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How an Air Force Recruiting Commercial Became a Popular VR Game


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?”

Passersby examine a display case outside of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Conway, N.C., which featured tactical equipment similar to what Special Warfare Airmen might use. The display is part of the Air Force Recruiting Service’s Activate: Special Warfare mobile exhibit and gives guests a four-dimensional Air Force Special Warfare experience as depicted in an online Air Force commercial. (U.S. Air Force photo by Randy Martin)

A guest with virtual reality goggles and a replicated gun gets a four-dimensional Air Force Special Warfare experience at the Fanzone outside of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Conway, N.C., Oct. 9, 2021. Activate’s scenario is taken from an online Air Force commercial. (U.S. Air Force photo by Randy Martin)

An Air Force Recruiting brand ambassador at the Fanzone on Oct. 9, 2021, outside of Charlotte Motor Speedway in Conway, N.C., assists a visitor to the Air Force Recruiting Service’s Activate mobile exhibit. Virtual reality goggles are one of the tools that give Activate’s guests a four dimensional Air Force Special Warfare experience as depicted in an online Air Force commercial. (U.S. Air Force photo by Randy Martin)

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, North Carolina, Oct. 9-10.

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 scenario 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, South Carolina. “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.

By Randy Martin, Air Force Recruiting Service

4 Responses to “How an Air Force Recruiting Commercial Became a Popular VR Game”

  1. Stickman says:

    I would love to see a team do a review of all forces and the need for special operations.

    For example, does USAF actually need the new creations they are working on for special ops? The USAF has TACP which is essentially tasked to the Army last I knew (had buddies in it). Does the military not have the needed fields?

    The world and battle space is changing, are we changing with it, or are we just trying to keep up with everyone else to justify funding?

    • Harry says:

      Special operations isn’t a branch, and are designed to work in support of their own service’s missions. Just because some personnel or units become attachments for certain conflicts or operations, doesn’t mean they don’t have other needs for their own service for other strategic purposes.

  2. Glen says:

    Most of it is just classic “Empire Building” and ultimately it’s legitimate small business and self employed taxpayers being the victims who suffer for these excesses!

  3. thebronze301 says:

    If you have “brand ambassadors” you’re no longer a fighting force, you’re just a joke.