Virtual reality (VR) can be a pretty overwhelming concept, especially when you contemplate the major growth anticipated over the coming years. Analysts predict that VR-related software and hardware revenues could reach a massive $37 billion by 2020. If you combine this with the associated technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality, the global revenue grows at a CAGR of 181.3% to reach in excess of $162 billion by 2020. In fact, the future of VR is so bright that experts anticipate it will eclipse TV revenue by 2025.

Every week we hear the announcements of the launch of a new device, software application, or VR company, every one of which claims to harness cutting-edge technologies. Over the past 12 months alone, major technology organizations, such as Facebook, Google, HTC, Samsung, HTC, and Sony, have all launched promising VR devices. In addition, Microsoft has also announced the development of a range of Windows 10 headsets that have been created through a collaboration with HP, Acer, Lenovo, and Dell.

While VR is very much about the technology, it is much more than state-of-the-art hardware such as goggles, screens, cameras, hand controllers, and display units. Its potential is vast, and if you fail to harness this within your business plans, you are missing something major.

Like every technology that came before it, VR extends beyond the technical interfaces and fancy devices. It is underpinned by a solid combination of accessible and meaningful content that appeals to human nature. However, while previous technologies have been largely limited to delivering engaging experiences, VR has the potential to connect with people on a more emotional level through physically transformative interactions.

So what VR does?

Quite simply, VR extends beyond anything we have seen before because of the intensity of the user experience. Whether you are participating in a 360-degree live video game, interacting with computer-generated imagery, or physically exploring houses that are thousands of miles away, VR provides users with an opportunity to engage in powerful experiences that transcend the traditional barriers of time and space and permeate the mind and body. Instead of passively observing something on a screen, people can now feel as though they are actually experiencing it first hand for themselves.

 

Essentially, VR delivers an unparalleled “in the moment” experience in which we can feel as though we are physically present within a given space. People become more emotionally attached to events they have physically experienced for themselves as opposed to passively watching. VR gives people the chance to enjoy such physical experiences and it is this opportunity that brands need to tap into to more decisively influence people’s purchasing decisions and brand affinities.

The power that can be fostered by creating memories is something that Byron Sharp talks about in depth in his book How Brands Grow. He describes how: “the dominant way that advertising works is by refreshing and building memory structures. These structures improve the chance of a brand being recalled and/or noticed in buying situations; which in turn increases the chance of a brand being bought. So, to influence behavior, advertising must work with people’s memories.” As such, unlike any medium that came before, VR can create memories that inspire people to take action and strengthen their emotional connection with a brand.

VR revolution

The Virtual Reality(VR) revolution is underway, though in many ways we have thus far only had a mere glimpse at how this technology has the potential to transform the way that people communicate and share experiences. What was once firmly in the realm of science fiction, and unthinkable within traditional media formats, is now possible with VR.

The mass-market take-up for VR is difficult to judge, and though estimates have varied on current usage, the consensus across the tech industry is that there is a huge potential market for VR. If that is the case, marketers and creatives should feel empowered to challenge current norms and be bold in the scope of their campaigns. It will be the trailblazers who will reap the reward of leading the way as VR becomes a mainstream format.

Research published by the Centre for Creative Leadership in 1996 showed that many executives felt that the best type of learning and development involved gaining ‘on the job’ experience and subsequently sharing those experiences and knowledge with peers. It is with this in mind that we will share the lessons of both our successes and failures within the context of the application of VR.

Five Key Things to Remeber When Working With Virtual Reality

1. Reinvent, don’t Retrofit

VR offers the opportunity to engage and connect with audiences with a totally fresh format, so why not question what you are trying to achieve from the beginning? For example, ask what you are trying to achieve with VR and whether that can already be achieved through another medium? As VR is a unique and radical departure from other formats, it makes sense to build an experience that is both immersive and visceral, using the 360-degree space available rather than a two-dimensional format.

A prime example of this would be trying to take a 2D web banner or a standard television advertisement and trying to reformat it into a three-dimensional environment. If your audience is expecting an immersive experience, this will just not work as it will not be the wholesale redesign and radical VR experience expected. The result will be a poor experience that does not allow the user to become fully immersed in the virtual world.

For successful brands, VR should be seen as an extension of the strategic marketing campaign rather than a stand-alone strand. When developing this new and exciting medium, it is important to remember that some of the marketing basics still apply, such as demographics, attitudinal date, and consumer insights regarding social behavior. These elements will continue to inform the development of VR as a marketing and communications channel.

2. Step outside the screen. Create for 3D spaces, not 2D frames

Designing in VR presents a new challenge as the spatial visualization and physical orientation help to set the narrative so, in a sense, the designer should approach it more like an architect would imagine. The limited field of view within a headset also has an influence here as it affects the perception of space when compared to flat video, making everything seem more immediate.

