Virtual reality comes of age

Virtual reality comes of age

Virtual reality could finally realise its potential, and give marketers the opportunity to create immersive brand experiences.

After more than one false start, virtual reality (VR) might be about to take off at last. The concept is usually associated with entertainment: movies and video games that become almost indistinguishable from real life – and most investment is still going into these applications.

Not everyone is sold on that idea though. James Cameron, director of Avatar and a notable entertainment technologist in his own right, describes VR as “A yawn, frankly”.

“What will the level of interactivity with the user be other than just 'I can stand and look around?'" he told Hollywood Reporter, adding: “If you want to move through a virtual reality it’s called a video game, it's been around forever.”

But for marketers, opportunities for using virtual reality are opening up, and the current restrictions of the medium aren’t an issue. For some time, companies have been providing people with VR experiences at large events and in special circumstances – such as when Topshop placed Oculus Rift headsets outside its Oxford Street store, allowing customers to get a virtual front-row seat at London Fashion Week. So we know it can work – it’s just a matter of reaching a bigger audience through the technology.

That is going to become possible in the near future, as affordable hardware starts to come onto the market. Valve plans to launch a headset this year, while in 2016 Facebook is shipping its consumer version of Oculus Rift and Sony is launching its Morpheus headset. Meanwhile, Apple was recently granted a patent for a set of goggles into which an iPhone can be inserted – creating a mobile VR device. According to Kzero, the consumer VR market could be worth US$5.2bn by 2018.

Companies are already looking at ways to take advantage of this. For example, SapientNitro put together a demonstration at the Cannes Lions festival this year to highlight the ‘showrooming’ possibilities for retail. This allowed attendees to put on a Samsung headset and wander around a virtual Soho apartment. They were able to examine the furnishings and apparel, find out more about each item, then add them to an online shopping cart. Once widely adopted by the public, VR can offer the opportunity to create an engaging and truly immersive online brand experience that goes beyond video. 

This kind of immersion is also ideal for the leisure industry – giving people access to places and spaces from which they have traditionally been barred because of cost or exclusivity. For example, it will be possible to sell an unlimited number of people a ringside seat at their favourite event. Sponsors could even take them behind the scenes to meet their sporting heroes or favourite bands.

Meanwhile, tourism organisations are already giving people a chance to experience trips in advance using VR. Who wouldn’t be tempted to book a holiday by a taster of the views from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, or a stroll along the canals of Venice? Australian Airline Qantas marketed trips to Hamilton Island by creating a 360˚ VR experience.

And as consumers become increasingly concerned with authenticity and provenance, VR offers the opportunity to give everyone a tour through a company’s production facilities, from beginning to end. Patrón Tequila, for example, has done just that

Setting aside consumer applications, VR could also be useful as a tool for internal communications – for example, to build test retail environments and share them with colleagues worldwide.

Because VR failed to catch on in the past – before other digital technologies were sufficiently developed to make it truly viable – it is easy to dismiss the possibilities now offered by the technology. Yet if the rapid internet and mobile revolutions of the past two decades are anything to go by, it’s not something to ignore.

Besides, marketers love to try new things – and getting involved with VR at this stage offers a unique chance to innovate, and show the way forward for the profession in the decades to come.

Rob Coston CPL Reporter
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