Hot Springs So Real You Feel Virtual Steam

Hot Springs So Real You Feel Virtual Steam
Bill Solleder, Visit Hot Springs’ marketing chief, with his Oculus Go unit. (Mark Friedman)

The roller-coaster ride at Magic Springs was the breaking point for one reporter on his first trip into virtual reality. He took off the $200 Oculus Go VR headset immediately when the virtual world turned upside down.

“Oh, it’s pretty intense; you’re in the front row” of the hurtling coaster, said Bill Solleder, the Visit Hot Springs marketing director and the brainstormer behind the VR film “Hot Springs: The Experience of a Lifetime.”

A two-part production, the “virtual reality experience” is the centerpiece of the state’s first VR tourism campaign. “The first video is a fast-paced music video-style approach, and it generates a lot of excitement, especially for young viewers,” Solleder said, describing long lines that have queued up for viewing time on the tourism bureau’s headsets at booths set up for tourist events like the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which starts Friday. Viewings are also offered daily at the Hot Springs Visitors Center.

In a little over three minutes, the first video lets you cavort with marchers at the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, flip acrobatically with skiers on Lake Hamilton, thrill on the theme park ride and then — looking down just as the music stops — watch thoroughbreds bursting through the gates from just under your nose at Oaklawn Park.

Its companion, narrated by a sedate Briton, is a more traditional tour guide video, showing off all-perspectives views of Garvan Woodland Gardens, the Mid-America Science Museum, Bathhouse Row and the historic downtown and Hot Springs National Park.

Solleder, whose job is to market a city that already draws more than 6 million visitors a year, commissioned the films from The Freelance Society of Austin, Texas, whose Dylan Roberts has made remarkable documentaries by taking VR recording technology into war zones.

Solleder asked if Roberts’ team could make a destination tourism film, and after talking with Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison and clearing a $30,000 price tag, filming ran from St. Patrick’s Day through July 4. The original idea had been a single seven-minute film, but Solleder pushed for two films of about half that length. “I was thinking about variety and attention spans,” he said.

The plan is for Hot Springs to promote itself on online VR channels much like those offered by YouTube, Solleder said. Tourism officials in Little Rock, Bentonville, Mountain Home and the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism are interested in VR projects, and Solleder dreams that the state might eventually host its own VR tourism channel.

Reading on a VR headset? Here's "Hot Springs: The Experience of a Lifetime":

On his cellphone, Solleder showed off an image of U.S. Sen. John Boozman trying out the VR goggles. “It’s exciting, and we wanted something more than just a brochure,” Solleder said. “We also wanted to be first” in VR marketing in Arkansas.

The project is just another example of expanding commercial applications for VR. That was a point Darin Gray, CEO of marketing agency CJRW, made in an email to Solleder recently, pointing out that Walmart Inc. of Bentonville was putting Oculus Go headsets into all of its U.S. stores for use in training. The retailer says 17,000 of the sets will be in its stores by the end of the year. Oculus VR shipped close to 300,000 units in the first quarter after the product’s launch in May, according to estimates, and consumer interest is undeniable.

“In four hours at a recent event, we showed the films to more than 100 people,” Solleder said, but he concedes that getting his virtual reality message out to a world largely without VR headsets is the project’s biggest challenge. But he called it a “cutting-edge technology that lets potential customers completely immerse themselves in the city.”

In the campaign’s early stages, he said, the VR films will be used as a marketing tool “when we set up our booth at trade shows, convention marketing gatherings and other opportunities. As VR headsets become more widespread the opportunities for public viewing will also increase.”