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12 Lessons From The VR Frontier


From Google Cardboard to the Oculus Rift, virtual reality is actual reality for a growing number of consumers.

Travel companies can now give vacation planners a preview of their final destination. Soda companies can create virtual sleigh rides and auto races, making memories for their customers that are indelibly linked with their drink of choice. And, of course, media companies can immerse audiences in stories like never before.

Since virtual reality is still an emerging technology, the brands that embrace it are paving the way for future marketers and creators. We asked an experimental marketer, an industry analyst and representatives from major media companies to report their findings from the VR frontier.

1. VR Could Be Your Brand's Most Powerful Medium

Forging real connections through virtual reality is increasingly vital in an era of advertising saturation. Dylan Mortensen points to the rise of ad-blocking technology as evidence that brands need better ways to reach consumers. VR could help forge deeper connections between consumers and brands.

Users who see an ad by a brand they’ve engaged with, he says, can “bring back all those emotional responses because they’re physically inside of this brand now. It’s not them just strictly looking through the TV glass. They’re able to interact with this brand and really get involved with it."

In fact, VR can even forge deeper connections between humans and sharks. Nathan Brown says Discovery’s Shark Week VR experiences “broke down some of the mysteries and misconceptions about sharks. Virtual reality has a great proclivity for creating empathy, which we were able to use to educate audiences and drive awareness in support of conservation efforts.”

From a marketing perspective, Adam Simon points out another of VR’s major advantages: focused and measurable user attention. “If somebody is looking at your thing, they’re definitely looking at your thing.” he says. “They’re not looking at their phone, or in the kitchen getting a beer or something. One of the benefits of VR is that it’s literally stuck on their face.”

2. But There Are Big Risks to Getting It Wrong

While VR’s ability to create intense memories offers unprecedented opportunities to connect emotionally with viewers, bugs and glitches can create an exceptionally bad experience. Unfocused images or slow-moving images could cause discomfort, powerfully linking a brand with a bad memory.

“Instead of creating that happiness, you’re creating nausea and misery,” says Mortensen, “and that’s how the person’s going to remember that brand.”

Regular TV commercials or YouTube pre-roll ads typically don’t give users motion sickness. VR, however, increases that risk.

3. Creating VR Stories Requires a Unique Perspective

“VR is a weird industry,” says Simon, “because the people who are making it tend to either come from games or from film, and they have very different viewpoints and priorities based on which industry they come from.”

Filmmakers, for example, are used to having near-total control over where the audience is looking. But in VR, a user could look anywhere. Videogame makers, says Simon, may have a better intuitive feel for guiding a user’s attention in this context.

In fact, VR is still developing a shared visual language for how to communicate. Simon points to early movies, which simply used a camera, fixed on a stage.

“It took a couple of decades for us to develop the language of film that we have right now,” he says. “We’re at that early stage in VR. We’re still sort of figuring out what tricks we can invent and create and standardize in order to solve some of these problems.”

4. Awareness is Still Slow

Despite the buzz that VR gets at shows like CES, VR is far from ubiquitous. Matthews points to a Futuresource study which claimed at the end of 2015 that only eight percent of consumers had tried VR. Hulu’s Ben Smith sees a niche as well. “VR is currently only appealing to the tech early adopters,” he says, “and it will be a challenge for it to cross over into mainstream common usage.”

5. Virtual Reality Can Bridge Television with Other Devices

Brown says that Discovery “filmed the 2nd act of Isle of Jaws in VR/360 and promoted on-air that it was available to view on the Shark Week Facebook page. It has more than 750,000 views – a huge success and something that will inspire more cross-platform VR programming.”

6. VR is Expensive – Be Sure You Want to Do It

“It’s important for marketers to realize that they shouldn’t just be doing VR for the sake of VR,” says Mortensen. After all VR is expensive to produce. Brands need to know if it makes sense for their audience. Brown takes a similar view. “Just because you can shoot something in VR does not mean you should,” he says.

