Augmented & Virtual Reality – Is it a fad or a sustainable trend?
Virtual reality (VR) is clearly in the process of becoming a trend for communication by brands and by corporations. In North America, the content in virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) is increasingly integrated into the communication strategies of the major groups. And, at times, we are seeing VR experiences being enhanced with what might otherwise be considered “augmented” elements, i.e. clickable links within the virtual space. Although for a long time, the VR technology was reduced only to video games, it is now trying to prove itself as a conduit to other types of audience. That’s why Facebook did not hesitate to spend $2 billion in 2014 to buy Oculus Rift, a helmet that allows navigation in virtual and augmented content. This will change the way we communicate.
For brands and businesses, the benefits are many. First, offering virtual reality content has the advantage of positioning the brand as innovative, the better to differentiate oneself against one’s competitors. It is a remarkable (i.e. stand-out) activity for customers. This is a crucial point in time because we live in an era of information overload where the netizen’s attention is volatile and fragmented. Then, with virtual reality, one can offer an immersive experience where the user really feels in touch with the content they are viewing and with which they can even interact. For example, by opening a video clip or changing the point of view of a building or a landscape. Editorial possibilities are tremendous and are capable of being adapted according to the communication issues or targeted communities. There are new features that enhance the impact of the information you want to share. It is generally estimated that 80% of our attention span is primarily visual! These new devices have, therefore, their whole reason for being as part of a more comprehensive communication strategy.
A few examples
I will cite four examples to show that virtual reality can relate to very different sectors.
- The brand of sportswear and hiking, North Face. They have developed a mobile app that is also available in 3 shops in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Thanks to a sophisticated 360° video capture, a customer can experience an immersive virtual hike in the famous Yosemite park in California or in the Moah desert in Utah. The idea is to entice people to buy the equipment in order to go enjoy this type of hike for real. The app was a great success in 2015, with 15,000 downloads on the Google Play platform alone!
- The Marriott hotel chain. They needed to become better known to younger audiences and thus designed two different VR experiences. The first took place in a London street where they offered passersby the opportunity to escape for a moment by being transported on to a beautiful beach in Hawaii for 100 seconds! The second instance was made available in certain Marriott facilities. It is a program called “Vroom Service.” Residents were able to request a special helmet and then – from the comfort of their hotel room – virtually wander around with another person in one of three dream destinations, in Chile, Rwanda or Beijing. Then inevitably the guest is tempted to book another trip!
- The NGO, Amnesty International. In exchange for a donation, passersby in London were allowed to wander virtually through a virtual reality helmet in the ransacked city of Aleppo, Syria, crafted through the photos and 360° video made by a group of Syrian citizen journalists. It was an effective way to raise awareness of the dramatic situation in the country.
- The chain of real estate agents, Nexity (based in France). They opened in November 2015 a connected agency in the heart of Paris. The particularity of this agency is to be able to visit a prospective property through the Oculus Rift technology. Virtual reality allows a visual immersion throughout the selected apartment or house, providing a very different experience and saving the customer precious time. The client can, thus, better refine his/her choice and visit on site only those properties that hold the biggest interest, rather than traipsing across town to see locations that did not deserve the trip.
The trend of virtual reality is clearly going mainstream. A concrete sign that times are changing: manufacturers, such as Sony and HTC, are also marketing virtual reality helmets. Although the video gaming area continues to lead the way, there is no doubt that the proliferation of this type of device will democratize access and the technology will quickly spread to other sectors. In particular, the media are starting to be more prolific users. In early November 2015, the New York Times distributed 1 million free VR cardboard goggles to subscribers and also launched a specific app with the intention of adding a monthly documentary. The US news agency Associated Press (AP) also just dipped its toe in the VR pool with a movie on the Calais shantytown in France, where thousands of migrant refugees from Africa and the Middle East had taken up camp. Meanwhile, Google intends to bring VR to the masses. Last year, they announced that YouTube would support video formats in VR and that viewers will be able to see all the YouTube videos via the cardboard goggles.
The firm, CCS Insights, recently published a report in which they predicted that 24 million VR compatible devices would be sold worldwide by 2018, representing a market size of approximately $4 billion. In terms of market segments, video games will continue to dominate according to financial analysts, hitting $1.4 billion in 2025. However, two other heavyweights, the NFL and the porn industry should generate, respectively, $1.2 billion and $1 billion.
Virtual reality is far from a techie fad or only for hard-core gamers. For brands and corporates, this technology provides very interesting opportunities to cultivate the relationships with their audiences. It’s an alternative way to gain greater proximity and deliver impact and foster engagement via a visual experience.
Olivier Cimelière @olivcim
CEO Heuristik Communications, a consultancy based in Paris
Author of “Le Blog du Communicant” (in French)