Walking on The Moon. Climbing a 1,000-metre rock face. Following in the footsteps of a Syrian refugee. These are some of the extraordinary experiences that VR is making an everyday reality. Thanks to the pace at which the technology involved is advancing, what was once considered a passing fad is creating new opportunities for brands to tell stories and genuinely engage with audiences.
The potential to transport oneself to a completely different world and be immersed in new, sometimes impossible, experiences has caught people’s imaginations for centuries. For marketing professionals, the ability to captivate an audience in a way that no other media can is an irresistible prospect. Yet, until recently, examples of VR being effectively incorporated into marketing communications have been rare. The majority of deployments have been little more than novelty, akin to the use of 3-D in cinema in the past.
Accelerating advancements in technology and falling costs are, however, making VR experiences more impressive and creating new opportunities for marketing and PR professionals to experiment with VR as a way of engaging with audiences, with some compelling results.
The past decade has seen significant developments in 3-D head-mounted displays, with high density graphic displays, accelerometers and position sensors making visuals more realistic and responsive. Meanwhile, the arrival of binaural audio recording and 360-degree sound are making VR experiences more immersive, and special gloves, which simulate textures and sensations, are enabling people to interact with multisensory virtual worlds. These interactions can be enhanced with 4-D features, such as wind, changes in temperature and movement.
Other decisions for creators of VR experiences include whether to use 360-degree video or computer generated imagery and whether scenarios will be active, allowing participants to interact with objects and storylines, or passive, simply taking audiences on a journey through real or artificial environments. The range of options gives VR developers, and marketers, huge scope for creativity, and the cost of deployments can range from as little as £10,000 to upwards of £200,000, depending on production decisions, as well as the number of scenes or levels involved.
The availability of VR hardware, such as Samsung and Oculus headsets, to consumers has contributed to the proliferation of VR, with many developers creating content with these devices in mind.
In one of the most ambitious applications of VR we have seen, Samsung partnered with NASA to recreate the experience of walking on The Moon. Participants wear flight suits and VR headsets while strapped into a harness attached to NASA’s Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), which is used to train astronauts to operate in low gravity environments.
When Adidas launched its TERREX brand of outdoor apparel, it used Oculus head mounted displays to enable people to climb the 1,000-metre-high Delicatessen monolith in Corsica with their feet firmly on the ground. Handheld controllers enabled users to control their arms and legs within the game to get the feeling of scaling the mountain’s rock face while taking in vertiginous 360-degree views.
Premium tequila producer, Patrón, used a combination of live action and computer graphics to create an Oculus experience that shows people how the spirit is made by taking them on a journey from agave field to bottle.
Developments in other areas of technology, such as mobile, are paving the way for low cost alternatives to enter the market. Google cardboard allows users to turn their smartphones into a VR headset for as little as £15 with a folding cardboard mount. The New York Times saw the potential for this to bring to life its cutting-edge journalism when it sent out a million of them to its most loyal subscribers. With an app installed on their mobile device, wearers could get up close to the dwarf planet, Pluto, and see for themselves what life is like for one of the 30 million children worldwide who have become refugees as a result of war.
These examples show the incredible power of virtual reality to capture the attention of audiences and bring people closer to brands and their stories. Another area where VR is showing its worth for marketers is virtual product testing, enabling customers to sample products and services without risk. Car manufacturers, including Lexus and Audi, have dabbled with the technology to allow people to test drive vehicles. In travel and tourism, Expedia has used VR to transport people to locations around the world and encourage them to book their next travel experience. Emirates is just one airline that has used it to show people what it’s like to turn left upon boarding and enjoy the first class facilities.
What not to do
There are still examples of marketing professionals deploying VR for little more than novelty value, simply because they can. Recently, French soft cheese brand Boursin used VR to take people at UK shopping centres on a bemusing rollercoaster ride through a domestic fridge. The benefits for brand development were dubious. Using virtual reality effectively for marketing purposes requires creativity and thoughtfulness on behalf of marketers, and the most compelling examples are where the technology is used to genuinely help audiences better understand brands.
A new reality for PR
Some predict that the VR-installed base will grow to over 50 million by 2022. As the technology that makes VR possible continues to advance along with developments in other fields, such as wearable devices, we can expect the future to offer even more potential for VR in marketing and PR. Meanwhile, the compatibility of 360-degree video with platforms such as YouTube and Facebook (which now owns Oculus) is set to increase the share-ability of content, extending the reach of communications.
In an age where consumers are increasingly desiring experiences over tangible products and brands need to tell better stories to engage with audiences, VR offers a way to stand out from the crowd.
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