Simon sees a future of turnkey VR solutions for brands that don’t want to spend resources building their own custom content. Sports, for instance, could offer VR ad placements similar to those on television. At that point, he says, “it opens the door to pretty much every brand to at least giving it a try.” One thing that brands should try before VR, says Simon, is 360 video for larger audiences on Facebook and YouTube. That way, brands can “learn a lot of things about the kinds of content that works and the content that doesn’t work and what your consumers are interested in experiencing.”

7. Some 2D Content Can Work Inside VR

Hulu’s Smith says Hulu 2D VR content is doing better than expected. “A big surprise was the amount of long-form movie content that people consume inside of the Hulu 2D experience,” he says. “After further analysis, this made a lot of sense. For many people, virtual reality will be the biggest and the brightest and the best screen in their house, but the device ergonomics are not conducive for long-form viewing right now.”

Smith notes that despite VR’s possibilities, consumers don’t always want to engage with their content so actively.

“When a viewer turns on Hulu, they have signaled that they want to lean back and be entertained,” he says. “It’s passive. When a viewer turns on a game console, they have signaled they want to lean forward and participate. VR can more readily blend these two forms of entertainment.”

8. Look For Stories That Need to Be in VR

While 2D content can work in VR, creators looking to produce new VR content may want to focus on stories best served by the medium. As Brown notes, “there’s a lot that a 2D video just can’t showcase as well as an immersive virtual reality experience and it’s these very experiences that we seek out.” “Creating virtual reality experiences for Shark Week was a nobrainer: VR allows us to place viewers in the middle of the action where they would never dare go otherwise and what’s more heartpounding than swimming underwater with sharks?”

9. VR Can Be Physically Taxing

Hulu’s Smith points out that VR isn’t just in your face – it’s on your face. And after a while, that can take a toll in ways that people who’ve only tried it briefly might not expect. He says, “the devices are designed to be technical showcases more than habitual experiences. People enjoy virtual reality regardless of the device when they’re experiencing a two-minute piece of content, but four hours of straight TV viewing might be difficult because today’s devices are heavy and uncomfortable. Storytellers have to take device ergonomics into consideration. It’s critical for the ergonomics and storytelling to match.”

10. Creators Can't Make Assumptions About the User's Gear

“Since the platforms are so new,” says Simon, “we like to design content that works on as many of them as possible, and that means that you cannot assume anything.” For example, storytellers may want to use directional audio to draw a user’s focus. But Simon notes that depending on gear, some users might not necessarily be wearing headphones or even have their audio turned on. Simon notes that brands that offer VR at specific events avoid some of these challenges. “You can guarantee the environment and the hardware that they’re using.”

11. VR Can Be Mentally Draining

By focusing a consumer on a single intense experience, VR can exact a mental cost.

“I don’t actually know if you had courtside seats in a streamed basketball game if you would actually want to watch the whole thing in VR,” says Simon. “It might be too exhausting, not from a physical perspective but more from an emotional perspective of being that intense.” This makes sense if you think about the way people watch games in the real world. Fans typically don’t give their entire focus to every minute of a game they attend – they also take breaks to check their phones, talk to friends, or buy some food. In real life, says Simon, “there is something that lets you disconnect from whatever experience you’re having that can be seen as a benefit sometimes.”

Similarly, battlefield games may be less appealing if they simulate the experience of war too realistically.

“We know you can’t just take Call of Duty and put it in VR,” says Simon. “When it’s moving that fast, you actually can’t keep up with it and the intensity of just being shot at continuously for more than twenty minutes or so is just exhausting.”

12. Embrace Your Mistakes and Learn From Them

“If we’re not failing,” says Discovery’s Brown, “we’re not trying hard enough.” Discovery launched VR content in August 2015, and Brown says his team have learned a lot not just from their own experience, but also from audience feedback. Of course, the learning never really stops. Brown describes it as “an ongoing cycle: as new innovations emerge, we’ll have to determine how we can best leverage them.”

James Kotecki

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