Given the amount of multi-sensory information for the user, it helps to manipulate the experience to assist the user in navigating the environment. Light, color, actions, and sounds within the 360 world can, and should, be used to guide users’ attention.

 

Therefore, along with the traditional elements, such as the aesthetic and the story, VR creators also need to think quite differently from a filmmaker who might select frames for a view to watch. Instead, a VR creator needs to consider space, the environment the user will experience, and the actions that can take place within that environment.

As VR headsets limit spatial awareness, hearing senses are heightened, and audio becomes a key component of the VR experience. Tiny delays in the sound between the left ear and right ear, known as binaural sound, fool the brain into assigning distance and direction and can help create a real sense of a presence.

VR experiences can become more physical, if one thinks of gaming for example, where the use of gloves, hand controllers and even full bodysuits can allow a user to be exposed to a full range of tactile sensations that augment the VR experience. Although not yet in the mainstream, such ‘haptic’ technology allows for a much-intensified engagement and an additional dimension of reality.

3. Develop storyworlds, not just storylines

As this is an immersive environment where the experience is a from a first-person perspective, a narrative is required so that the user can feel that they are living that story and not just watching as a third-person, like watching a movie, for example.

In this sense, the traditional linear narrative, or ‘storyline’ that we are so accustomed to, should be broken down into iterative experiences that are linked together through the use of space and over-arching themes, call it a story-world, rather than a storyline. Users can then be invited to explore this space as opposed to viewing a static and linear story.

It is also important to balance the user experience between atmosphere and action with too much direction, which can make a user feel trapped and ultimately bored, taking away from the sense of accomplishment a user might gain from more subtle clues and the intuitive guiding of his or her attention. Creators must, therefore, be aware of trying to exercise too much control over the story, which can create less engagement and ultimately will not be a successful use of the medium.

The gaming industry and the experience it provides for users has a lot to teach the nascent VR world, especially with regard to how seamless the navigational interfaces are in gaming and, thus, the fluid feel of the user experience. Essentially a high-quality gaming experience entails a space in which the users are free to explore the world created for them while following a pre-determined path, perhaps to achieve specific outcomes.

A key difference between a game-based VR world and a non-game environment is likely to relate to the expectations of users. A gamer is more likely to want to commit time, normally measured in hours, competing in an immersive VR game world. This is not likely to be the case when it comes to the average VR consumer and, therefore, when brands embark on the development of VR campaigns, they should consider a time frame measured between 2 and 5 minutes blocks maximum, perhaps as one of a series of episodes that make up the full story. Even if it is not a game, the experience can, and should, still be immersive, just not requiring a time-consuming learning curve.

4. Get up close and Personal. Make the camera a character.

An interesting element of VR is that it puts everything into an individual’s personal space. A close up of a person’s face is very different to how it looks and feels in regular filmmaking; VR can make it feel as though someone is standing so close you can feel them breathing, and it can be a powerful tool!

This ‘personal proximity’ means that a designer has to make the viewers feel as though they are the ones actually holding the camera and, therefore, the camera is the eventual audience. Therefore, a designer must make the immersive experience approachable; i.e., you would not normally whip or twist a person around at speed (panning the camera) or shout in someone’s face.

The user should also be given some time to explore their surroundings and calibrate their senses. This is important to establish their presence in the virtual space. Throwing them from action to action in an aggressive way or cutting through a number of scenes quickly can destroy that presence and the story as it does not happen in the real world.

 

In this context, exhilarating experiences, such as looking down from a tall skyscraper or flying, must be handled with care or they can result in a user feeling nauseous. A bad experience like this could put people off putting on a headset and using VR in the future. The fast movement has a place, but it needs to fit well into the story and with a logical context. For the most part, the movement should be performed gradually, with forward, backward, up and down working best. Pans and rotations are best avoided as it can cause a user to become disorientated.

Having said that, the movement is a fantastic tool by which it is possible to fully immerse a user in a story. Chris Milks’ VR experience “The Evolution of Verse” is a great example of how to do this successfully, with the view floating over a lake and upwards into a magic tunnel. These experiences are only going to improve as the hardware advances and is able to incorporate improved movement. Better headsets will also reduce the risk of viewers experiencing nausea.

5. Transcend the now

The real potential of VR concerns the technologies ability to take a user from the immediate surroundings and transport them to a completely separate environment. In the everyday modern life, people’s attention is scattered across a number of different mediums; for example, many of us frequently find ourselves speaking on the phone while also checking emails or watching television. VR commands 100% of the users’ attention because everything else is blocked out. The audience has chosen to be 100% immersed in this world, with no distractions. In that sense, they are a captive audience.

