Mel Exon is managing director, BBH, and co-founder of BBH Labs.@melex
The words "If you only do one thing today…" filled the subject line of a newly arrived email in my inbox. My finger hovered over the delete button. So far, so phishy. Glancing at the first line, however, it appeared to contain nothing untoward, just a simple instruction and a code name: Pile of Ham.
I’m a sucker for mystery, so I do as the email asks and get myself to Black Sheep Studios, our in-house video production unit inside BBH, to await further instructions. I’m faintly nervous.
On arrival, I get shown into a studio where a producer smiles broadly and approaches me with an HTC Vive headset and earphones. I confess my heart sinks at the sight of all the awkward-looking paraphernalia. According to Gartner’s Emerging Technology Hype Cycle last year, virtual reality is due to drag itself out of the ‘trough of disillusionment’ to the ‘slope of enlightenment’ any time soon and latency issues (that nauseous feeling you get when the VR image can’t keep up with the speed you’re moving your head) are improving, but you’re still tethered to a headset offering you a window into a fairly blurry and limited world. As my colleague Mel Arrow puts it drily, all too often a VR experience feels like you’re "stuck inside a Windows 98 screen saver."
I’m soon inside a virtual space, pulling levers and fixing a robot
However, my scepticism largely falls away the moment the Vive demo starts. What I experience that day is called ‘room-scale VR’, which I can only describe as the feeling of being truly immersed in a virtual world, not just standing up and looking in.
Reader, skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid the spoiler…
The responsive sound and two hand-held motion controllers help enormously by letting you hear, ‘touch’ and interact with the virtual world around you. I’m soon inside the virtual space pulling levers, opening drawers and re-tooling a broken robot. Yes, you read that right. What’s more, the AI-like voice guiding you through the demo manages to be playful and mildly threatening in equal measure. Aside from the physical sense of immersion which is impressive, it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the emotional impact of being part of, well, a story.
Walls and floors fall away to reveal new scenes, the robot appears from behind one of them, staggers towards me, then opens up, Minority Report-style, to be repaired. I actually laugh out loud as the adrenaline kicks in. Eventually, alarms are going off and the virtual world implodes and shuts down, apparently due to my failure to save it. As the human operator you are witheringly described as - you guessed it - "flailing around like a sweaty pile of ham".
Of course, the levels of interaction are limited and it’s just a demo: you are in no way in control of the experience. But the way that experience unfolds - the combination of story, sound, interaction, art direction and visual fidelity - is inspiring. It explains viscerally why at CES in Vegas earlier this year there really was only one story: VR. With one commentator describing this year’s show as "the first sign that VR really could be the colour TV of the 21st century."
No doubt Oculus will not be far behind, not to mention PlayStation with their less expensive VR offer out later this year. Set in that context, the fact VR looks set to shift into the mainstream, opening up a world of possibility for brands.
The task for brands looking to explore VR is then to make sure they have a genuinely interesting branded experience to share in the first place. What excites me is the ability to create very personal, entertaining or useful experiences with the new levels of craft now available and do so consistently, and at scale.
Finally, virtual reality starts to feel real.