VR: Is it worth the PR?

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The Oculus Rift headset is tested by attendees at the Eurogamer Expo at Earls Court in London.

Let’s start by dispelling the myth that virtual reality is a new thing. It isn’t. It might only just be reaching Joe Public’s face in the popular media, but virtual reality has its beginnings in the 1920s, when Edwin Link invented the world’s first flight simulator. Arguably not ‘virtual’ in a digital sense of the word; it was still mimicking and replicating the world, but did provide a different ‘reality’.

Fast-forward 80 years, there is a huge amount of VR hardware available to the consumer: ranging from flat-pack DIY viewers such as Google Cardboard, to the latest £700 silicon-clad HTC Vive. There’s clearly demand and anticipation, but will people take VR to their hearts (or eyes)?

A brief history

There have been many waves of VR since Ed Link’s flight simulator. Morton Heilig in the 1950s developed the ‘Sensorama’ interactive theatre experience, which used a combination of multi-directional audio, a ‘smelling machine’ (yeah, us neither) and stereoscopic screens to give participants the illusion of depth and a multi-sensory experience.

Then, in the mid-1980s/early 90s, technology and reality collided as high-end game arcades (and the fanciest seaside piers) installed ‘Virtuality 1000’ machines to lure in punters. These were gargantuan pods, complete with heavy helmets, that offered the ability to fight virtual skeletons in grey, pixelated dungeons.

Inspiring the likes of films such as Lawnmower Man and Tron, there’s no doubt VR permeated popular culture at the time. But the fact that games, and the virtual worlds they were set in, just weren’t up to par with people’s expectations eventually meant the public lost interest. The technology just wasn’t quite there. Virtuality and other VR manufacturers at the time made a mistake common among many tech businesses: they tried to mask underwhelming performance with flashy hardware.

Today we’re seeing a second coming of VR — and it still appeals to our child-like sense of wonder and desire for immersion in new worlds. But will VR stick around for longer than it did 25 years ago? Will it evolve into a tech-movement, intertwined with our personal and work lives? Or will it become akin to the 3D TV — something that at first glance seemed revolutionary, but then quickly fell by the wayside? I’m hedging my bets on the first option, as VR has something today that it didn’t back in the ‘90s…

Overwhelming performance

360-degree cameras, accurate motion-tracking, OLED ultra high-definition screens, a plethora of sensors — the technology used to power and create VR has come quite a way in the last 30 years. What this means is that the latest devices on the market can fully immerse you in videos or virtual worlds that can be difficult to differentiate from reality. The monochromic low-res experiences of the pier arcades? They’re long gone.

Yes, some might cast it off as just a gimmick. However, let’s not forget that there were plenty of naysayers who suggested the same of the touch screen before the release of the first iPhone. Now it is inconceivable to be without such a technology.

Give your customers the content

It’s important we don’t just get excited by the new tech, but also consider the business use cases for VR. In fact, there have already been some interesting marketing campaigns exploiting the technology. Initial strides into VR by the likes of Merrell and Center Parcs are nothing short of inspiring, giving customers an experience of a product or place that could only be bettered by actually being in front of it.

Merrell, for example, created a VR experience called Trailscape to promote the launch of its new hiking boot, the Capra. Participants walked along a physical stage that was mapped to a simultaneous virtual experience. The motion capture allowed adventurers to explore the mountainside, with tactile elements such as rope walkways and shaking wooden planks making it one of the most immersive VR experiences to date.

Meanwhile, eco-woodland holiday provider Center Parcs used VR to show guests what to expect from its new site in Bedfordshire. Taking advantage of the Oculus Rift platform, the technology gave customers a 360-degree experience, transporting them to the zip wire and high-ropes course at the site. This gave them a taste of what to expect should they visit, and it was all done in an impactful way that outstripped the emotive power of traditional video.

That’s one of the main plus-points of VR – just how novel and memorable even a simplistic 360-degree video can be. Ask a marketer or a PR-professional the best way to resonate with an audience and they’ll tell you it’s all about content and accurately conveying a unique selling proposition (USP). Now with VR, businesses have the ability to virtually transport prospective customers into an advertisement. Thus making them part of the content and allowing them to shape their place within it.

For many businesses, VR may seem like an expensive path to travel down – especially seeing as the current audience is limited. However, according to 2016 market forecasts made by Piper Jaffray, this year Samsung will sell 5 million Gear VRs, Facebook will sell 3.6 million Oculus Rifts, HTC will sell 2.1 million Vives, and Sony will sell 1.4 million Playstation VRs. Looking even further ahead, Piper believes that annual sales of VR headsets could reach half a billion by 2025.

An eye to the future of marketing

VR is all about change – as much for the individual experiencing it as for the business using it to communicate about their brand. Providing customers with an intense experience which is greater than traditional media is a huge opportunity to generate strong emotions and brand loyalty. Who knows, in time you may find that our Chameleon insights are delivered through immersive virtual reality. But for now, we’re going to treat VR as a potentially compelling new medium for marketers, and that’s got to be a reason to keep an eye on the phenomenon beyond the hype.