Our new White Paper is dedicated to the gaming of reality — for access to our complete findings, enroll in our new six-part email thread that will unpack the results of our polling data, surveys, and interviews directly in your inbox over the next six weeks. In collaboration with Civilization, the New York experimental newspaper by Lucas Mascatello and Richard Turley, we’ll explore the ongoing collision of gaming and fashion and provide exclusive insights on the future of the metaverse.
Marc Winklhofer is a creative technologist working across virtual and augmented reality. He was a designer for Balenciaga’s video game Age of Tomorrow, which showcased the brand’s Fall 2021 collection. In this interview, he elaborates on how the landmark VR event came together.
How long did it take to make the game, do you remember?
Marc Winklhofer: They had the idea already, I think it was a year ago, and they have a really cool architecture studio/interior design studio who normally do the shop designs and design their fashion shows. They kinda had this idea of, “It's COVID, and everything is locked down. So how can we do a fashion show within those parameters? If you have a physical fashion collection, how can you present it in a virtual world?”
Fashion is so picky about quality. They got in touch with Dimension Studio – they have all the tech to do volumetric, four-dimensional capture. They have this whole truck that they sent to Paris. And then they let real models in the real looks with the real garments [perform] in a space. It's basically a green stage with around 100 video cameras filming the action. You generate a geometry cache with all the textures and get a four-dimensional video that you can look at from all sides. [Balenciaga] hired a game studio in Kuala Lumpur, called Streamline, who built the whole gaming part. But it was really, really tough, because there's such a gap between the aesthetic the game studios are used to and the aesthetic that a brand like Balenciaga wants. That was definitely tricky. But from a technical perspective they were the right people to do it.
So do you think of it as a game, or as more of a VR experience?
I think it's both. It's definitely a game, but it's very minimal. The main goal is to show the garments, show the looks, and get everyone through. No one should get stuck. The other thing is we were using this cutting edge technology called Pixel Streaming. Basically the whole game was running on a server, and everything you see was just streaming like YouTube to your phone, and your input gets streamed to the server. With this technology, you can do high-end, real-time 3D. But the problem is those servers are still quite expensive; you can only afford a certain amount of servers. So you want to get people through as fast as possible, so you can get as many people on as possible.
I think the Balenciaga project is interesting because it's sort of a game for non-gamers. It sounds like it's designed so that it's almost impossible to lose or miss the experience.
A couple of years ago there was quite a big boom and hype in indie game development creating narrative-driven games that you can't really lose. You just go through and you explore, and it was that genre we aimed for with Balenciaga.
So how long did the process take making the game?
Full production was just a month and a half, or two months. But it was pretty hardcore to be honest. It was a tight schedule and lots and lots of people working on it. I think, overall, there were around 100 people involved in the whole process.
Do you remember what the goal was from the beginning?
The goal was to do a fashion show inside a video game.
Why do you think they would rather build their own game than put Balenciaga clothes into a game?
Well, you have full control, obviously. I mean you could do brand collaboration with Fortnite. And if you have a brand with enough clout, it definitely works, but you don't have full control over it. The [Travis Scott Astronomical Fortnite performance] was a huge collaboration where it was almost like a full takeover. But all the fans were kinda getting something out of it, because there's such an overlap in the fans. I don't know if you would do a Balenciaga show within Fortnite. I don't know if there's enough overlap yet. But if you build your own experience from scratch, then you have full control and you can do the whole fashion show exactly how you want to.
Do you think that in the future brands like Balenciaga will be designing clothes for characters in games?
100 percent. The Balenciaga collection was designed in the physical world for the physical world. Then it was scanned and then brought into the virtual world. But one thing that I find even more interesting is the whole virtual fashion scene. This one virtual fashion house called The Fabricant can do pretty amazing stuff. They design digital first. They are the first fashion house where all the garments are designed in programs like CLO3D and Marvelous Designer. There's this whole digital revolution currently happening in fashion, and what if they actually stay in the virtual world? Fortnite and all those games are basically financing themselves over virtual cosmetic items like a weapon, a skin, a dance, everything. But I think fashion is more and more catching up to that. Once you have your collection already in 3D, designed in 3D, and it goes through a whole process completely in 3D before any samples are made, that's super easy.
What you're saying is that people are using developer tools to design clothes?
