Why ‘virtual’ will be the new reality

Why ‘virtual’ will be the new reality

CIM asked virtual reality expert Robert Allen, about why marketers should prepare for a VR future

For many marketers, virtual reality remains little more than a buzzword. Why should they sit up and take note of it?

Of course terms such as VR, AR, and AI become buzzwords in marketing – it’s always the same when you’re working on emerging technologies. What marketers want to know is not that they exist but how companies of different sizes are going to use them.

When a new technology arrives on the scene it becomes overhyped. The hype is created due to the need to get funding to develop it further. Simultaneously there’s a media push to shout about the ‘next big thing’. Following that, there’s a natural period of disenfranchisement, before the technology becomes successfully incorporated into business.

Businesses can get their fingers burnt by jumping on to technology that isn’t mature and doesn’t yet have a good business application. But although they might not know what to do with it at first, it’s a mistake for brands to write off tech simply because it’s at a certain point on the hype-cycle curve.

This is especially true of VR. I’m already seeing really useful applications of it, so if your business currently thinks it’s overhyped, remember that it’s early days – it’s still developing and needs to continue up the slope to gain useful status.

At this point, how are brands seeking to use VR?

Some of the most interesting developments are how it works at the end of the customer journey. In that sense it’s different to artificial intelligence (AI). AI helps marketers to target consumers directly – it can help build propensity models to reach people who might be interested in a product, or help crunch data to target people effectively with appropriate offers.

VR does something means consumers can be transported anywhere. For example, Virgin Holidays are using headsets and a 3D camera to build a 360-degrees holiday experience that people can use to explore destinations in-store [Virgin Holidays has just opened up a fully VR in-store experience at a new store in Cardiff]. You can’t do these types of immersive experiences with any other tech.

Travel and VR seem a natural fit, but how else might VR be used?

I’ve been working with Citu, an organisation that builds sustainably made houses. They contain lots of innovative features that can’t really be shown via a floor plan or with pictures on a website. It’s hard for people to get a sense of the space through those types of images. If you put someone in a VR experience, they can walk around the house just as they would in reality. They can poke their head around a door, or look up to see things that they would have missed in any other format – even though the real house doesn’t yet exist. For many brands these types of experiences can already offer people something that is unparalleled in an in-store environment.

 Of course, not all businesses have a store in which to make use of VR, and we don’t yet have this type of technology in our homes. However, we will do within a few years – and marketers need to consider how they might deliver similar experiences to consumers outside of a retail environment.

An interesting example here is the New York Times. It developed an AI app that works with Google Cardboard VR technology – it’s cheap, and turns your phone into a VR camera headset. The content they created allows people to look around the news stories, with 3D videos from where they’re reporting. Within a story there may be a 3D feature, in which people can put on their headset and engage with the story as close to first-hand as possible. Of course there are still problems with some of this technology, which can’t deliver the quality of experience of, say Oculus Rift, but it already contains the seeds of what it will be possible to do.

In what ways will VR really benefit marketing? And what won’t it be able to do?

I think these types of applications will always remain technique that sits at the bottom of the marketing funnel. People won’t want to see it in their living rooms, sitting with headsets on all day – and that means it won’t be how they’re initially discovering content. We have to remember that people like interaction with others, which happens when you’re sat together watching TV together. Wearing a headset is likely to cut us off from that kind of interaction. Critics, therefore, are right in saying that VR is unlikely to replace traditional media. It will, however, be able to be used as a really important conversion tool, by delivering experiences that can’t be achieved in any other way.

How soon is VR going to be a normal part of our world?

It’s hard to say, but it will maybe have an impact within two to five years. Technologies such as VR are driving an increasing rate of change. They have huge development costs but almost zero marginal costs. This means that once the technology has been developed and is working well, it’s easy to copy it – for example by rolling it out to every person’s mobile handset. It means there will be a period of increasing returns to scale. The profits from this will in turn produce even more research and development in the field. We’re looking at a few years of very rapid change, which will only continue to accelerate.

Robert Allen is digital content manager at Leeds-based property developers, Citu.

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Martin Bewick
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