With VR in fact, users can become so absorbed in the environment that senses are more heightened than they might be in the real world, with virtual experiences being more vivid and magnified. Because you have no peripheral vision beyond your immediate surroundings, the VR can accentuate and focus more intensely, such as the light glare on the water, the vibrations of a creaking piece of furniture or the beads of sweat on a persons forehead, all of which can feel more vivid, intense and real than the physical world.

For companies, artists and consumers, VR will be a new way to think about content. Without the physical limitations of the real world, there is no limit to what a creator can design, from time travel and the depths of outer space and alien worlds to the inner space of the human body,… the possibilities are extraordinary. All that is required is the resources and talent to create it and the imagination to move away from 2D media and into entirely different worlds.

These can be cognitively enriching experiences that provoke emotions such as awe and wonder through to the opportunity to enrich lives by learning, adventure, and social experiences.

Audience Distribution and Engagement

The key to the future success of VRT will be making it an accessible medium, with high-quality content discoverable and distributed on a mass scale. As things stand, despite high-profile coverage over recent years, there is some confusion and lack of understanding of what VR involves and why consumers should use it in their daily lives. This is not surprising given the competing devices being marketed and the incompatibility of different platforms.

The cost has also been a prohibitive factor in preventing the broader adoption of the technology. High-end devices, such as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, do not come cheaply, and these high-powered devices also require high-powered computers to run them. As a result, less than 2 million such devices were sold in 2016, the majority being Sony headsets, 745,000, followed by HTC Vive, which sold 420,000 units and Oculus with 243,00 units sold. The market for devices (plus the accompanying console) is expected to reach 20 million by 2020; however, if Sony can capitalize on its 50 million user base for PlayStation VR, this number could increase substantially.

In all likelihood, however, the most growth over the next few years could come from the lower-priced, mobile VR devices such as the Google Cardboard, Daydream, and Samsung Gear VR, which together accounted for 985 of all VR sales in 2016. Samsung alone claims to have shipped approximately 5 million gear headsets globally in 2016.

VR Sales

Sales of mobile VR (smartphone headsets) are expected to exceed 60 million by 2020, a fivefold increase. This number increases to approximately 90 million for all headsets). Though these headsets will not offer the truly immersive experience of an HTC Vive, for example, it will represent a sizeable increase in mass participation with transformative user experiences.

 

However, the number of VR devices sold is not a direct proxy for VR usage, merely one indicator. This is because it is expected there will be a significant amount of location-based consumption of VR at pop-up installations, events, theatres, and showrooms. For example, IMAX launched it is first VR theatre in Los Angeles this month and there are plans to open 25 globally over the coming three years. China is another indicator of how the future might look, with 3000 VR internet arcades, created by brands such as AT&T, Pepsi, Honda, Audi, MasterCard, Adidas, Nike, and GE. These location-based VR services allow companies and brands to connect with audiences using this powerful new medium.

It is likely then that VR experience will become much more commonplace in daily life and offer a wider selection of occasions in the coming years. The most likely channel of the distribution of this content remains the web, either via browsers like YouTube or services like WebVR and specific medium for 3D content.

According to Credit Susie and Kzero Worldwide Research, there were around 200,000 VR users in 2014, and this is set to increase by 85,000% to 170 million users in 2018.

As has been previously alluded to, the challenge for many brands will involve striking a balance between the desired levels of user engagement and immersion and maximizing audience reach. Large corporates, therefore, will have to start making strategic decisions with regard to the platforms, locations, and devices that best achieve their objectives.

Like most modern marketing campaigns, creating multiple paths of engagement and multi-platform experiences, linked together by a common narrative are likely to work best. These experiences can be echoed in social networks and, with the use of location-based VR, will help to boost reach, engagement and ultimately, brand visibility.

Industry and Media Applications

Though gaming has laid the foundations for VR, accounting for about 425 of the $331 million software market, the VR market, which is expected to be worth more than $19 billion by 2020, will see game-based VR take only 27% of that business and consumer spend.

This is because the mainstay of the growth will come from areas other than gaming, such as healthcare, journalism, entertainment, retail, education, real estate and manufacturing, as well as many other industries. VR will give these industries the opportunity to develop their brands through VR experiences as well as potential new business models or channels of consumption.

Research and the recent experience of web-based content (such as Spotify or YouTube) tell us that consumers are more than willing to view adds in exchange of content, which in many cases is preferable to paying. Therefore, brand-sponsored and advert supported experiences can be used to offset a portion of the significant investment it takes to produce VR content. This is supported by research from IBB Consulting which showed that 42% of consumers would watch VR adverts in exchange for free content, while 38% would watch them anyway as long as they were relevant and “cool.”

