Entranced and Tantalized by Swimsuit Models in Virtual Paradise
When I look up a supermodel is eyeing me.
She winks. A coy smile spreads across her lips as she sunbathes. A phantom breeze rustles the fronds of palm trees behind her. We’re alone in a pool at a private house in the Dominican Republic.
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Nina Agdal, I learn her name. She gyrates rhythmically, half-submerged and sporting a skimpy red bikini, sending ripples my way. The water dances delicately. I cannot feel the wetness, nor the motion.
“What do you think?” a voice overhead interrupts.
Agdal vanishes. I have been ogling the covergirl of the 2014 swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. Similarly, the men in the conference room around me have been scrutinizing my gaze, my body language, my reactions. I become suddenly and uncomfortably aware of this—as well as the Samsung (SSNLF) Gear VR headset affixed to my face. I don’t want to look like I’m enjoying this experience too much.
I adjust my dropped jaw: “It’s great.”
Sports Illustrated, sister to Fortune, last week offered the author a sneak peek at its latest project. The magazine has created a standalone Apple (AAPL) iOS and Google (GOOG) Android application for all things related to its swimsuit franchise. It contains the latest photos, the past few years of galleries, daily updates that track the models in the news, and a slew of premium content, including two paid tiers—$1.99 and $4.99—that unlock additional photos and videos.
Most tantalizingly, for the first time ever, you can witness the magazine’s swimsuit issue in virtual reality. Three past years of cover models take viewers behind the scenes in a tropical paradise: Nina Agdal (2014), Hannah Davis (2015), and Irina Shayk (2011).
Here’s a taste of the experience:
Virtual and augmented reality devices are enjoying a frenzy of media interest these days. Facebook’s (FB) Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s (MSFT) HoloLens, and Google (GOOGL) Cardboard are among the most popular of the bunch, along with up-and-comers like the hot startup Magic Leap developing versions of their own. The technology promises to bring more immersive, lifelike experiences to audiences weaned on regular, comparatively banal television and computer screens.
“People always ask us what it’s like to be on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot,” says Christopher Hercik, the magazine’s creative director, who sits opposite me at a table in Time Inc.’s (TIME) offices. “Now you can be there.”
The screen lights up again, and I am treated to a succession of intimate portraits of the women. One luxuriates in a shower. Another cozies up on a lounge chair in a spa. Yet another dances on a shoreline surrounded by the photo crew.
I take in the scenery, attempting—pretending—not to be transfixed by the obvious subjects of these clips. Given my actual environment, seated beside my colleagues, I momentarily avert my gaze from the gorgeous swimsuit-clad sirens as a professional courtesy.
Is this even a professional courtesy? The models are meant to be beheld; indeed, they invite it.
Sports Illustrated is always looking for ways to innovate, Hercik tells me. The magazine boasts having used the first ever goal camera, and the first backboard camera, he says. In 2014, it shot Kate Upton in zero gravity. This year it has painted a swimsuit on Ronda Rousey and is featuring her on one version of the cover, with others featuring Hailey Clauson and Ashley Graham, the first plus-sized model ever to appear there.
For more on virtual reality and sports, watch:
Although the magazine may not be the first to go down the virtual reality route—The New York Times made headlines with a film of its own a few months ago—this is a high watermark for the art. At least the latent adolescent boy within me is convinced: This is how the SI swimsuit issue was meant to be experienced.