“Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.”
So said Mark Zuckerberg upon announcing that Facebook had acquired Oculus VR, the leader in virtual reality technology – for no less than $2 billion. And he’s right: perhaps more than any other technology, virtual reality has been a fixture of our future fantasies, from 80s style goggles in Back to the Future to the Holodeck in Star Trek.
But what few people realise is that VR has come a long way from the realm of science fiction. Consumers can now purchase Virtual Reality goggles, from Oculus’ classic Rift to the Gear VR headset that works with your Samsung phone. Sony, HTC, Microsoft and a host of other brands all have their own versions – Google even released their are-they-joking ‘Google Cardboard’.
The vision is for VR to replace screens – even Netflix has recently jumped on the bandwagon. But so far, the product has been targeted at enthusiasts – and they make it look more than a little nerdy (that’s the Oculus founder below on the cover of TIME).
VR already has a host of die-hard fans and critics, including a lot of people talking about its applications for digital marketing. To get to the bottom of things, we called in two of our resident VR nerds to get their expert opinions.
Digital Strategist Kevin is a “bit of a gamer” who has tried Google Glass and Samsung’s Gear; but it was exploring an old Victorian home using the much-ridiculed Google Cardboard that gave him goosebumps. “As dull as that may sound, it was such an amazing experience: from my friend’s apartment, to an old Victorian building in a matter of seconds.”
Our Strategy Director Tony has tried a couple of simulators: “I’ve flown over New York City and I’ve driven a car, virtually. Incidentally, I have also done these things in real life too 😏.”
Kevin is most excited about the possibility to experience things we would’ve otherwise never had the chance to: “take this 90 year old grandma for instance. She got to experience Tuscany without leaving the comfort of her own home.”
Tony says that as the tech improves, the more realistic the experience will become. “It’s the heightened, first-person virtual experience that I find most interesting; and the capacity to choose your own viewpoint and place yourself in situations you can’t imagine for yourself.”
In Tony’s opinion, VR gear is holding it back from reaching its highest potential, and finding a life beyond personal gaming. “VR will come into its own when people forget that they’re wearing goggles. Given how intrusive and obstructionist the gear is at the moment, we might be some time off.”
“With VR, there’s also an underlying creepiness to the concept. Masks hide people’s reactions and it makes people uneasy.”
Kevin says all tech has to start somewhere, which is why it’s being targeted first to “tech enthusiasts – hence why it’s kinda nerdy.”
“Marketing now is all about creating genuine experiences to connect with the consumer,” Kevin says. “How powerful would targeted marketing messages that invoke a genuine emotional response be in selling? It would be such a powerful tool in the not-for-profit space.”
“Think about how powerful Save the Children’s ‘Most shocking second a day’ video was… Imagine this experience in a VR setting – the reaction would be ten-fold!”
Tony sees the possibilities, but believes there’s a long way to go before it’ll be a viable marketing tool. “Right now, shooting a video for VR is pretty expensive and requires multi-focal lens cameras and huge processing power to stay up to the ‘frame rates’ we see in reality. And with low technology penetration for movie makers and viewers, it could be problematic to gain traction at a mass scale. Eventually however, the price will come down and the tech may improve.”
“There are already marketers who harness VR and Facebook buying Oculus is no accident,” says Kevin. “They didn’t need to acquire Oculus like they did WhatsApp. WhatsApp was their competitor… You can be sure that the world’s largest advertiser is going to utilise VR in a way to net a return on their $2bn investment. The only question is when.”
Tony says he has “no doubt” Facebook is planning big things. “But until the tech is more socially-inclusive for those participating, it’s not going to replace regular cinema or TV viewing.”
Kevin: VR is definitely not a gimmick. Technology has only just recently caught up to the vision of VR. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s also not far.
It’s definitely has an image problem right now. If marketers can find a way to market VR to the masses, then it will suddenly not be so nerdy. Remember how iPads were kinda tacky? Well that’s the situation we’re in now for VR headsets.
Tony: Right now, VR is still a bit gimmicky. It’s almost a cliche when people think of future tech – and I think, inherently that is VR’s biggest problem; the industry isn’t transcending what people already expect it to be.
For instance, I’m acutely aware that VR has been spoken about since the 1990s as the future game changer – but let’s face it, it still exists in very much the same guise – goggles and gloves and first person perspective. The tech may have gotten better, but the paradigm is the same. In my view, the game won’t change unless the gear does significantly.
People mustn’t forget: we can use your own eyes and that in fact should be the ideal use case for VR or fully immersive entertainment. Star Trek got it right with the holodeck. Is someone working on that?
Kevin and Tony literally wrote three pages each on VR, and we didn’t want to reign in their nerd-out, so we published the full version on Medium.
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