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Why it’s time brands dived head first into Virtual Reality

The term ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) was first coined in the 1950s. Almost 70 years on, it is taking the world by storm, with worldwide revenues for the augmented reality (AR) and VR market projected to hit US$14 billion this year.

But that figure’s ‘loose change’ compared to what’s forecast for 2020 - a whopping US$143 billion.

Today the world’s most exciting and forward-thinking brands, including Facebook, HTC, Google and Snap Inc are investing in VR and AR companies. Combined with the mass-market production of affordable VR headsets, the technology is set to explode into the world of the average consumer.

Marketers only need to look at examples where AR has captured the world’s imagination to gauge VR’s limitless potential.

AR vs VR

AR combines features of VR with the user’s real world, as opposed to entirely immersing the user in a virtual reality situation. AR has been adopted by brands more readily than VR, resulting in some impressive results.

Think Pokémon Go - arguably the world’s most successful AR venture. Highly accessible and free for iPhone and Android users, it swept the globe in 2016 with more than 500 million downloads. That’s the equivalent of every person in the USA, Canada and Japan combined – and then some – downloading Pokémon Go to their device! Since then, more and more brands have utilised AR technology to increase engagement and deliver exciting customer experiences.

AR has also become hugely popular on social media. In late 2015, Snapchat rolled out ‘filters’, a feature never seen on any other popular social networking app at the time. For those unfamiliar with the concept, filters allowed users to take a selfie and place an image over their face – with templates including sunglasses, rabbit ears and flower crowns, to name a few.

Ever-evolving, the latest filters now allow users to insert moving rather than static images and project images onto the environment, rather than just the users face. Facebook and Instagram have also followed Snapchat’s lead recently, with both platforms now featuring similar filter options.

Snapchat’s popularity and high levels of engagement show an emerging trend in user preferences that spells good news for AR and VR, putting the ‘reality’ back in social media. While Facebook and Instagram have developed to become a space where brands present highly curated content to the world, Snapchat unashamedly holds the mirror up to real life, not just in content but in concept. A conversation is had, shared, then quickly disappears to become nothing but a memory.

Clearly, AR has proven its worth in gaming and social media and VR is the natural ‘next step’.

When VR is done right…

…It’s breathtaking.

Fundamentally, VR has two main strengths; delivering a strong emotional message though presence and interaction; and visualising complex information, making it easier to understand.

One example of the former was the Marriott 4-D Teleporter, which took those who participated in the launch experience from a booth in Times Square, to the beaches of Hawaii, to the top of London’s Tower 42 without so much as a bus ticket. Marriott took immersion to the next level – for example, upon ‘landing’ on the beach in Hawaii, users weren’t just looking at the beach, they were feeling the tropics all around them! The temperature in the booth rose to a balmy 26 degrees, pumps in the floor created the cushioned feeling of sand underfoot, while a gentle sea breeze and ocean mist blew across their face.

The Marriott Teleporter even had the international editor of Travel & Leisure wowed. He summed up the experience of whizzing off to Hawaii and London within moments of placing the Oculus Rift DK2 headset over his eyes in two words: ‘Whoa baby!’

Another particularly clever example of a brand effectively harnessing virtual reality was an exhibition Game of Thrones experience. Users strapped on an Oculus Rift visor and could virtually step inside an elevator and travel to the top of a city wall to take in the view from 210 metres above the ground. A wind machine added to the experience and the ground beneath their feet shook as the elevator virtually ascended. From the elevator, projected to look as though it had large windows, users experienced incredible views of a winter landscape, providing a true “GOT” moment.

VR’s challenges

If VR can create unique and memorable experiences for users and is an ideal way for brands to engage with their customers, why isn’t there greater take-up across brands? Right now, the perceived challenges are outweighing the benefits for many organisations, particularly those with smaller budgets.

Cost and practicality are the obvious barriers here, but the more difficult challenge that isn’t often raised, is human nature itself.

VR technology requires users to stand still during their experience, as too much movement can often cause motion sickness. However, most people naturally want to move around and explore the new virtual world they’ve been projected to, so telling them to stand still can distract from the experience. This leaves VR developers pondering how they can resolve this dilemma without compromising the experience.

Both the Marriott’s and Game of Thrones’ VR simulations used clever design tricks to make the most of the tech as is, turning the biggest challenges of the current headsets into features that enhanced the immersive experience and added to authenticity for users.

The verdict

Some say VR is just a passing fad as its immersive nature cuts you off from the world, but I don’t see this as a limitation to the long-term success of the tech.

Today, the challenge before VR developers and brands is simple – they must create truly engaging virtual reality experiences that champion human nature before technology. AR has cracked the code by encouraging human interactions through their apps, but most brands haven’t yet been able to find a simple solution when it comes to VR… yet.

Contrary to popular belief, the rate of penetration into VR in some areas like health and training is already high and there are hundreds of start-ups building new technology every day. Make no mistake, VR domination is on its way.

A good video can entertain and titillate, but when marketers project someone into another world, allow them to touch and interact with it – people get excited. Interaction is a powerful tool for generating a sense of personal investment and a strong emotional message and VR is the most engaging and immersive delivery method on the market.

With VR, marketers can achieve their ‘holy grail’– facilitating a brand interaction, that, depending on the quality, novelty and overall ‘wow factor’ of the overall VR experience, could prove unforgettable. And that’s why brands shouldn’t think twice about early adoption of VR. It is the untapped golden ticket to putting your brand front-and-centre in consumers’ lasting memories.

About Author

Peter has been a Virtual Reality developer at creative company Khemistry for the last year. He previously worked as a programming teacher at TAFE Brisbane and has a Bachelor of Games and Interactive Media from the University of Canberra. He is returning this year for Honours and is looking forward to writing his first research paper about Non-Photorealistic Rendering in Virtual Reality.

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