July 13, 2016

Unreal Engine 4 Drives Mountain Dew NASCAR VR Experience

By John Gaudiosi

Mountain Dew has been active in the virtual reality marketing game. The PepsiCo soft drink brand has now produced four virtual reality experiences in conjunction with design and technology firm Firstborn. The first three focused on filming 360-degree videos for owners of headsets ranging from Google Gear to Oculus Rift to experience what it’s like to be pro skaters Paul Rodriguez and Sean Malto as they trick and ollie through iconic Las Vegas hotspots, or snowboard through the backcountry slopes of Utah alongside. Dew Olympic athletes Danny Davis, Scotty Lago, and Jack Mitrani, or ride shotgun with NASCAR driver Earnhardt Jr. as he speeds through Bristol Motor Speedway.

Dew turned to Epic Games Unreal Engine 4 to bring its first interactive VR experience to fans. The DEWcision NASCAR VR Experience puts race fans in the virtual driver’s seat next to one of three of NASCAR’s most popular drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.


Developed for the Oculus Rift, when users put on the head-mounted display they are transported to an immersive racing world. They start behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as their co-pilot and are then able to make a “DEWcision” on the racetrack between two worlds -- one powered by the Pitch Black flavor and one by Baja Blast. 

Each flavor track has a different co-pilot—Kasey Kahne rides shotgun on the Pitch Black track and Chase Elliott coaches the driver during the Baja Blast track. The two flavor tracks are split into three sections, so the driver has to make three decisions throughout the journey. This means that there are nine possible unique routes the user can take. The majority flavor track they select ultimately becomes their “vote” and appears on a billboard at the end of the race.

Stinson Parks, digital marketing manager at Mountain Dew, said this VR experience intersects with an on-going DEWcision 2016 campaign that ultimately decide which of these two flavors enters the permanent Mountain Dew lineup at retailers nationwide. 

But even after the votes have been tallied, the VR experience stands on its own. Thousands of fans were able to strap on the Oculus Rift and give the ride a test drive at the annual test JR Motorway fan days in Mooresville, NC on May 26-27. The set-up included a racing steering wheel with haptic feedback for Oculus users to control the action.

“For our fourth VR installment for Mountain Dew, we wanted to create an experience that offered full immersion and interactivity so that the user would be able to provide active input,” said Bruno Ferrari, co-director and senior motion graphic artist. “In this case, that means driving the car and choosing each flavor track while receiving haptic feedback. The user gets both the physical vibrations from the steering wheel and also has their track choice counted toward the larger voting ecosystem of the 360 campaign.”

Ferrari said his team knew that delivering the three-minute-long, 90-frames-per-second experience would be too heavy if they followed a pre-rendered route, but Unreal could facilitate this production perfectly because it’s all done in real-time.

“Unreal is one the highest-quality game engines on the market, so it has a lot of built-in tools and real-time rendering capabilities that deliver beautiful visuals with high-end post-effects,” Ferrari added. “This let us push the limits of the CG worlds we were creating so we could effectively deliver the action and drama inspired by real racing moments. As a result, the movement and choreography of the cars draw from both actual racing experiences and heightened, fantastical actions inspired by the brand.”

Ferrari said users can experience everything from shooting the gap between two rivals to pull ahead on the racetrack, to outracing a collapsing tidal wave just as it crests, to drafting and warping across space and time. 

“We also integrated ‘bullet time,’ where all of the action is slowed down so the driver can fully explore and embrace the 360-degree environment,” Ferrari said. “In addition, the spatial sound the engine provides helped ground the overall experience, which was crucial.”

They also built in video game replay value.

“There’s just so much to look at within the 360 view, the details of the drivers’ fire suits, helmets and the unique worlds we’ve created around you that it’s hard to catch everything even in a few runs,” Parks said. “I’ve personally done the experience several times and it’s still not old.”

The whole development process took only three months, which included three weeks of R&D and a motion-capture shoot in Charlotte with the three drivers. That timeframe is impressive given this was the first time Firstborn had worked with both Unreal and the Oculus Rift. 

“Since the previous 360-degree videos all involved live-action shoots, they had big pre-production phases,” Ferrari said. “We’d shoot it and were then able to edit quickly in post-production. With this experience, however, there was a lot more programming and the pre- and post-production phases were both very significant.”

During this development process Epic Games released the Unreal Engine VR Editor, which allows anyone to build VR experiences without taking off their headsets. Ferrari said his team is interested in exploring this toolset in the future – along with Unreal Engine 4.

“Unreal continues to be one of the leading and most mature game engines out there,” Ferrari said. “It’s also free to use. It has the largest community base, so there’s more support and tools being created around the platform every day. Although we’re still interested in creating pre-rendered videos, the added interactivity made possible with Unreal is truly transformative to the current and future of VR.”

While the Oculus experience offers the most immersive video game-style action, a streamlined version was released across YouTube 360, Facebook360 and the Samsung VR app for Gear VR. Additionally, DEW’s Shazam integration features exclusive content for Google Cardboard VR for any consumer who has downloaded the popular app and scans a Baja Blast or Pitch Black bottle QR code.

 “We built the VR content with the ambition that it would be highly engaging on Facebook 360 and something fans would want to share online and talk about offline,” Parks said.

Each driver has supported the campaign across their social channels to help promote the program and VR content.

This is one Unreal experience that’s sure to have legs in VR, especially for Oculus owners