Initial planning and tinkering - Early October 2014
To start I needed to decide on my target hardware and software. As a huge Google nerd, without a ton of money to blow on a expensive one off VR experience, I immediately fell in love with Google's democratic and decidedly "Googley" approach to VR, called 'Cardboard' - an inexpensive and low-fi technology for the masses literally made out of cardboard that anyone with a smartphone can use! After a little research and tinkering around, I found I could create the VR marriage proposal experience I wanted using only my phone! Using my existing Android phone (a Google Nexus 5), the phone's pre-installed Android Camera app and a $10 Google Cardboard viewer, I had everything I needed! I was off to the races!
With everything decided on the hardware and software side, I next needed to test the limits of my hardware. At the time, it was still the pre wild WILD west of VR, and widely known issues like stitching artifacts and the inability to take high contrast photospheres weren't as widely known to enthusiasts like me, as they now are... Luckily I took my time and took a ton of photos in multiple environments and lighting situations to see what was and wasn't going to work. Most importantly I figured out that elements (like people and poles) within about 5 feet of the camera's lense look like SAW movie body part props floating in mid air if not photographed at a proper distance! A big problem if you're about to invite 40-50 of your closest family and friends and have them pose in and around a camera for a bunch of surprise VR photos in the grandest of grand gesture marriage proposals...
Sample highlighting said SAW body part effect from a LACMA test photoshoot at night
Figuring out my concept - Mid October 2014
Once I felt comfortable with the technology I'd be using I then switched over to finalizing my concept. I was immediately struck with and fascinated by the implication of wearing a VR headset, and the separation of mind and body it created... I mean, you're mind and body are always one when awake, but the second you put a VR headset on your mind is transported to another place, while your body stays in place... What happens to your body and your surroundings while you're off on your mind adventure? What if I created a space within a space, and was able to directly create certain expectations tied to that virtual space that may or may not be happening in the environment she was just in (we'll just call it meat space)? Specifically, what if I was to put Maggie into a VR space representing the meat space she was just in, and I then inserted her Dad? What if I kept adding and piling on important family members and friends in that virtual space that weren't in meat space with her just a few minutes ago? What would happen to her sense of expectation if the VR space I created with the VR viewer actually came into her expectations of meat space at the end, or didn't? What if I could cram that VR space full of everyone she loved as she navigated it to the exact spot where we first met? What would her expectations be at the end of this experience as she unmasked, especially when she knows there's a proposal waiting for her at the end of it? How long could I keep her on the edge of expectation?!?
I know, heady stuff... TLDR: I could pull the best magic trick ever, and without having to invest the countless hours and hours a real magic trick like this would require!
More than anything I just really wanted to create a representative space within a space with everyone she loves around her holding signs to a jumbled message that only made sense at the end, and then have her take off the VR headset to see only me... until WHAM!!! Just kidding! They're ALL here, DANCE PARTAY!
LOOK: I see your judgey eyes... I'll have you know there was time when flash mobs were cool, and if we're being perfectly frank with each other, I still think they're cool! So now that's out in the open...
With what I thought was a great and easily doable concept in my head, I quickly found it created a multitude of logistical problems:
- I'd need to ask everyone participating to come and do a 2-3 hour VR photoshoot one day, and then ask them all to return about a month later for a 2-3 hour proposal (did I mention that some of her family were coming from as far away as San Diego?) followed by an engagement party...
- They'd need to keep the secret for about a month (this is harder than it sounds, especially knowing some of her family, trust me...)
- This was going to be a logistical nightmare to coordinate
- I needed to feed these people twice, and probably something nice (read costly) on the day of the proposal...
LOCATION! LOCATION! LOCATION! - Late October 2014 - Late December 2014
With the concept figured out, I next moved on to securing a location I could use for both the proposed VR photo shoot and the accompanying proposal we'd be doing about a month later. I knew I'd be hosting roughly 40-50 family members and friends, plus a 3-5 person camera crew carrying around several large cameras and tripods to document it all. If you've ever tried to shoot anything in LA, you probably already know something like this brings problems with it... Primarily related to permitting and liability/insurance for the:
- Rented camera equipment we'd be using
- Group of people I'd be dragging around for the shoot
- Property we were going to be occupying for several hours while our group of roughly 50 dancing people, of varying ages and abilities, performing what I needed them to do on TWO separate days
Generally speaking, you're now talking big bucks when just considering your insurance+locations costs, which I didn't have (especially after buying Maggie her engagement ring, which I had custom made, and could be its own hackaday.io project page in and of itself. I can never seem to do anything the easy way)... So off I went to find the ideal location to propose to my beloved! I knew I needed to find a location that:
- Was important to us
- Was big enough to accommodate all of the family and friends I was inviting
- Would let us come twice (once to do a 2-3 hour VR shoot, and again about a month later for a 2-3 hour proposal shoot) with live Mariachi music for accompaniment while being filmed, without insurance, and of course all for free...
