I'm Conflicted About Virtual Reality; You Should Be, Too

The more I play and work with VR, the more I’m awed by its potential. But my awe cuts both ways. I’m excited by what we can do with VR but worried about the unintended impact it could have on society and marketing.

VR redefines what an immersive experience can be, reshaping how we interact with people online. VR is inspiring a new generation of games, operating systems, and interactive tools, to the point of defining a completely new vernacular of digital interaction. And VR is driving the creation of virtual marketplaces for niche audiences (Facebook will undoubtedly be a huge player here) that represent treasure chests for brand connection. This will only spread as the cost differential — a Google Cardboard costs about $10 while an Oculus Rift setup costs over $2,500 all in — comes down. 

Here’s the rub: The more we feed technologies that encapsulate people and allow us to hyper-profile them, the more we risk isolation and regulation.  



VR represents a quantum leap in withdrawal from the physical world. We already divide our attention with smartphones and count checking up on the activity postings of our Facebook friends (who we haven’t seen or talked to in over 10 years) as maintaining relationships. And we compulsively maintain virtual connections while doing other things. I mean, who doesn’t watch TV with a phone or tablet handy these days? 

Now we can retreat into a bubble that replaces our reality altogether. You can’t multitask when you’re doing VR. You cut off all contact with your immediate surroundings and sensory perception attached to them, not realizing that time in corporeal reality is critical to honing your skills at interacting with other people (read: being in the world). 

Meanwhile, marketers can record every granular micro-touchpoint from your stay in a branded virtual world, and build predictive personas that will make today’s targeting look like foggy glasses. That’s an invitation to regulation which could close off the marketing opportunity altogether. 

Now is the time for marketers to put guardrails on VR — to protect the vehicle before we lose the keys. We need to pause and consider the potential ramifications of the plunge into VR marketing, including the risk of cannibalizing attention. Marketing depends on people being available and emotionally receptive — neither of which extended VR engagement promotes. The dystopian future that science fiction writers paint of entire societies hooked into virtual worlds is starting to look eerily accurate. 

Technology moves exponentially faster than our ability to know how best to use it responsibly. And every new platform hits the boundary harder. As marketers, we share a responsibility for the impact of our work, so we need to think through how we use the wondrous technology taking shape before our eyes. Before we get around to some sort of industry standard, we can all do the world a favor by asking ourselves why we’re using VR and whether we’re prepared for the tradeoff. Not every occasion will pass that test. 

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