At the beginning of 2016 virtual reality (VR) was firmly on all the top-trend lists for the year, and it has to be said that progress on that prediction is looking strong. So much so, that you would be wrong to think VR is a ‘new thing’. It’s not, it’s a ‘current thing’.
Even if you don’t play it, and you may never want to, Pokémon Go has introduced the mainstream world to what AR (augmented reality) is, and VR projects are following suit with a sway of major brands announcing various retail experiments. But hang on. There are also a bunch of ‘virtual stores’ that are 360 experiences rather than true VR environments. So it’s still a little confusing and all fairly gimmicky as companies play around with what can be done. In the meantime, everyone is waiting eagerly to see what proves to be the breakthrough hits with customers. But have no doubt, VR will radically shift brand experiences as the possibilities find their feet.
So let’s quickly clarify the terminology for any of you who are brave enough to admit that you’re not entirely sure what’s going on. For virtual reality the easiest comparison is to think ‘gaming’. It is a fully computer generated environment that you can explore with the help of a VR headset such as the Oculus Rift. VR is interactive, it puts the viewer in control and we can roam around freely. 360 experiences differ in that they are ‘real’ filmed or photographed scenes that are stitched together to create an immersive experience. Unlike 2D video or photography you can look around to experience the scene, but your viewpoint is fixed from where the camera was. So whilst you can move your head, you can’t start walking around in a 360 video, the cameras just can’t capture the data required to allow that. And lastly, augmented reality overlays virtual 3D graphics onto our view of the real world. It is being used more and more in mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to blend real world and digital images so they intersect and interact (hence Pokémon characters can now be found in our streets).
Where VR has the ‘wow’ factor is the extent to which the physical experience goes beyond AR or 360. VR technology involves sensors that track the movement of your head (the general difference between a $600 Oculus headset and a $15 Google Cardboard viewer for your smartphone is the capability of the sensors). Your movements are then mimicked in your virtual world. When done well, VR tricks your brain into thinking that what you see is real. As a downside result, VR can induce nausea and even vomiting as it plays with your eyes, your inner ears and your brain (and some people are concerned about detrimental neurological changes that it might create). This is where we have a limitation on offering brand experiences. At the moment people can handle around 15 minutes of VR. Compare this to real world brand environments like shopping malls, where the aim is to keep people engaged and spending for the whole day.
So who is working with branded VR experiences? Not surprisingly it is the big consumer brands that are playing at the moment. Earlier this year Coca-Cola released a tutorial demonstrating how to make VR viewers out of old Coke boxes. Similarly, McDonald’s in Sweden sold a limited run of Happy Meals in boxes that transform into VR headsets (called Happy Goggles). Marriott Hotels launched an experiment with VR headsets offered in two of its premium properties. Called ‘VRoom Service’ (see what they did there), it allowed guests to have a headset brought up to their room for 24 hours. But what about VR content?
Outdoor apparel brand Merrell, presented ‘TrailScape’, a VR walk-around experience. Its debut at Sundance coincided with the launch of the company’s Capra hiking boot, which was inspired by a type of goat that lives in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. The VR experience allowed users to virtually walk through that mountainous region. The installation route came complete with real ropes, a rock wall and fans that simulated wind. Users were reported to have come away feeling thrilled.
Another shoe related example is ‘A Walk in Their Shoes’, the VR journey of a Toms Shoes customer as they travel to Colombia to meet a child that benefits directly from the ‘buy-one-give-one’ purchasing that is embedded into the company’s business model. VR was seen as an exciting way to really bring to life what the company’s founder is achieving around the world and how the brand makes a very direct difference.
These immersive brand experiences have the potential for far greater impact and engagement than other forms of brand communication. When our brains have become increasingly adept at ignoring marketing as we try to cope with the thousands of brand messages we see every day, VR has the potential to break that and command 100% of our attention, albeit for a few minutes. But as with all good branding, what will remain critically important for companies is that they deliver amazing experiences that not only entertain but have a purpose in people’s lives.
So when do you need to start creating your own VR material and how do you decide whether to prioritize VR, AR or some 360? Although these technologies are here and the use of them is growing we still don’t yet know where the smart money will land. As always, these decisions depend on the target customers and what each organization is trying to achieve. But for those who are pioneering enough to play, they gain the advantage of early mover attention. In the meantime,
Mark Zuckerberg, who spent $2 billion of Facebook’s money on Oculus, firmly believes VR is the next major communication platform after phones. But others, like Jony Ive from Apple, feel that wearing a headset over the face is the wrong solution and will limit the take-up.
AR is therefore the technology that we are more likely to have with us in the street and eventually it will be tucked neatly into our sunglasses. VR is something that is more suited for use at home to have a more full-on piece of entertainment or serious moment of learning. So in the same way that websites did not entirely replace the need for print, and bricks-and-mortar continues to mix with e-commerce and social media, get ready to think through how some AR, VR and 360 might blend into your brand strategy.
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