The first location I scouted was LACMA and it's "City Lights" art installation out front, a place Maggie and I both love and often visit. While the opportunity to play with the space would have been cool from a VR "expectations" perspective:
- There always seemed to be a ton of tourist in the space, people who we would be competing with for photos
- There was a vigilant security presence there that would not let us photograph the space with a tripod, and requested we get an OK from the museum's event staff when I inquired about filming in the installation
- Upon contacting the museum staff, they said they only allowed corporate entities to use the space (ie: they wanted big bucks)
- My phone's camera couldn't handle the close distance of the actual city lights while within the installation, and would produce photospheres riddled with stitching artifacts when I tried...
Undeterred, I then scouted the Santa Monica Pier, the place Maggie and I had our first date. I immediately contacted the pier's management and to my surprise they immediately volunteered the use the pier, and even offered to clear the space for us! ALL FREE OF CHARGE. While the space was big and open and would allow me to take photospheres without having to worry about stitching artifacts, the pier presented other challenges like:
- A walking surface that's super uneven which would prove a challenge to walk on (essentially) blindfolded, and since I wanted to have Maggie walk through the experience to a predetermined spot while wearing her VR headset I definitely wanted to make sure she didn't trip or fall on her big day
- HIgh contrast light - as we'd be out in the open in the early morning sun, we'd be dealing with a rapidly changing light situation that would make it impossible to take good consistent photospheres
- The fact that we haven't really been back since we went there on our first date, concocting a cover story that didn't tip her off immediately would be impossible... She'd totally see it coming from a mile away the second I told her where we were going there...
The last place I scouted was One Colorado. Maggie and I actually met their in late October of 2009. It was during one of One Colorado's Open markets, a street fair of sorts that they host in collaboration with our Alma Mater (ArtCenter) for the benefit of students and alums. After some emails followed by some negotiating the space proved to be perfect!
- Management would let me use the space for free!
- I could use it on the day of the VR photoshoot and again for the actual proposal (again for free, and with a security presence)!
- They'd let us bring a mariachi band into the space, use amplified sound, and even provided the band with a stage!
- The space was big enough to allow us to take photospheres without stitching artifacts!
- The lighting in the space at the proposed shoot time was perfect and pretty consistent!
- The floor is fairly even, so I didn't have to worry about Maggie tripping!
- There were no people around to worry about getting in my shots!
- Finally, we met there, and there were tons of easy local reasons I could use as a cover story!
With the help of One Colorado's management (they gave me the map below) I started working out the details of the VR photoshoot, and started coordinating with my camera crew to figure out how we'd actually film the proposal. The map below represents each of the spots we took a 360 degree photosphere at.
Will someone help me pay for this? - Mid October 2014 - early March 2015
Feeling indebted and a little overwhelmed by our family and friends kindness and efforts helping me with the proposal (some from as far away as San Diego!), I felt inspired to try to repay everyone's kindness with a gift of some sort. It was with that in mind that I came up with the hairbrained idea to try to get sponsors for the proposal to:
- Contribute a nice thank you gift for everyone participating
- Help cover the costs of executing my hairbrained idea
Having bought and tested 3 cheapo Google cardboard viewers as potential gifts, the quest to get sponsors started after I bought my third terrible Cardboard viewer off of ebay in search of gifts to give to family and friends as 'thank yous'. While within my budget (a little over a buck a pop), these viewers were all consistently terrible and unusable. A backer of IAM Cardboard's most recent VR viewer kickstarter, I stumbled across their EVA Foam Google Cardboard VR viewer in one of their email blasts. Part of the appeal of Google's Cardboard VR viewer to me is its price and decidedly un-tech like aesthetics! At the time everyone seemed to only make black or plain cardboard viewers, which in practice were boring and uncomfortable to wear for an extended amount of time. Here was a colorful (did I mention I'm flamboyant and like color) viewer made out of foam that didn't look like it would hurt to wear for more than 5 minutes! So, I bought one, and immediately knew I'd be using it for the proposal. After five minutes playing with it I got my second hairbrained idea... WOULD IAM CARDBOARD SPONSOR THIS AND GIVE ME 50 OF THESE AS 'THANK YOUS' TO MY PROPOSAL DAY PARTICIPANTS IF I ASKED?!?
