What Can Brands Do With Virtual Reality As It Gets Real?

Is virtual reality the next big thing? If so, what can we do about it now? 

“Predictions are hard, especially about the future" (a quote attributed to both Yogi Berra and a physicist, Niels Bohr). More than at any other time, our industry needs to navigate a path between the profound opportunities in the world ahead and the distractions. 3D printers could change everything, as could drones, or both could line the storage units of tomorrow, resting next to unused Segways and redundant Google glasses. 

For all the current excitement around VR, with confident predictions of a market worth $150 billion by 2020, we forget that we’ve seen this movie before: every decade it seems, since the 1970s, especially in 2006 with Second Life and a plethora of ad agencies opening offices before virtually shutting moments later.



This time it’s different, though. Whether it’s the high-quality resolution, or the additional sensory components of touch or music, the reality is that VR is a pretty remarkable experience today -- and will improve and become more popular at a rapid pace.

Before we uncork the digital champagne, for the moment VR still remains an experience for the few. It’s not so much a buyable media channel as a rich experiential agency add-on. It’s got testimonial case-study video potential, not moving-the-dial value.

Google Cardboard never came close to providing anything beyond a gimmicky experience, but it did shine a light into a future of VR as something to experience in the home, and a new way to consider the future of entertainment.

Is the Next 4K TV Actually The VR Headset?

In some ways the rise of VR is predestined. We may not have noticed, but we’ve progressed in a remarkable way from cinema to TV,  then desktop to laptop to smartphone as our primary screen. We've moved to ever-smaller screens that we place closer and closer to our eyes.

We’ve gone from consuming media in large groups of people, to watching as families and alone. We’ve gone from one-way media to interactive media, from  devices that had no inputs ( movies) to simple inputs ( a remote control) to phones with accelerometers, light sensors, GPS and more.

As shown by this progression, VR could be a fated end journey on this path, providing the most connected, most immersive experience the world has ever known. It could provide a chance for marketers to build relationships with the most captive audience one can hope for in this age.

What is unique about VR and AR is that they offer rich outputs and very complex inputs. We can walk on 3D treadmills, use voice activation or glances or gestures to control things. VR offers creative freedom, but to a fault. In fact the biggest issue we find is that creativity needs constraints. If anything is possible, how do we ideate with such open boundaries?

Well, here are some thought-starters:

Many brands want to offer exclusive experiences or create rich brand moments, yet are constrained by the intrinsic tension between specialness and scale. So how can one brand give you a virtual front-row seat at a Beyoncé concert or bring the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic to life for more people?  Can you see another brand taking you behind the plate at the World Series?  Here the key is to work around incredible experiences for the few that can be democratized in a branded way to the many.

For products that provide an experience, what about bringing your product to life? Imagine the feeling of flying in the super-luxury Residence Class on Emirates A380 -- not as viewed on a small YouTube clip, but as a immersive virtual reality experience. Why use thousands of words to explain the latest Four Seasons resort, or a map to showcases the trails of Aspen, when VR can give you a taste of what’s possible?  How can these experiences aid customers' choices of hotel rooms, or help them select add-ons to a cruise? Rich customer experiences to aid upselling are now possible.

Retailers have spent billions developing luxurious physical stores and face huge rental and infrastructure costs in doing so, yet online commerce remains a CMS system with nice photos on top. VR allows companies to immerse customers in compelling brand retail experiences, while offering the immediacy and comfort of the home -- a clear win for all except mall owners.

The list is endless: car companies offering in-home test drives, media owners offering far richer content than ever before -- and in the process, selling far more compelling advertising opportunities within them. 

But these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg: single-dimensional, linear interpolations of what we’ve made before but transported to the new screens of VR.

When we developed radio, we first read books out loud, and the first TV shows were plays with TV cameras on the actors. As McLuhan said, we march backward into the future. The real shifts come when we think about advertising in entirely new ways, applying technology at the core and creating new ideas around this and new emerging behaviors.

What VR offers us is a chance to ideate on the biggest, most expansive canvas. What becomes of sponsorship, ad units, websites, branded content, branded utility in this world? We've got every form of advertising ever known, for which we'll find equivalents in the virtual world. 

We need to think more deeply about the role of advertising, brands and media in this way. I certainly see a huge change -- but it's hard not to be blinded by the opportunities instead of guided by the light.

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