The Next-Generation of Virtual Reality for Brands and Marketing

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If we gauge virtual reality’s mass-market impact by what’s happened since the launch of Oculus Rift, in 2016, then by that measure we’re at the start of year two in its history.

When it comes to location-powered mobile marketing, the questions we can ask at this milestone begin with (1.) Has VR changed the marketing industry, and (2.) Will VR further transform the ways that location-based marketing reaches consumers?

The answers, of course, are nuanced. While consumer virtual-reality experiences are evolving, and consumer options around VR headsets are expanding — Samsung Gear, HTC Vive, and Sony PlayStation VR are now part the mix — and across all brands, more than 6 million headsets shipped last year, marketers must also acknowledge that virtual reality’s greatest impact is still to come. Considering that future, in the sections that follow we look at what will define VR’s mainstream-marketing moment will mean for the industry.

Early Days and Future Cases: The VR Consumer Experience

As with all media, content is king for VR. And then, ruling over content, distribution at scale is the high king above it.

The challenge lies in commanding these two components. Developers of VR experiences must build new user interfaces— advancing consumer engagements from familiar 2D interactions to the engagements we will next associate with immersive 3D. The industry must then solve for challenges that come with streaming these new experiences into users’ headsets.

With VR projects, the production phase is particularly complex. But the industry is seeing a fresh infusion of assets — new and revolutionary 360-degree cameras, for example, which are increasingly powerful, available, and affordable. And, as the games industry knows well in terms of console lifecycles, there is often a teething period for technology (sometimes taking years) during which developers come to understand a new platform and what it can deliver.

And so, virtual reality awaits its first instance of irresistible content — we haven’t yet seen the full manifestation of its promise. When we do, it will carry powerful ramifications for retail strategy, both in-store and in the home.

Beyond Spectacle: Virtual Reality in the Consumer–Brand Experience

For the moment, at the one-year mark, VR revolves around its primary hardware iteration — the headset. The consumer dons it and the spectacle unfolds. As a phenomenon, however, spectacle can be a funny thing. Consumers want to experience VR, but, as Google Glass, an augmented-reality experience, helped illustrate in recent years, consumers often resist the notion of becoming the spectacle.

The good news, when it comes to virtual-reality hardware, is that the headset is evolving. For example, Google’s Daydream View unit is made of soft material in cozy, muted colors. The hardware suggests something more fashionable than cardboard or unforgiving plastic — an example of how developers can blend the technology side of things with consumers’ demands around form and style. And, when the user becomes comfortable enough to don new technology in public and day-to-day settings — especially in the cases of retail — we can consider the following near-future cases.

Immersion and Brand Interaction: Consider an example rooted in sporting goods — a store that sells kayaks and rafting gear as well as traditional fashion and accessories. At the brick-and-mortar location, the consumer dons a VR headset and they enter a whitewater-rafting experience. Coming out of that event, having been fully immersed in the speed, intensity, and thrills of the ride, their affinity for the brand increases and their likelihood to purchase goes up as well. If used properly, brands can leverage this emotional-state change to engage consumers and create lasting, meaningful impressions.

VR Interactions and Shopper Conversions: Physical retail is exploring at-home VR approaches, too. For example, Myer, an Australian retailer, has partnered with eBay to create VR store-visit experiences, allowing customers to actually select and buy from virtual-reality aisles. In the approaching VR future, the borders between digital and physical will continue to transform.

VR Experiences Build on Real-World Brand Opportunities:What if an airline wants to share what it feels like to travel with their brand? Or a tourism company wants to showcase its helicopter rides over a destination? Or a hotel wants to bring connoisseurs to its bar for a mixology experience? Couple this with the concept of in-experience prompts: a VR fishing game, for example, could include a virtual billboard that features a real fishing-charter operator near the user’s location. The in-game creative can then transport the player to a VR 360-degree experience of the charter boat on the water, an immersive and contextual experience that expands the game while involving the advertiser in a meaningful way. The sense-rich virtual-reality moment becomes another compelling path to conversion.

In the past year alone, virtual reality has changed the marketing industry’s vision of what the future will bring. The next step, a true mass-market transformation, is not yet upon us, but when developers, brands, and marketers reach it — and they will via partnerships across industries — an irresistible intersection of content and form begins. It may not happen this year; but envisioning mass-market VR by 2020 is a reasonable timeframe. What we can say for certain, for now, is that the evolution of how consumers explore the next great marketing chapter — in-store and at home VR experiences — is already underway.

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