then they ran the show,” Russell points out. “The presenters were ready to knock it out after only a very short rehearsal the day of the show,” adds Virkhaus.
He says the biggest challenge for any corporate project is getting everything programmed then waiting for any last-minute changes to scripts and presenter materials. “So being flexible when materials arrived and identifying all the AR moments was crucial” for the Walmart shows.
“With every job we learn how to work better and more seamlessly with the medium so we are able to achieve a pretty photorealistic result,” Virkhaus reports.
“After the shows we heard that there was a lot of positive feedback, and a Walmart board meeting had tons of favorable response to the whole xR approach,” says Russell. “There were a lot more viewers for these two shows than previously so that represented good ROI for Walmart.”
Although Xite’s Bentonville xR stage was dismantled after the shows, Russell believes that, “there’s a good chance Walmart will keep doing xR production. We’ve proven to them that it works and can be done in a reasonable amount of time.”
“I think Walmart is interested in the potential of xR,” adds Virkhaus. “I think they felt the technology is really cool – it’s much more than a stop gap during a pandemic.”
Walmart executives participating in the ICM show were President and CEO Doug McMillon, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs, President and CEO of Walmart U.S. John Furner, President and CEO of Walmart International Judith McKenna, and President and CEO of Sam’s Club Kathryn McLay.
Emile Wolsky was the Executive Producer and Screens Producer for the shows. At Xite Labs Simón Anaya was the Media Server and Technical Director, Kevin Aguirre handled content and Travis Poe the Notch and CINEMA 4D work, Jeremy Vannix was Technical Director and Editor, Michael Robertson Lightning Director and Pierce Cook Camera Operator/DP.