Xydrobe + Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Immersive Beauty Odyssey

While not without some commendable adventures (see Samsung’s ‘space as an interface’ AR
project Dreamground), phygital retail – brand experiences where the physical and digital worlds intersect – has been infamously hamstrung by unimaginative staging, leaving a wasteland of sad screens, glitchy apps and awkward in-store headsets in its wake. Now, echoing the mainstreaming of immersive but still physicalised entertainment seen in the avatar-fronted pop concerts of ABBA Voyage and new mega-venue The Sphere in Las Vegas, British immersive VR company Xydrobe is offering to change the script for prestige retailers.

Keying into Bain & Company’s predictions that new breeds of tech-fuelled activities, including the metaverse but also branded media content, will drive an additional $63-126bn in luxury sales by 2030, comes it’s new haute health happening PAUSE with cult aesthetician, anti-inflammatory skincare pioneer Dr. Barbara Sturm. More than a new revenue stream, the London-based luxury experience, which combines low-level immersive theatre, virtual reality, and spa therapizing, shows how mixed reality mined “elegantly” can mainline escapism, empathy and serve as a powerful emotional primer for follow-up physical experiences.

Prestige XR: What & Who is Xydrobe?

Xydrobe custom creates (ticketed) multisensory immersive experiences for brands, deploying VR within spherical fiberglass pods via tech including “fighter-pilot-level vision goggles” that track eye movements (to avoid inducing nausea), cinematic grade surround sound audio and/or specialized ear pods. Micro-chambers of atmospheric agility, the enigmatic globes also emit scent and change temperature to complement each 360° visual experience. Prior to entering the pods, visitors experience artfully engineered, scenographer-worthy real-world spaces – liminal zones to set the mood and cut the cord of everyday banality.

It was conceived to service luxury brands (fashion, jewelry, beauty, automotive) for whom virtual concepts, most of which are too resource-consuming to execute properly in-house, have thus far lacked the sensory seduction to warrant prestige status.

However, it has the capacity to service any business with an artistic backbone or component (more on this a little later) thanks to the trans-industry nous of its three cofounders: CEO Nell Lloyd-Malcolm has more than a decade’s worth of experience as a Hollywood VFX producer (credits include Star Wars and Mission Impossible), Chief Brand Officer Isabella Gallucci is a former stylist and fashion consultant with six years on the clock with Matches.com, while CMO Michael Pegrum boasts 15+ years as a marketer for brands including Vivienne Westwood an Perry Ellis.

For the next three years at least, Xydrobe will reside in a pocket of ultra-affluence on Carlos Place in the heart of London’s Mayfair – opposite the Connaught Hotel and neighboring Celine, Dior, Balenciaga, and Simone Rocha (among others) as well as MatchesFashion’s five-story mothership.

PAUSE: Theatrical Foreplay & Transformative Sensations

The cornerstone of PAUSE is a holistic approach to immersion where gentle theatrical foreplay eases visitors into the virtual main event; on entry you’re greeted by a white sweat-shirted Sturm assistant (think Sport Luxe rather than orderly) and given a glass beaker of the brand’s herbal Skin Tea before entering the pod. The tea is an intro to the molecular cosmetics merch, which never appears in the VR content; in this experience, the products are placed solely within the peripheral staging.

Once inside, you begin a soothing voyage down a river at dusk, guided by a talk-track instigating basic breathwork (even Nike
now has its own lead breathwork trainer, the acclaimed Stuart Sandeman) and a gentle breeze and subtle scent surfaces from who knows where (the perverse beauty of having your senses disrupted by a heavy-duty headset and earphones) gradually amplifying the sensorial seduction.

The experience kicks up a notch when you slide below the water’s surface into physically impossible territory – a virtualized rendition of an out-of-body experience that pulls what could otherwise feel like a fancy-pants version of the Headspace app into a more beguiling realm.