 

Although many other mediums are very permissive of intrusive advertising, we are firmly of the belief that this is not the case for VR and advertising must be intrinsic to the experience. Users are choosing to participate in an immersive experience which is user-centric, it is imperative that brands recognize this and should avoid a sporadic viewing experience caused by intrusive adverts.

Example of a good VR

A good example fo the way to use VR-branded content is the GE’s “The Possible,” which takes the form of a multi-episode documentary that allows users to experience some of the most amazing inventions of our time along with technology in development that borders on science fiction. A person can explore space, experience what it is like to ride a hoverboard, and get up close and personal with the most advanced robots in the world. GE, therefore, is demonstrating the application and potential of the VR experience while reinforcing its brand of ‘Imagination at Work.’

Another example is the Samsung’s Night Before holiday experience, a brand activation that shows the power of VR to immerse people in a unique and memorable experience. VR was an integral part of Samsung’s 2016 “Gift of Galaxy” holiday campaign. At venues in Los Angeles and New York, participants could take a magical sleigh ride with Father Christmas and his helpers across a multitude of virtual and real worlds. The campaign was augmented with a range of further media touch points, such as YouTube and other video platforms, as well as across social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. There were further select locations across the USA.

We can see that a growing number of brands are already using VR across a range of industries. Companies in diverse fields, from travel and journalism to healthcare, automotive, education, real estate and design, are beginning to use VR to engage customers, transform business models, and drive product sales.

As is the case with all sales and marketing activities, it is crucial to define standards to measure performance and success, demonstrating the value of VR and driving continued brand investment. Data analytics, therefore, will play a critical role in shaping successful VR campaigns. These will, of course, include traditional metrics such as purchase intent, loyalty/advocacy, and awarenesses, but added to that will be much richer data that can be gleaned form VR environment in a way which is not possible in 2D media. It will be possible, for example, to accurately track visual user interactions with their VR environment, as well as monitoring how users actually interact with the content factoring duration, intensity, and proximity.

The Future of VR

As we are in the developmental stages of what is a potentially radical new medium, it is not easy to predict the future of VR. For example, few people would have predicted the rise of social media platforms, such as Facebook, back in early days of the Internet. Fewer still would have anticipated the advent of mobile services such as Uber. And, although technological advancement can lead to breathtaking progress and change, it is rarely a smooth road. In fact, most roads do not lead to where we expected to be.The eventual success of VR might be something that no-one has yet envisaged.

It is, however, reasonable to expect that devices will become cheaper over time, in line with most hardware. As the technology improves, devices are also likely to become lighter and more ergonomic and will, therefore, be easier and more comfortable to use, thus removing one more barrier to mass adoption.

At the same time, we can expect the VR experience to become even more immersive with improved headsets offering a greater field of vision, high fidelity imaging, physical movement tracking, and complete haptic feedback. This will mean a shift from the use of the eyes as the controller to a more immersive, full body and physical experience.

We can also expect a big uptake in social VR, as current one-off social media interactions develop into full virtual communities alongside our real world. VR will allow virtual avatars and the development of online identities that give a sense of embodiment so that moving, talking, and breathing in VR will feel almost real.

Along with the development of artificial intelligence, VR has the power to transform the way business is done in a variety of industries. Other technologies such as augmented and mixed reality

 could come together with VR in specific areas, Intel’s Project Alloy being a good example.

VR in the mass-market

Mainstream adoption and the mass-market may still be around the corner, but it is encouraging that there has been a move to adopt industry standards, a sign that the technology is preparing for the mass market as ethical standards such as privacy need to be agreed upon. The Global Virtual Reality Association (GVRA), with the goal of promoting the development and adoption of VR, has now been established by tech leaders such as Facebook, Sony, HTC, Samsung, Acer, and Alphabet Google.

 

As products become mass market and price becomes less of an issue for consumers, the deciding factor in the success if VR comes down to the experience and the content. If companies and brands want people to become and stay engaged with VR, the VR worlds we create need to be awe-inspiring experiences that evoke a robust response. This we can achieve by harnessing the transportation magic of VR to provide a user with an experience that would not be possible in the physical world.

Connecting with users in such a direct and immersive media obliges brands to elevate their efforts, striving for purpose-driven and user-centric experiences versus overtly commercial messaging. For, if there is one thing we know, it’s that superficial content leads to superficial responses. It is through more profound and more meaningful experiences that brands can create memorable connections that drive action.

The ability for brands to connect with their consumers in such a direct and immersive way should result in a move away from intrusive commercial advertising and messaging. A more meaningful and fulfilling experience will allow brands to create a memorable connection with the consuming and, as such, stand a greater chance of driving loyalty and action. This has far more significant potential benefit than meaningless content that is likely to only lead to low-quality responses.

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