VR: Why marketers need to look beyond the headset
A view from Alexander Rea

VR: Why marketers need to look beyond the headset

Shared experiences can leverage the best the technology has to offer, writes the head of creative technology at Framestore

When people think of virtual reality, a specific image comes to mind, a piece of black, unwelcoming, plastic hardware strapped to your face. That image has been ingrained in our minds for decades, going back as early as the first View-Master in 1939, to the short-lived Virtuality boom of the 1990s, to today’s assortment of both high and low-end headsets. It’s propelled the misconception that VR is a singular, isolating experience.

It doesn’t have to be. Just look to the biggest VR award winner from Cannes last week: the Lockheed Martin "Field Trip to Mars" project my team worked on with McCann New York. It was the world’s first shared VR experience, and it took home 19 Cannes Lions.

Until now, we’ve mostly seen the blind leading the blind. Too many marketers and publishers are signing up for 360 video or Google Cardboard experiences, because that’s what they assume great VR is, and it’s what they’re being sold. While these options should not be discredited — they have proven invaluable for some brands when it comes to exposure, accessibility, cost and mass acceptance – they aren’t helping marketers keep an open mind about what VR can do and why they should consider investing in it in a new way.

One way is with overlooked 4D elements and the fact that VR can happen outside the headset as a shared, socialized experience. Movement, sounds and sensations triggers the person’s brain into thinking their experience is reality. It’s what helps generate the "wow" factor. Stepping into a real, vibrating elevator or swaying rope-bridge under your feet, bracing for the feeling of wind blowing on your face and riding inside of a vehicle, puts people over the edge in a way that strapping on a headset alone cannot. Most brands, unfortunately, aren’t getting that full experience when they try VR for the first time; and that’s prompting them to opt for less provocative marketing ideas.

Part of that problem is the difficulty of making 4D and "group VR" scalable. Distribution is limited, and housing these experiences is costly. That means fewer people get to experience them. We can’t solve that problem overnight, but we can take baby steps towards alleviating it. CMOs can encourage their staff and their creative agencies to invest time and money to test out VR experiences in their optimal state and to begin conversations earlier than only months ahead of time — the usual for an activation. In some cases, that will mean attending events where headset experiences are incorporated into state-of-the-art sets. In others, that will mean investing in resources to brainstorm and prototype around non-headset uses of VR.

For "Field Trip to Mars," we put kids on a school bus that drove around Washington, D.C., and using the same game-engine technology that is typically used in a headset experience and console video games, we replaced windows with screens that made the kids feel as though they were looking out the window onto Mars — all without a headset. When the bus moved or turned on Earth, it appeared and felt as though it was doing the same on Mars — a notion akin to sensations one might get from a well-executed 4D headset experience. But the collective squeal of delight from the kids was unparalleled and no doubt heightened by the socialization factor.

While a scenario like this is arguably less accessible than a headset experience at an event, it’s important to consider its long-term impact and the fact that reactions can be measured immediately beyond the individual level. In our case, one experience may have spawned a group of America’s next great astronauts.

Alexander Rea is head of creative technology at Framestore.