The Trouble With VR

I was watching, yet another a virtual reality (VR) experience at an ad agency the other day. Before it began, our demo guy said to the assembled group ‘stand well back, as last week I punched someone’. It demonstrates both the benefits and challenges of VR. It’s a highly immersive experience, something that many brands strive for, however it is also a closed experience that removes the user from the real world.

Sensorama - early VRVR isn’t that new. In the early 1960s, Morton Heilig came up with the Sensorama. It had vision, it had sound, it had movement. It even had smell … now why didn’t Oculus think of that? The next iterations were in the late 90s. It was a time of optimism in technology, and companies such as Atari were creating expensive futuristic-looking headsets. The problem was not just the price, the technology also struggled to deliver a convincing virtual experience. In the last couple of years we’ve seen the launch of numerous new headsets – Oculus, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and even Google’s Cardboard. The technology has caught up with the concept. We have retina screens, we have gyroscopes and above all, we have sufficient computing power to reduce that lag that made the 90s versions somewhat vomit inducing.

With the new generation of devices, we’re beginning to discover applications for VR. Naturally there is strong appeal in gaming. The immersive nature makes it ideal for driving, shooting or fantasy formats. Outside of the gamer world, useful VR applications are being developed in medicine, engineering and architecture. It’s also becoming a useful research tool in retail. Virtual stores can be easily built and different configurations tested on shopper focus groups.

Not to be outdone, advertising agencies are also jumping on the VR bandwagon aiming to deliver that illusive, immersive brand experience. And therein lies the problem. They’re replicating existing experiences without creating true audience engagement. So far, brands have built some well produced, mildly interesting, yet obvious applications. From Audi to Volvo, a number of brands have created virtual driving experiences. Fine, but really, I’d just like to test-drive the car. Getting a feel of the vehicle on real highways is far more important than looking out on simulated mountain road. Occasionally, there are some nice executions, such as Merrill’s VR trek. However, I would argue that all of these are just stunts.

I see two main problems with VR in the brand context. Firstly, consumer adoptions rate is low. Though much cheaper than the 90s versions, current devices are still pricey. Although people were happy to splash out similar sums on smartphones and iPads, the limited application of VR makes purchasing less appealing. Brands therefore need to deliver high-end VR experiences in-situ, for example in a store. Unlike other in-store experiences, such as digital billboards, VR offers fewer possibilities for the consumer to interact with their own mobile device, or connect to social media. For brands, interaction is often key to creating scale through sharing with a wider audience. VR doesn’t easily lend itself to scale.

The second, greater challenge I see is that brands are struggling to understand VR as a medium. The problem comes from the immersive nature of these new devices. It’s making a connection in the first person. That naturally works in gaming, but brands think of their engagement in the third person, delivering a message to a remote viewer. Digital and particularly social media, are making brands more two-way, more intereactive. However the ‘share your selfie/like this hashtag’ approach is still very third person thinking. It’s an interaction that aims to create scale through sharing to be viewed in the third person. Because VR is immersive and first person, it requires a re-think of how brands approach their audience. For now, though, VR is a tactic for brands – essential for delivering stunts with a short hit of interest.

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