Virbela Creates Virtual Cannes Lions Festival With PwC

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This year is the 70th annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The event takes place in the iconic town in the south of France but why should a festival of creativity not also take place in the virtual world? To extend opportunities for clients and customers to experience the event, PwC worked with Virbela to create a virtual option.

The virtual Cannes Lions Festival coincides with the in-person event from June 19-23, but I got a private advance tour of the custom Virbela campus, from two of the event’s creators, Virbela President and co-founder Alex Howland, and PwC Global Metaverse Leader Roberto Hernandez.

Welcome to the (Virtual) Cannes Lions

When you think of Cannes, you might not immediately think of a company like PwC. While the Cannes Film Festival attracts the most media headlines, the Lions is an event of a much broader scope as it recognizes creativity across everything from film and music to brands and marketing.

The Cannes Lions Festival is naturally associated with the city in which it takes place – which sits on the southern coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea between Marseille and Nice. Some events consist of the traditional sort of panels and presentations, but companies also present on the beach or on docked boats. Of course, not everyone can make that kind of trip.

Recreating Cannes

“What we are doing with this collaboration is giving people from around the world the opportunity to see what can be done with these kinds of immersive environments,” Hernandez said. “We also wanted to give people the opportunity to join remotely, but not just through a video call.”

Virbela and PwC Cannes Campus Outside

Hernandez acknowledged that remote events already exist around the Cannes Lions, but that they usually consist of someone giving reports day-by-day via a video. Virbela is able to get a lot closer to the real thing – boats and all.

“We wanted to give the campus that you know so well some French Riviera flare,” said Howland.

The intention was never to create an exact twin of the Cannes Lions venue, but to create a festive atmosphere in the familiar campus.

“It really takes you to a different place in a way that video conferencing doesn’t allow you to do,” said Hernandez. “I’m convinced, particularly when I talk to large-brand clients, that venues like these allow you to stretch the experience.”

Virbela With an Accent

That familiar Virbela campus (which got a sweeping redesign and beautiful graphics overhaul last year) is already an island complete with sand beaches, speed boats, volleyball nets, campfire sites, and tall pines. The bespoke world created for the Cannes Lions has more palm trees and yachts, making it a little more Mediterranean and a little less Pacific Northwest.

Virbela and PwC Cannes Yacht

Some of the buildings, particularly the ones more inland, are in the classic Virbela style. However, the main event buildings near the venue’s entrance have gotten a European facelift as well. Combined with flags, photo backdrops, and a red carpet (of course), the campus’ main stretch is decidedly more cosmopolitan.

“It was a match of very creative people from both sides (…) everyone approached this not as different teams working together, but as one team working on a dream experience,” said Hernandez. “We didn’t want this to be just inviting people to an auditorium to hear someone lecture.”

Hernandez, who was particularly excited about driving speedboats in Virbela, specifically mentioned assembling a team consisting of both experienced developers and younger developers who would be able to work together on an attractive, interactive, and engaging experience.

“PwC’s experience with these events and events like it has been very valuable,” said Howland.

Virbela in the Browser

As someone who has been covering Virbela and its events for a number of years, something about this experience excited me that might not register with some of the people joining the virtual Cannes Lions. I joined in a browser.

Jon in Virbela Cannes campus

Historically, Virbela has been app-based – even for limited-time events like iLRN or AfroTech World. WebXR experiences have been handled by a special branch of the company called Frame.

Frame comes with some smaller venues built in, but has been growing in its ability to create larger and more visually impactful virtual spaces. For someone who knows their way around the metaverse, connecting a Ready Player Me avatar is quick and easy. The platform also recently got an avatar upgrade, though the avatars still aren’t as customizable as Virbela’s.

To use the full modular Virbela campus and its more nuanced avatar generation engine, the team worked with NVIDIA to stream the world in-browser rather than require an app download. This also helped to make the experience more accessible for visitors.

“We have a number of clients with very strict firewalls and procedures,” said Hernandez. “For some of them, being able to download anything at all is a big challenge.”

Exploring the Virbela Riviera

While the actual event will obviously have a lot more energy when all of the attendees sign in, a number of attractions were already up and running for me to explore. One of the recurring ironies in immersive worlds is that events meant to replicate in-person events also provide experiences that no in-person party would allow. The virtual Cannes Lions are no different.

Virbela and PwC Cannes Theatre Inside

PwC didn’t just work with Virbela on this one activation and Virbela doesn’t just do events. Virbela offers virtual offices for global companies and distributed teams, including PwC. One exhibit in the Lions campus allows visitors to see the digital twins of PwC offices around the world.

Another experience allowed by the event streaming online works with a Frame integration to transport users into a series of more interactive virtual worlds. These show the effects that climate change could have on the cities around the world where PwC has offices. Visitors can also explore different climate scenarios and the results of potential intervention methods.

An Exclusive Event

Virbela is making the Cannes Lions more accessible than ever before. However, it’s still not open to everyone – select PwC clients and partners received email invitations.

“We never conceived this to be something attended by hundreds of thousands of people,” said Hernandez. “We want it to be special.”

The expected headcount? Around a thousand or so. It might sound like a lot for one virtual world, but Howland isn’t worried. Virbela has been tested at higher pressures than that.

“We regularly get over two thousand people in a campus,” said Howland. “One of the benefits of our new avatar system is that it’s a bit more performant, so we’ll be able to see that play out.”

Maybe One Day…

This is an ambitious project and it will be interesting to see whether it scales over time. While this extension of the Cannes Lions isn’t for everyone, we’ve already seen events like Fashion Week and Burning Man grow into immersive worlds and make them accessible to just about everyone. Maybe someday soon we will all be able to attend this event across the metaverse.