Can virtual reality be a useful communication tool for the ad industry?

  • Opinion
  • March 19, 2015
  • Bruce Murray
Can virtual reality be a useful communication tool for the ad industry?

Virtual Reality is at a crucial stage. The technology is finally delivering on its promise, but content creators are just beginning to understand what makes a compelling experience. It’s a new frontier presenting new challenges, opportunities and dangers – and the "killer app" is somewhere out on the horizon.

Advertising will play its part in defining the creative possibilities of VR. Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift has given VR a big boost. First, the $2 billion purchase price legitimised the technology, and second, Facebook’s deep pockets guarantee an ongoing, significant investment in its further development.

It’s hard to describe the Oculus Rift experience to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but if you have the opportunity to experience Game of Thrones’ 'Ascend the Wall', Wrigley’s 'Experience 5Gum', or Samsung's 'Dive store in the desert' you’ll understand.

These current examples of quality content are not readily available, though. The installations are touring major events, and they draw long lines of viewers, but that’s an extremely expensive way to market a brand. These are more proofs of concept than viable marketing vehicles.

Should the advertising community be preparing to adopt virtual reality as an effective communications tool? I think the answer is a qualified yes.

It’s Not Just About the Headset

There are always issues around technology adoption, however the larger issue (and more in the hands of marketers) is how to develop compelling content for the VR platform. There's a learning curve, and it's different from anything we've done before. Mistakes need to be made for learning to occur. Successful marketing with VR requires new skills, new creative processes and talent. It’s going to take time and money to absorb that learning curve even as the tools and technologies are rapidly evolving.

There’s an ecosystem of technology providers launching to supply the tools necessary to build, capture and edit the 360-degree environments of virtual reality. Most successful VR content produced today is done in partnership between brands, marketers and these tool providers.

From Nausea to ‘presence’

Creating an alternate reality isn't easy, especially when the technology is constantly evolving. A fundamental drawback has been the tendency for helmet wearers to become nauseous. The challenge is that virtual reality tricks the brain, and the brain doesn’t like to be tricked. When your eyes say you’re moving, but your body feels no sensation of movement – the result is nausea.

As the headset’s hardware continues to improve (better positional tracking, more frames per second, and so on) the tendency to induce nausea in the wearer has been reduced … but not eliminated. It will take time for the technology to improve and reduce the propensity for inducing nausea, and for users to develop their ‘VR legs’. The Holy Grail for VR is when the viewer’s logical mind ceases to be aware of the trickery embedded in the technology, and accepts the virtual surroundings as real.

Early Adopters and pragmatists

Crossing the Chasm is a best-selling book by Geoffrey Moore (of Moore’s Law fame) that focuses on the marketing of new tech products. Moore argues that there’s a chasm between the early adopters of the product (technology enthusiasts and visionaries) and the early majority users (pragmatists).

Agencies need to assess whether they are early adopters or pragmatists. As I write this, there’s still much to be learned, and many developments must occur before VR reaches a critical mass, and those marketing-related killer apps make an appearance.

Neither choice (adopter or pragmatist) is wrong. Each agency has to determine whether they want to invest and learn the skills by doing (by making mistakes), and therefore ending up ahead of their competition in this space, or if they prefer to just keep tabs on the progress of the technology and its uses by marketers, and jump on the bandwagon in a few years’ time.

How important is first mover advantage to you and your agency? Do you have the capital to invest? Getting your hands dirty now will likely pay off in a few years, as you’re able to hit the ground running and leverage the immersive quality of VR.

On the other hand, waiting and seeing will cost you nothing today, and when you do jump (in a year or two or three), you’ll be able to leverage the lessons learned by others.

Another significant input to your decision of when (it’s definitely ‘when’, not ‘if) to jump into VR is which industries do you serve? VR enables you to deliver a product experience – not so compelling if you’re selling toothpaste, but what if you’re selling African safaris or Lady Gaga concerts?

The bottom line is that VR is the next big thing, but it’s not ready for prime time yet. How soon and how seriously to begin using it is entirely up to you.

  • Bruce Murray is executive digital producer at Y&R in Auckland, and a member of the CAANZ PR, Experiential and Social Media Committee (PREScom)

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