Virtual Reality: The next Big Thing or Flash in the Pan?

In some ways, virtual reality (VR) represents the promise of the future. It allows us to participate in a setting that isn’t actually present, but feels as if it could be. But in other ways, VR feels like a relic of the past. There’s already a plethora of great technology readily available—smartphones, tablets computers, etc.— so virtual reality doesn’t really bring anything that special to the table. Plus, there’s not nearly as much of a demand for VR as there is for these other devices.

Abigail Posner of Zoo (Google’s creative think tank) feels optimistic about VR, believing it could be the next big thing. At Zoo, her team has led an anthropological study on VR to see how consumers relate to it. As it turns out, there are a lot of brands that are already using this new technology to successfully engage consumers. And it’s not just in the entertainment and gaming industry either; Guinness and the New York Times are some of the brands finding ways to use VR. There’s also statistical data to support it’s development. According to eMarketer, VR is expected to grow from 22.4 million users in 2017 to 49.2 million users in 2019. But even if that growth does in fact happen, will there be a way for marketers to utilize VR’s potential?

Abigail Posner discusses VR with host Drew Neisser on the Renegade Thinkers Unite podcast. She talks about several case studies, describing what Google has found out about the technology and where she expects it to go. You can listen to the episode below:

Based on Posner’s interview, here are the cases for and against VR’s survival.

Virtual Reality Offers a New Brand Experience…

Since the birth of human civilization, we’ve longed to share stories. Whether we are gathering around the campfire, making emotional speeches, or telling co-workers about our weekend down by the river, we enjoy exchanging anecdotes. As a former anthropology student, Posner knows all about the power of storytelling. However, she believes that VR has the ability to transform storytelling into story living.

“From the second you put whatever that headset is on,” Posner says, “you are totally immersed in this experience. And it’s not an immersive story like someone telling you a story; there’s no narrative frame. You’re breaking all the conventions of what you experience until now about story—someone guiding you through, someone telling you what’s supposed to happen, someone giving you the implications that you’re supposed to come away with. Instead, you jump into this experience. You are totally absorbed.”

Posner lists a few examples to explain how story living can work. For instance, she talks about Lipton and how the brand might describe the natural ingredients in its tea to entice health-conscious consumers. With VR, however, the Lipton can simulate the experience of being in the field, picking the tealeaves, and therefore providing users with a deeper understanding of the brand. Posner also mentions a VR game released to help market the 2017 film, Dunkirk. In the game, users can sense what it would have been like to be a WWII soldier. As bullets zoom by and bombers fly overhead, you’re there in the middle of the action. In this sense, VR offers a unique immersion experience that other mediums cannot convey.

But Do People Want to Experience Brands?

As much as marketers may hate to face it, most people don’t like commercials. So if there’s any suspicion that brands may use virtual reality to push a product or service, consumers might not bite. In addition to marketing challenges, there may be some general challenges to getting people on board with virtual reality. VR has been around for a little while now, and yet there are no major indications that people will soon be lining up to buy 3-D headsets. VR’s limited capabilities surely have something to do with this, but the fact that people aren’t generally demanding more of these visceral experiences is a bad sign.

The word “virtual” doesn’t really help VR’s case either. We know that these story living experiences are contrived. We know that those tealeaves we’re picking and those bullets whizzing over our heads aren’t real. And so our engagement with them may feel restricted. The beauty of storytelling is that we can use our imaginations to picture scenes however we like. With VR, we don’t have that option. Although it’s very cool to see things from a new point of view, there’s a somewhat limited scope.

Tying this back to marketers, the fact that this technology doesn’t convey a linear experience suggests that advertisers may not have full control over their own VR programs. If that’s the case, how can they expect to engage with consumers the way they’d like? New technological developments may have the answer to that question. But for now, getting users down lower in the funnel is a challenge with VR.

VR Is Growing…

As previously mentioned, VR usage is expected to expand significantly. Plus, the fact that Google is putting a lot of research into it suggests that the technology might have a bright future. We also know that almost anything is possible in the 21st century. New startups take off every day, some of which introduce ideas that come out of left field. Just look at how well Snapchat has done. VR also delivers something different, so there is reason to believe it will find a way to break through with users.

Posner explains why brands shouldn’t fear adapting to VR. She says, “I would think that marketers may not be as scared as you think…what VR is really doing is going back in time in a way. It’s going back to the fundamentals of what’s so valuable about brands, which is really getting to the essence and meaning of a brand, of a product in people’s lives.” No matter what becomes of VR, we should be ready to pounce if and when the opportunity comes.

But Will Lack of Convenience Cause a Snag?

VR isn’t sexy yet. It’s this bulky technology that looks ridiculous, and in some cases is probably uncomfortable to wear. To be fair, there are some possible fixes. For example, VR could take a Google Glass turn and become stylish if done properly. But what convenience does it add that our smartphones and computers don’t already have? Although VR has the potential to showcase different kinds of experiences than these technologies, users may not have the attention span or desire to learn VR to its fullest extent. VR might be like the Apple watch – cool to have, but an unnecessary luxury for many. And if that’s the case, then VR’s value to marketers is surely limited.

We’ve Seen VR Work…

Posner describes a few instances where VR has succeeded. These examples are across the board, ranging from entertainment to sports and even to public service announcements. The National Transportation Highway Safety Board experimented used VR to show users how their brain changes after becoming intoxicated. Posner explains, “We created [an] experience where people with a headset with cardboard…can actually start experiencing what it’s like to be drunk. So they are playing games in a bar. And all of a sudden, because of the way the technology works, the voices around you are starting to be slurred. Things are starting to slow down. And so all of a sudden, you as a human being are sensing what it’s like to feel drunk and you recognize, ‘Oh my gosh. This is what my brain is going through as I drink more and more and more. I am understanding the essence of what it’s like to be drunk.’” Since VR has shown promise with the National Transportation Highway Safety Board’s, there’s no reason to believe it can’t work with other organizations too.

The fact that VR can dip into so many genres including education suggests that there are a number of potential avenues for VR to work if it doesn’t fit in with other areas. As we’ve mentioned before, even KFC is starting to use VR to train its cooks. Much of this success still remains to be seen, but the fact that there are early successes on the board for VR bodes well for the technology.

But Will It Last?

Last Christmas, my cousin got a VR headset. He gave it to me to try for a few minutes, so I started looking at 360° videos of my favorite attractions from a certain vacation destination in central Florida. After about 5 minutes, I thought, “well this is cool, but now I want to do something else.” There’s a decent chance that might be the standard reaction to VR in the future. If people are only using it once in a while, what true value does it really give to marketers?

Final Thoughts

My opinion on virtual reality and $1.50 might get you a cup of coffee. Abigail Posner has spent an extensive amount of time studying VR, and for perhaps the most highly respected company in contemporary times. So when she says she sees promise in VR, she may have a point. Although the technology is still far away from where it needs to be, it could eventually make a breakthrough. As long as that potential exists, marketers should have a plan to address VR down the road.

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