Welcoming the Virtual Reality Renaissance

Written by
Andreea Nastase
Virtual reality - it happened in a big way before, but sucked so everyone moved on and forgot about it. Now it’s back and it’s good.

If you are up to speed with your tech news coverage, you can’t have missed the fact that virtual reality has been both hyped and put down in just the space of a few months. Those over 30 (and cynical) might think this is like the 90s all over again. Those younger don’t carry this burden of memory, but they have developed much higher expectations of what a ‘virtual’ experience can provide given how good game engines have become.

Can virtual reality be exciting beyond just games? 

We think so. A lot of people seem stuck asking if it can ‘overcome the dork factor’: can it be interesting to the masses and come at an accessible price point? Can it endure as a consumer product, not just a fascinating feat of engineering? 

It may be that the barrier isn’t in the cumbersome hardware and gaming focus, but the inherent risk that comes with putting a (literally) disorienting experience in the hands of many. Analysts already estimate that consumer spending on hardware and software could rise to $10bn by 2020 so maybe it’s just a matter of patience.

If you really want to overcome the dork factor you need to offer the masses a gateway drug to virtual reality — and that may well be 360 video, easy enough to be experienced through cardboard headsets. Discovery Channel went for children’s TV programming on YouTube, while New York Times and Google have partnered exclusively to put cardboard in the hands of paper subscribers for a very specific story. Oculus may have gone for the gamers now, but within Facebook’s loving embrace you never know where it’ll end up.

Unlike a decade ago, there is more money, intellectual horsepower and more cross-disciplinary thinking going into virtual reality right now.

This is great news but the danger for advertising is that it has the tendency to jump on technological bandwagons too fast and produce award-hungry novelties. 

Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, noted that in VR “the experience is so strong, we don’t really need to put much gameplay in to please people.” That’s open to interpretation but where we read ‘simple but effective’ some people might read ‘easy to build any old crap because they’ll like it’.

We’ve spoken at length about ‘loser’ experiences and how you can throw money at a shiny new toy but don’t pause to think about how to integrate it into something bigger or make something people actually need or desire. Maybe in a good way, VR and 360 video production costs are still expensive and complex enough to put some people off, even if the distribution via cardboard headset might be cheap.

So that creates a great opportunity for us to think properly about what experiences are worth rendering in VR or 360, what we want people to get out of them and even how we’re going to get them to experience them.

With our Game of Thrones exhibition, the Oculus ascent of the Wall wasn’t *the* experience, it was only a part of something bigger. It was both the physical end of the space as well as the emotional one; emotional because the ascent of the wall is meant to kill you at the end, and physical because the O2 lounge is only so big and there are only so many prop items you can show. 

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The Oculus experience was also last because it had two other important components: a wall of legal warnings you had to read and as you queued and staff to man the individual booths and check you had read everything. If you are pregnant, epileptic, or your prefrontal cortex hasn’t developed enough to process our current world outside the headset then maybe it’s not for you. One can see how organisers are bound by very strict safety measures when VR becomes a public installation, while you could argue that the man or woman buying a ‘consumer product’ at home might take a greater degree of risk.

All these challenges are easy to overcome and there are a lot of upsides about VR. You can be somewhere else you might never get to in this lifetime, you can be someone else, and you feel those particular emotions with far greater intensity.

Now, advertising has spent a lot of time arguing two things: one, that emotions drive behaviour (like buying stuff) and two, that our attention spans are incredibly fragmented, with relevance being the only way to cut through the noise.

If you want to make people act on something, first they need to be aware of it. Bring the two together and what you have with VR is a tool for technologically distributed awareness and empathy. Magic, in other words.

If you’re not convinced, look at ‘Clouds Over Sidra’: the virtual reality refugee camp experience created by Chris Milk in partnership with the UN. It was shown at Davos, where a room full of suits, decision-makers and even Nobel peace prize winners:

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Against a backdrop of people worried about global inequality, there’s very little empathy going from rich to poor and vice-versa. The rich have very few ways to relate to those not like them, while the rest of us find it hard to relate to the alienating effect that wealth can have on people. Put a unique virtual reality experience in front of people empowered to make a difference, get your request and messaging right and wait to see what happens.

There’s a lot that we can get out of VR. 

We’ve shown that you can elicit some very specific emotions and reactions. You can make it a worthwhile and pleasurable experience when you prepare people in the right way for what they’re about to go through.You can also find a way to get people to translate emotions into action after and integrate it into a wider story. In other words, we have a gold mine of creative opportunity on our hands.

We could argue about click through rates on banner ads and what ad blockers are doing to our industry, or we can think about clever ways in which VR/360 can touch more people — and in a very different way — than a traditional advertising process. We know which one we prefer.