Happy Birthday Virtual Reality

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Late last month, Oculus Rift, the virtual reality (VR) headset made by Oculus VR (and owned by Facebook) celebrated its first official birthday. The headset has been available for consumer purchase since March 2016, marking one full year in which VR technology has been widely accessible to consumers (or at least, widely available to consumers with $599 in disposable income). With other high profile headset launches this past year, including HTC’s Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR, it certainly seems that VR, which has experienced many hype cycles before this one, is set to become ever more important to digital marketers in the years to come.

But what, exactly, does the future of VR look like? While we can’t answer that question without a crystal ball, we can offer an idea of where VR opportunities stand today, what current levels of investment look like, and what challenges marketers will face in adapting to VR technology.

The hype:

One big question on the minds of marketers is whether or not the technology and the actual experiences themselves have lived up to all the hype surrounding VR.

The truth is that most consumers haven’t been exposed to VR experiences yet. Currently VR is most often applied in gaming settings, but gamers are a limited subset of the population, and those consumer outside of gaming settings have fewer opportunities to experience the technology. Still, consumers are certainly curious about the experiences VR can offer them. Among internet users who say they would buy a VR device, 56% said they would do so because they’re curious about what the experience would feel like.

The summer 2016 phenomenon that was Pokemon Godefinitely did a lot of work bringing more mainstream attention to augmented reality (AR). Snapchat users are also exposed to AR through Snapchat lenses, which uses facial recognition to overlay accessories on users’ faces, or otherwise transform their faces (by turning them into a zombie, or showing them barfing a rainbow, for example).

While Pokemon Go and Snapchat have made AR more mainstream amongst average consumers, the barriers to entry for VR are higher and device shipments are still modest.

The mainstreaming of VR:

That leads us to the next question many marketers have about VR: will it really go mainstream? The short answer is probably yes, but not overnight.

It’s worth noting that there are major players in the game. Google, Facebook, Samsung, and Sony are all investing in VR technology. The involvement of these heavy-hitters is a good indicator that they, at least, believe VR is a future worth investing in.

Not only that, but lots of investment capital continues to be poured into VR/AR companies. The amount of money invested, and the number of investments made have been growing steadily over the past few years.

Furthermore, there does seem to be buy-in among senior-level marketing execs that VR and AR are poised to be key technologies influencing digital marketing in the near-term. Over a quarter of those surveyed indicated that VR/AR will be among the trends to have the biggest effect on marketers by the year 2020.

The holdup:

It seems as though the pieces are in place to make VR a trend to be reckoned with in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean it will be one that marketers have an easy time adapting to. There are quite a few hurdles facing marketers when it comes to adoption and implementation of VR technology:

  • Relatively low adoption rates of headsets mean that the audience for VR is still fairly limited. Recognizing this fact, some companies are taking it upon themselves to distribute low-cost headsets from Google Cardboard for custom VR experiences.
  • Right now, the biggest opportunity for marketers is in 360 video, but many are searching for ways to apply the technology beyond 360 for experiences that can be called truly immersive.
  • Even with 360 video, investment costs are very high. Costs present a significant barrier to entry, effectively precluding small businesses from employing the technology at this stage. 360 video costs can range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands dollars. They are far more time-consuming to produce and their production requires specialized expertise.

With these barriers in mind, full-scale VR adoption among digital marketers does not seem likely to happen in the near future. Still, as discussed earlier, consumer curiosity about the technology certainly exists and the brands that can afford to invest in it are beginning to deliver content designed to capitalize on that interest.

While the future of VR is difficult to predict at the current moment, and the size of the market still remains to be seen, this is certainly a trend that marketers want to keep an eye on. As innovative and interesting campaigns continue to be rolled out by major brands, marketers should be taking note of what’s working and what generates the most excitement among consumers.

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