While VR is in many ways still in its infancy, clear trends are emerging in the ways and means brands and their agencies are leveraging the technology. Early pioneers in VR tended to shoot first and ask questions later. As the space matures, best practice is gradually being established as the VR wild west is replaced by well planned, strategic campaigns that deliver on core business KPIs - not just on PR in the marketing press.
Mike Sorrenti is President of Gamepill – an interactive studio that specializes in virtual reality for online games and interactive marketing. “My introduction to VR was unforgettable. It was like seeing color TV for the first time,” recalls Mike. “I immediately scrambled to get a team together to create a prototype in VR just to learn the ropes and the business has just grown organically from there.”
Gamepill now works with leading brands, VR device manufacturers including HTC and even Hollywood producers. In this post, Mike shares his insights into some of the latest developments in VR and the various ways brands can leverage current trends to create meaningful experiences that not only engage consumers but also help future-proof the business.
Whether it’s based on 360-degree video or computer-generated graphics, virtual reality provides a uniquely immersive 3D experience that connects with users on a very different plane when compared to traditional 2D media such as video and online experiences.
“We created a VR experience around a space shooter game but soon realized that the fast-moving graphics were giving people motion sickness,” says Sorrenti. “A big part of creating content for VR is adapting and innovating as you go so we decided to try and pair the VR experience with a motion seat programmed to mirror the action in the game. This completely resolved the motion sickness and had the added benefit of making the game itself even more experiential.”
The ride in question caught the eye of HTC, the makers of Vive, and can now be experienced in HTC’s Viveland in Taiwan, the world’s first VR arcade. In addition to harnessing motion seats, developers are also increasingly integrating VR experiences with motion platforms (in essence, a 360-degree treadmill). By leveraging accessory hardware and designing movement into the experience, brands have an opportunity to give their customers greater freedom of movement and unleash the power of discovery.
If the last ten years has taught us anything, it’s that brands can’t afford to wait to be disrupted – they must disrupt themselves.
Six degrees of freedom
The processing power of VR hardware is rapidly increasing, giving developers and content creators the power to build experiences in VR that offer users six degrees of freedom – in other words, the ability to move in any given direction within the 3D space. As Sorrenti explains, “until recently, a lot of VR experiences tethered the user to a particular position within the 3D space. The user could look around but their position in the 3D experience at any given time was predetermined by the developer.”
“With ever greater processing power comes the ability for the user to move independently around the 3D environment and even interact with objects and other users at will. This has profound implications for the types of experiences brands create,” says Sorrenti. “Take retail for example. It’s now possible to create truly immersive retail experiences where users can explore, browse, interact and buy in a virtual store. This could disrupt the retail sector just as much as the internet did twenty years ago, with retailers potentially scaling down their physical footprint in favor of virtual shopping experiences.”
Within VR, the way we navigate information and communicate with each other will morph and adapt to the demands of the medium. For example, reading text in current VR environments can often be challenging. “This is a real problem for VR developers,” explains Sorrenti. “Clear, crisp, legible typography is vital for so many everyday use cases. Unfortunately, the graphics limitations of current hardware combined with the use of legacy fonts originally designed for 2D media often result in blurry, unreadable text in VR. It’s not too much of an issue in games, but for brand experiences, high-quality text is often essential.”
Thankfully, new solutions, font sets and methodologies for typography in VR are being developed which will open up new text-heavy applications including social media – which Sorrenti points out has become such a prominent part of 21st century life, that “it’s difficult to imagine VR becoming mainstream without it.” Thankfully, it looks like social is evolving to meet the challenge. ‘Facebook Spaces’ is the social behemoth’s new beta application for its proprietary Oculus platform. Crucially, users can bring traditional 2D media including video, pictures and GIFs into Facebook’s new virtual realm and share it, blending the best of both worlds.
Recent research by Greenlight Insights showed more than 53% of its survey of 1,300 consumers reported they’d be more inclined to purchase from a brand that uses VR compared to one than one that doesn’t. “Consumers see the confidence and experimentation in brands who use VR as indicative of quality products and services,” Sorrenti points out. While experimentation with new mediums like Virtual Reality is generally well received by consumers, retaining brand consistency in the virtual space remains key. Elements such as the design language, fonts and tone of voice – while adapting to the new medium – must remain consistent with the brand’s other more conventional touchpoints if the customer experience is to be perceived as ‘authentic.’
53% of consumers reported they’d be more inclined to purchase from a brand that uses VR compared to one than one that doesn’t
One particular development over the past year is the combination of VR with another hot marketing trend – chatbots. “At Gamepill, we’ve been experimenting with bots and IBM’s Artificial Intelligence platform, Watson,” reveals Sorrenti. “In the next couple of months, we anticipate brand experiences where users can have conversations with VR avatars that are in fact AI-enabled chatbots. These relationship-based tools will make the buying process in VR much more authentic and frictionless than say, using a click to buy or text-based interface. It’s just a smarter way to deliver a great customer experience in VR.”
For a brand currently sitting on the VR sidelines, perhaps the greatest reason to invest, argues Sorrenti, is simply to future-proof the business. “If the last ten years has taught us anything, it’s that brands can’t afford to wait to be disrupted – they must disrupt themselves,” he says with conviction. “Look at Ikea for example. The retailer was one of the first companies to explore Augmented Reality for mobile, allowing users to scan its catalogs and place virtual furniture in the physical world. It’s now progressed to offering full store walk-throughs in 360-degree video and a VR kitchen showroom where users can design their own custom units.”
Given the relatively low volume of VR headsets in consumer hands and homes, it’s unlikely that Ikea’s key performance indicator for these brand experiences is a metric like views or sales – it’s more likely that the company is thinking strategically about the future. “VR could change Ikea’s fundamental business in five years,” Sorrenti points out. “In a sense the whole sustainability of the business depends on this sort of constant innovation. If Blockbuster had fostered this kind of culture internally, it’s likely it would still be operating today.”
Preparing for a world beyond VR
As the VR market matures, brands are increasingly building this new technology into their marketing efforts and creating more authentic user experiences. Those that rise to the VR challenge today are developing the skills, strategies and storytelling that will prepare their businesses for an even more augmented future, where the divide between the digital and physical world disappears and consumers engage in ever more immersive ways.
But for all the excitement around VR, Mike Sorrenti and his clients are already looking over the digital horizon to what’s next. “I see VR as a stepping stone for brands to Augmented and Mixed Reality experiences where digital content is seamlessly blended into the real physical world.” With the release of Apple ARKit in May, Sorrenti believes it gives executives in boardrooms the confidence to commit budget.
“VR is going to be the best way for brands to provide immersive ‘get away’ entertainment but AR is going to be where brands provide everyday utility and where I predict the most value will be,” says Sorrenti. “Brands that haven’t adopted this new wave of VR will be leapfrogged when AR takes off – and that will be a trend no business can afford to miss.”