When Air Force Recruiting Service deployed its “Activate: Special Warfare” mobile tour in April 2021, the four-dimensional virtual reality, experience-on-wheels became the latest entry in an elite category of games.
Over the years, dozens of movies have made their way to becoming games in arcades and on portable devices. This genre includes commercial hits like Dune, a 1992-released game that is based on its namesake film.
Activate’s own story began in 2019 with the production of a commercial targeting special warfare recruitment.
“We were coming up with ideas to promote Special Warfare,” said Travis Waid, a writer and creative director for GSD&M. Waid’s employer is the Austin, Texas-based advertising agency for the U.S. Air Force. “We were also assigned with creating a new experiential tour to promote Special Warfare and it hit us. Instead of creating two separate things, what if they supported each other?”
So in late September of that year, a film production team of 53 and more than a dozen people from AFRS, GSD&M, and other Air Force members representing several career fields, converged on a bombing range near Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. Filming required three days and involved Security Forces and Special Warfare Airmen, pilots, tactical wheeled vehicles, helicopters, and airplanes from bases throughout the U.S.
For the commercial to look more realistic, the production company turned to Hollywood for delivery of movie-ready weapons.
“We couldn’t use the SF and SW Airmen’s weapons because they had red tips,” Waid said. “So, we relied on a prop house that we found in Los Angeles.”
In the final commercial, action-packed sequences show Airmen in a gunfight with an enemy force outside a walled compound. Viewers see a medevac while pyrotechnics create blast clouds with smoke enveloping a line of sand-colored vehicles on a desert road. An A-10C Thunderbolt II flies by as the video reaches its climax.
Two commercials from this production debuted in several variations on YouTube, Jan. 5, 2020. They were later posted to other Air Force Recruiting social media platforms. One, titled “Calm and the Storm,” has exceeded 18 million views. The other, titled “Join the Fight,” has been seen more than 17 million times.
For AFRS, attention turned to developing Activate: Special Warfare, the game.
Work started on the VR mobile tour with an intended launch date sometime in 2020, Waid said. However, COVID-19 struck in March and forced AFRS to wait until April 2021, for Activate’s inaugural tour.
Since its launch, people have flocked to Activate at venues such as NASCAR’s Fanzone outside Charlotte Motor Speedway, in Conway, N.C., Oct. 9-10, 2021.
There, among tents and trailers reminiscent of a traveling carnival, Activate was positioned on high ground where throngs of fans ambled about on a quest for souvenirs, free merchandise, food, and pre-NASCAR race entertainment. Activate’s shining, black paneled trailer featured graphics to attract visitors from great distances.
Contracted attendants called “brand ambassadors” beckoned passersby to try their skills at no cost. The only condition being a minimum age requirement of 13 or older and registration on a tablet computer. Next came the anxious wait to enter the gaming booth along with other guests.
“The VR game is a real-life version of the commercial video and what connects them really is the story of how SW operators are able to remain calm under extreme pressure while engaging the enemy, calling in air strikes, and rescuing others,” Waid said.
Once inside each player dons a vest and VR goggles, takes hold of a device that replicates a gun, and enters the scene as one of the Airmen in the beleaguered convoy from the commercial.
Because participants wear special VR headsets and vests they hear everything in surround sound and they sense impacts on their over garments. Designers also engineered booths to generate hot air bursts and wind effects synched with explosions and landing of a helicopter for a full four-dimensional experience.
“Best game ever,” one woman said as she exited Activate.
Air Force recruiters were standing close by and greeted people. They talked to potential applicants about experiences and opportunities. Some visitors examined an all-terrain vehicle that was parked out front alongside a display case featuring gear like that used by Airmen in the film. The equipment leant a tactile experience to the VR one.
“The case and ATV are pretty effective in terms of generating interest and questions for recruiters who can step in and have a conversation with a lead or influencer,” said Tech. Sgt. Amos Parker, a recruiter for the 337th Recruiting Squadron at Shaw AFB in Sumter, S.C. “With most of the population under the impression that the Air Force only flies jets, it’s really eye opening to influencers and potential applicants.”
In 2021 the experiential tour went to 23 events in 15 states and had more than 12,000 people sign up to go through.
“Of those who signed up, 5,282 opted in to learn more and 1,453 turned into actual leads, which are all great percentages. Considering that the pandemic kept a lot of people home in 2021, those numbers are expected to increase as life begins to return to normal and more people come out,” said Maj. Jason Wyche, AFRS chief of national events branch, strategic marketing division.
Activate: Special Warfare is set to be part of AFRS’s mobile tours for at least five years.