The shameless person I am I wrote a nice email, and sent it to their HQ. About a week later I was in negotiations with them and had a proposal day sponsor!... Dumbfounded, I then had my third hairbrained idea... WOULD GOOGLE HELP ME PAY FOR THIS? A quick Google search later, followed by another email, and I was in contact with the Google Cardboard team! Several emails and phone conversations later over the course of 3 weeks, and I had a sponsor that was now paying for the cost of my camera rental equipment, the mariachis I wanted to hire, and the post engagement party I wanted to host for our family and friends! Positively inspired (or demented, you choose), I made a list of equipment I'd be using to make the proposal, found each company's PR/Marketing contact info online, and sent them all nice emails! After many many MANY emails, followed by many many MANY phone conversations with multiple people at multiple companies I'm proud to say that I had found 5 sponsors willing to help me with my first hairbrained idea! By February of 2015 I had the following sponsors:
- Google - cash money to pay for the camera rentals+insurance, mariachis and food
- Skullcandy - 50 headphones
- IAM Cardboard - 50 Google Cardboard viewers
- Squarejellyfish - 50 smartphone tripod mounts
- Flexion Electronics - 50 wallet sized battery packs
Now look, I know what you're thinking... At the end of the day these things weren't what motivated me to do this. This project and the effort I put into it wasn't for free stuff or the promotion I got out of it. I'm not going to lie to you and say those things weren't nice, didn't boost my ego, or that I didn't relish the challenge; rather it was only a means to an end as far as I was concerned. At the end of the day I only went after all these sponsorships because I wanted to do something really awesome and over the top for my (then) girlfriend and the family and friends helping me do it, but didn't have the financial means needed to do it by myself. Having said all of that, let me just say that I know that with sponsors, comes great responsibility. So, with that in mind I only asked companies whose products I was actually using to produce the proposal to sponsor.
Note: The only thing I had going for me going into this was a good idea (read: hairbrained idea number one), an overwhelming desire to get it done, and the wherewithal/chutzpah to ask for help. The companies I contacted only agreed to help me because they liked my idea and reasons for doing it (again, first and foremost Maggie), and approach/congenial nature. Thanks to their kindness I was able to propose to my wife the way I wanted without having to take out a small loan, and was also able to give the kind people in our lives that helped me do it something nice in return as a 'thank you'.
Moment of Reflection - An important lesson learned at this point in my planning
If you have a good idea, are nice when asking for help when trying to make it a reality, and are pleasantly persistent when following up about said request then you'll probably get what you initially asked for (provided the ask isn't a million bucks, and your idea lines up with their goals)...
Sponsors are nice and all, but what have I gotten myself into?... - Mid January 2015 - March 7, 2015
It's one thing to ask for all of the stuff mentioned above, it's another thing to get it all, and then have to hide it from your already suspicious live-in girlfriend! Thankfully my parents live close to us, and were kind enough to let me stow all of the stuff sponsors we're sending me at their house until the day of the proposal!
Have you ever considered the effort a retail store's stock person and merchandiser puts into unpacking and breaking down ALL the boxes a stores merchandise comes in? I didn't until it all started coming in... I certainly didn't think it would take me over 3 hours to unbox 50 pairs of VR viewers, headphones, batteries, Tripod mounts and other assorted goodies, and put it all into bags... I honestly gave this no thought until it all started coming in, and had to bag the stuff alone. BTW, I only did this part alone because I felt bad asking my family and friends for more help, considering all of the other help they were already giving me. Subsequently I have a newfound appreciation for store stock room clerks.
