Why virtual reality is opening a new world for customer interaction

The rise of consumer-friendly headsets such as Oculus Rift, means virtual reality is finally set to go mainstream. And the opportunities for marketers are huge

Consumers try out the Interstellar virtual reality experience
Consumers try out the Interstellar virtual reality experience

Technology take-off

There are several consumer-grade virtual reality headsets in development including those by Sony, Samsung and Oculus VR (now owned by Facebook). In a sign of the growing applications of virtual reality, Oculus co-founder and CEO, Brendan Iribe, in September donated US$31 million to build a lab at the University of Maryland dedicated to VR, artificial intelligence and robotics innovation.

The Oculus Rift is an amazing VR headset that has successfully overcome the technological hurdles that prevented prior VR headsets from going mainstream

Utherverse's Brian Shuster

Jackson believes the latest wave of VR headsets represents the best chance this type of technology has had yet to take off.

“This generation of hardware with the betas and development kits now is much more affordable and gives a proper, true image in the viewfinders compared to previous iterations, which were pretty nauseating for long-term use,” he claims.

Today’s PCs and game consoles are powerful enough to run sophisticated VR experiences, and Oculus Rift’s strategy of distributing development kits to interested creators ensures there will be software, he adds.

Shuster agrees the hype could finally be real. “The Oculus Rift is an amazing VR headset that has successfully overcome the technological hurdles that prevented prior VR headsets from going mainstream,” he claims.

“The frame rates and field of view are good enough, and the motion sickness is minimal enough that this headset could be embraced by the general public.”

Other experts say Oculus Rift shows the greatest immediate potential for marketers. One reason is that the technology has been an open platform from the beginning and will likely be first out of the gate, says Jackson. Sony is expected to target gamers, while Samsung is likely to go after high-tech early adopters, notes the analyst.

“For marketers wanting to explore this space, Oculus is the shoo-in brand.”

Getting started

While the Oculus Rift headset itself is inexpensive – the current Development Kit 2 is priced at US$350 – there are other costs for marketers to consider. A big one is the computer hardware needed to power the experience, says Peter Galmes, creative director of Whybin/TBWA.

“A MacBook Air is not going to be able to deal with it,” he explains. For its NRMA project, the creative agency used a top-spec PC gaming rig.

There is also a staffing cost to consider because a VR headset can be intimidating to first-time users, says Jackson. Until average consumers become more comfortable, brands will need to hire help to strap them in.

However, Gardner estimates doing an Oculus Rift demo costs about the same as building a campaign microsite. “It’s cheaper than most TV spots.”

At Tourism Australia, the cost of production is a key question. “Some of the places we go to produce content could be remote and expensive to get to,” Rumsey says.

Since the agency already produces films, money may be saved by having crews simultaneously take footage for the VR application. The group plans to start with a small development project, and if that’s successful look to apply the VR technology more broadly.

“If we take [virtual reality] into account in the beginning, it’s likely to be a better economy of scale all the way through,” Rumsey says.

As with any media, there are rules that must be followed when designing a VR experience.

“This is a technology that surrounds your whole peripheral vision and it follows you around,” says Blau. “You can’t shake it off. You can’t look away.”

Jackson warns a number of factors related to motion can cause people to fall over or flip out. Movements that are very fast or evocative of sea sickness should be avoided, he says, and it is disorienting to cut between different scenes, making continuous movement a must.

Ng advises marketers not to get carried away with the concept of a virtual experience and neglect the user interface and other technical details. This can be as basic as ensuring the VR equipment is appealing to wear, she says. “Look at how the entire experience is delivered.”

And, of course, the old rules of marketing still apply. For VR to work as advertising, there must be a clear purpose behind it, say the Whybin/TBWA team.

“Make sure it truly is a piece of advertising, not just a piece of entertainment or a tech demo,” says Gardner. “There needs to be a story there. There needs to be a reason to do it.”

Dadwal advises interested marketers to experience virtual reality for themselves to determine the potential for their particular brands. Brands less suited to virtual reality experiences should consider whether they could instead embed their products into virtual experiences created by others, he says.

“It has to be very specific to the content and should not be integrated into something which doesn’t appeal to the brand image,” he adds.

Shuster says virtual billboards are most effective when promoting a brand’s virtual world presence. “If a movie were to be advertised in VR, it should have an interactive virtual world, not a simple trailer, for example,” he says.

“Once users have responded to the ad and arrived at the interactive venue, then the entire venue and event will be a promotion of the brand and product. At that time, it will be fine to have direct promotions and ads.”

There will be a mix of success and failure in the early days of Oculus Rift, predicts Blau. “The only way to figure this out is to put it out there and iterate,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of trial and error.”

Test and development is indeed the plan for Tourism Australia. “We’ll keep playing and we’ll keep testing and looking for an opportunity where it provides real value,” Rumsey says.

This article originally appeared in CMO magazine, Issue 3, 2014. To subscribe to get your own magazine copy, please register through our online member system: cmo.com.au/subscribe.

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