Especially with the advances now in 3D graphics, it gets so real that you can't tell any difference anymore. And this is exactly where the industry needs to go before there's actually a pickup from the fashion world. If you have a high-end brand and you have a visualization that looks kinda like it’s out of a video game, then they would say, "Ah, it's not good enough." But now, with CLO3D, it's amazing what you can do.
Do you see the methods of production getting entwined and bringing the two industries closer together?
Absolutely, yeah. Thinking digital-first about this, three years ago when Moncler had this Genius collection, I was working on this AR book for them. It was basically visualizing the collection by having a book where you can use this AR app to scan the pages and see all the garments growing out, and the world around is alive. The interesting thing about this is that they actually already had a large part of the garments in 3D. So there were digital-first designs. It was super easy to do, they just sent us the files over and we built the world around it. When you think about e-commerce, if people can't go out in the shop and look at the clothes – Nike is really pioneering this at-home try-on thing – you can hold your phone to your foot and you basically wear a virtual sneaker.
Do you think this will make design more collaborative?
I hope so. Speaking from my own experience on the Balenciaga job, everyone was working from home. I was in my bedroom making this metaverse for Balenciaga. We were working in over 14 time zones, which was quite brutal. But it was also fun. People from New York, people from Malaysia, Paris, London. It's really interesting to see the spike in remote collaboration through social distancing and all the lockdown restrictions. I hope maybe we learn something from that. And we can keep up with that, because it's really fascinating.
Right now, there are a couple of virtual fashion houses. [You] can send a photo or a video of yourself and then you buy a piece of virtual clothing for, I don't know, £500. And then you have an outfit that is virtual, but it's just Photoshopped on. But this is the early steps of it. I mean, two days ago I saw this crazy video of this technologist who was doing this basically in real time. iPhones have skeletal tracking, so you can run an AR mode on somebody and do this in real time. Those are baby steps, but I'm sure in the next two years or so when Apple launches their AR headsets and AR devices, who wants to put actual money into buying the latest clothes? And polluting the environments and whatever comes with that when you can just get virtual clothes? The question is what’s the tipping point where enough people are in this ecosystem who will actually want to invest in showing off in the virtual world?
It also makes me think, what is the difference between an outfit and a gaming skin? If everybody's wearing AR glasses, I could see why somebody would pay to make it look like their head is on fire.
You would do something that's not possible with clothing. I could see a lot of people being interested and excited to pay for adornments and modifications outside of clothing.
You have so many lenses that modify your face. The whole platform from Facebook is so approachable and so easy to use that my cousin, who was 13, showed me this filter that he made. I’m a creative technologist myself, and I was like, "Fuck, how did they do this?" It has become so approachable, and you get real communities creating virtual fashion, just from the basement, from their own computer. All you need is a computer and to be connected to the internet. You can do whatever you want.
It seems like the ability to communicate or to do the things that fashion is supposed to do for people is almost easier this way, and can do things that fashion never really will be able to. Louis Vuitton made that duffel that has LEDs in it, and Dior has one with a dot matrix screen. But they're novelties, you know?
But it certainly becomes so feasible. You can just sit in front of your computer, and if you have some basic 3D skills, you can make your outfit in 20 minutes. Maybe even quicker.
It's like The Sims and TurboSquid.
Exactly. And you could have a virtual outfit that looks different for other people. Maybe you have an outfit that for your parents looks really decent and to everyone else is a completely different look.
If you could really buy something or use a technology that would make you totally transform, I wonder how many people would be furries in real life.
Do you know Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto?
A cyborg doesn't need a gender. There's no need for a gender, I think, the more we move into virtual spaces, applying a certain gender to a person is completely irrelevant in a sense. The more we bring the virtual world into our physical lives, the more meaningless gender becomes. Or at least, people’s lives will become much more private: your physical self becoming a private thing and your public self will become whatever you feel like.
'Age of Tomorrow' was a collaboration between a multitude of different studios and creative minds across the globe. Balenciaga’s Creative Director Demna Gvasalia provided the creative vision, both conceiving the video game concept and dreaming up its world. The collaboration began in April 2020, with a conversation between Substance & Inhalt and Wilson J. Tang of Yumebau Inc. about all the available technologies and teams necessary to realize the idea. From there, Streamline Media Group handled the game development and Dimension Studios provided volumetric video capture, with Substance acting as Creative Consultant. Marc worked with Builders Club as Designer and Technical Director. Builders Club's part of the project was the Cinematic Sequence, Animation & Production.