If you're already picture perfect, then why practice? - February 8, 2015
On this day everyone met up for the scheduled 360 photosphere photo shoot at One Colorado, and then went to Pasadena Memorial Park to learn and rehearse the flash mob dance they'd be performing on the day of the proposal. Oh, and did I mention I'd hired a Mariachi band to perform a version of The Little Mermaid's "Kiss the Girl" song, and we'd be dancing to it?... That was a lot of work communicating and coordinating that I won't get into here (Oh, and let's not talk about the work that went into trying to get the music rights figured out for the music used in the proposal video. That took A LOT more work than I'd like to admit post shoot...). Needless to say, thankfully it all went off without a hitch on the day of the proposal!
Because not everyone who came to proposal was also able to make it to the initial VR photoshoot and rehearsal my sister, the choreographer for the flashmob portion of the proposal, made a short Youtube video walkthrough with me of the dance I shared with proposal day participants. They used it to practice and familiarize themselves with the dance portion of the proposal before our big day.
A woman loves a man with good taste in music, or so I hear... - February 8, 2015 - March 7, 2015
I don't know why, but I got it in my head that I also needed to make a playlist in a mixtape style box, and add that to the already great 'thank you' bag I about killed myself putting together for proposal day participants... Regardless, I somehow managed to squeeze this in just before the big day, and even figured out how to use them as 'thank you' cards! To get them done in time for the proposal I made a few each day after work and put one into each of the gift bags I gave to participants.
No, it's not bigger on the inside - February 8th - March 7th
A box? What's inside the box you ask? Well all the things! This is the box I made around the same time I made the "mixtape thank you cards" to house the Google Cardboard VR viewer and headphones Maggie used during the proposal. We planted this box in One Colorado's courtyard.
Note: It's cleverly from Mr. E (get it, GET IT? I'm full of bad Dad jokes, sorry/not sorry...)
The Big Day! - March 8, 2015
On the big day I tricked Maggie into thinking we were going to go see a special screening of the first Avengers movie with Chris Hemsworth in attendance! But before we went to the screening I told her we were meeting friends for breakfast in Old Town. Little did she know she'd be getting the Mexican Chris Hemsworth (OK, Michael Pena?) for life that day! My cover, friends (that work at Disney) who we often go to breakfast with before we go to Disney screenings with. Under the guise of meeting in Old Town Pasadena for breakfast before heading out to meet Mr. Hemsworth, one of my covers decided she needed to get a cup of coffee while we waited to be seated in the restaurant. While on our way to the Starbucks on the far East end of Colorado Blvd, I called Maggie's attention to the One Colorado courtyard where my trap lay in repose...
I'd like to take a moment here to talk about an oft forgotten thing that people take for granted when planning something this complicated, the LOGISTICS. Dealing with a group this big, comprised of people of various ages and technological skill levels in an office setting is one thing, now imagine throwing your Grandparents, Parents, and all of your Aunts and Uncles into the mix too! Succinct, easy and over-the-head solutions like Google Calendar and Maps were an invaluable tool to coordinating both days, and made it easy to get details and information out to everyone! Below is one sample of the many MANY things I did to try to get info across to participants while sparing everyone's email inboxes.
The Proposal Video! - April 7, 2015
After close to 6 months of planning, coordination, hard work, and generally driving Maggie insane with my cloak and dagger bullshit our big day finally came! Below you'll find the video my friends and I made of the proposal! How did I do?
You're only as good as your word to your partners - Early April 2015 - Late April 2015
At this point, I'd made a lot of promises while begging, borrowing and stealing to get my proposal done. However, like a Lannister, I always pay my debts! To make good on my promises I essentially executed a small marketing campaign to help my sponsors draw as much value out of their sponsorship as possible (within good taste of course). The day the video dropped on YouTube I released a press release, and sent it to a targeted list of writers (I'd researched and made) at sites this would appeal to or make sense on. I also did some interviews and posted several social media posts over a two week span of time following the proposal based on a social media calendar I'd drafted with my sponsor's input. I like to think I made it worthwhile for my sponsors (samples of some articles covering the proposal can be viewed below), added genuine value to their brands/products, and helped open them up to the idea of doing small sponsorships like this with unknown individuals on similarly ambitious passion projects!
Our Wedding Day! - September 4, 2016
We got married late last year on Labor Day weekend. Here's a photo from our rooftop wedding at our Alma Mater, the ArtCenter College of Design, in sunny Pasadena, California! THANKS again to everyone that helped get us to this point!