Notably, you’re fully unembodied, there’s no avatar nor any other physical form to hitch your slowly reality-divesting brain to. According to Lloyd-Malcolm, “It’s partly because of all the different variations we’d need to create, but mostly because recognizable physicality can root you in a way that’s too limiting, it inhibits the sense of being in a transformative experience. This isn’t about marketing a product it’s about how we can make people feel. Virtual experiences can create very real memories; we’re using VR to incite real emotions that the participants can sit with and in.”

Following the 13-minute in-pod experience is an opportunity to partake in infrared light therapy. In total, the session costs £159/$198 for 50 minutes, with approximately 70 people expected daily (eight visiting the space every hour). Booking the entire space for the day is also an option.

Beyond Haute Health: Virtual Recces & Tech-Powered ‘Emotion Primers’

Using immersive tech to service the beefed-up interest in wellbeing post-pandemic is increasingly acknowledged – 65% of US consumers are eager to use virtual worlds to enhance their health, while Verizon recently partnered with seniors-focused VR platform Rendever on “reminiscence therapy” to ease loneliness and combat depression. But the mind-body connection elicited by multi-sensory cues, conscious or otherwise, also illustrates how mixed reality technology has the capacity to prime consumers/fans/audiences for further physical experiences – feasible for everything from plays to art to fashion shows.

Earlier this year, British company Box Office VR used immersive tech to poke the emotions of theatergoers seeing Smile (a play about late Dundee United football manager Jim McLean) at the Dundee Repertory Theatre, Scotland. Pre-show they wore a VR headset to be transported to a half-time dressing room and a highly visceral dressing down from a virtual McLean.

Lloyd-Malcolm understands the sentiment, being no stranger to using XR to recce emotional resonance: “In my previous role I worked on virtual visualizations of cinematic scenarios to prep specific film scenes, which is something that we continue to consider with the storytelling we’re creating for brands. Pre-experience – the notion of priming someone in order to influence their perspective – could be very powerful for everyone from brand fans to sports stars to actors. For instance, I’m interested in reconstructing or emulating the situations and atmospherics of live events like Wimbledon, where someone could be taken from the outside right through onto centre court.”

Is there room to explore darker or more complex emotional states? “I think there is a huge opportunity for all emotions to be elicited if done elegantly.”

Reality Checks: 360° Footage Add New Social Perspectives

Despite its core client base being grounded in the fantasy of deluxe derivations, Lloyd-Malcolm reveals Xydrobe’s interest in using the technology to arrest social division: “We’re currently exploring immersive 360° footage to (almost) virtually recreate an event, for instance being able to put people inside a march or a festival environment. We’re exploring research around wider avenues connecting to art, culture, and philanthropy – particularly topics and scenarios that people find hard to grasp right now, such as conflict situations. We want to provide more context, to offer different lenses on a particular situation.”

Could biometrics, where the experience alters according to a participant’s heart rate or neurotransmitters, play a role in this? “Sure. Right now, we’ve not gone there because it didn’t feel like it supported a luxury experience. It’s also why it’s not interactive – the simplicity of use, the sense of being submerged within a steered journey where it’s not necessary to learn how to use the tech or think about something new, felt more conducive to having a transformative experience. But it is absolutely possible for other experiences.”

What’s Next for Xydrobe? New Markets & Mastering Co-Presence

Highlighting the ever-expanding Xydrobe repertoire, according to Pegrum, Xydrobe will hit NYC in 2024, Tokyo and Hong Kong in 2025, and the Middle East in 2026. Brands will include an online publisher (“imagine a chaotic trip into the early noughties, like shit-flicking on TV”) and two luxury fashion houses (“one being a dystopian virtual maze where catching a virtual bag means winning it in real life” and another “like entering a beautiful snow globe”).

Aside from infinitely variable content, more destinations will provide an opportunity to play with co-presence, i.e., trans-global interactivity: “Having multiple destinations is key to this,” says Lloyd-Malcolm, “people in different locations will be able to communicate together, to share a lived experience, albeit a virtual one, in a way that isn’t the metaverse. We don’t need to have these lofty ideologies [like Meta] about world domination, we’re just interested in using VR to create amazing and connective content.”

PAUSE is at 11 Carlos Place until December 15.

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