There was some excitement last week when The New York Times became the first major media outlet to place a 360-degree video experience inside its mobile app, potentially bringing the concept of Virtual Reality to an audience wider than the gamer niche which is currently embracing it. Wider consumer exposure to VR – that’s a great thing for brands, yes?
I’m not completely convinced. You see, while it’s a useful starting point, there is so much more to VR than 360 video. Yes, the creation of 3D video content is now relatively straightforward – just take your new GoPro rig somewhere in the real world, and shoot. Yet, despite being able to look around in 360 degrees, the experience for the viewer is essentially passive – ultimate control is in the hands of the video director.
The potential of VR was always about offering the maximum immersion possible – and that requires the user to be able to interact with and move around within an artificially created digital environment. In terms of development resources, of course, this is more expensive. But this is what got the early adopting gamers excited. Their desire to climb virtual rockfaces in a virtual Alps or fight their mates in virtual space battles is, according to Deloitte, going to see the VR hardware market hit over £500m in sales this year.
This should be what gets brands excited too. It’s about allowing people to physically walk around their new home before it has even been built, opening drawers and choosing curtain colours. Or about sitting in a showroom while taking their prospective new car for a spin around town… or the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit. Put it this way, there’s a reason the most impressive VR advocates we speak to come from a 3D programming, not a video, background.
Even though hardware penetration is not yet there in terms of in-home platforms, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for marketers in investing in proper, interactive on-site VR experiences. Big brands, with their huge experience of experiential marketing, should be – and in some cases are – leading the way in delivering the most immersive VR experience possible.
Putting this experiential VR marketing philosophy into practice was Merrell’s collaboration with special effects house Framestore to create the impressive TrailScape virtual hike, which sees shoppers challenged to cross an in-store mock-up of a rope bridge while immersed in a virtual world of high-winds, driving rain and rockslides.
When it comes to standalone virtual worlds, a glimpse of the direction of travel can be found in Ikea’s virtual kitchen app for the HTC Vive. Look at the ratings (and these on a notoriously fickle gamer-facing channel). It could have simply slapped together a series of 360 videos and branded it the "Ikea Experience" but instead decided to go the whole hog and create a new virtual world.
Of course, 360 video can be a useful marketing tool – for example, by allowing users to experience a venue before actually visiting it – but the fact they are best enjoyed through VR equipment doesn’t mean they offer a full VR experience.
Losing your VRginity (not my phrase, hat-tip to Luke Robert Mason) can be a hugely rewarding experience, and the potential to be associated with that obviously has an immense appeal to brands. The smart ones are about experiences more than messaging these days, and full-immersion VR offers a step-change in the kind of experiences that can be offered to consumers.
After all, if you’re going to take someone’s VRginity, don’t you want to make it an experience to remember?