Virtual reality: Cutting-edge VR tech is going mainstream | M&M Global

Virtual reality: Cutting-edge VR tech is going mainstream

Brands as diverse as Thomas Cook and Pepsi are trialling VR, signalling the technology’s broadening potential, explains Matt Chapman.

VR Gear

Virtual reality (VR) is by no means a new concept, and the rudimentary technology has existed for years, but it is now on the cusp of hitting the mainstream.

Arnold Schwarzenegger aficionados will be familiar with the idea of VR vacations from the classic 1990s movie Total Recall. What was science fiction 25 years ago is reality today.

Holiday operator Thomas Cook now allows potential customers to sample their resorts when sitting at home and in-store using the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR technologies respectively.

The in-store trial, which is being run in the UK, Germany and Belgium, is no PR stunt either, and is showing early signs of being a commercial success. “We are not just doing this as a cool thing to do and a bit of PR,” says Thomas Cook head of digital operations Graham Cook. “It is part of a wider omnichannel strategy and a range of digital assets.”

Cook claims VR has already helped the company increase conversions when it comes to people buying holiday packages and is also leading to more upgrades. “People have seen the VR video and said ‘Oh my goodness, that is what the sea view looks like’, and they pay the extra for the upgrade because you have brought it to life,” he explains.

“The tipping point is when there is enough challenging or engaging content out there for people to start to share it.”

While such technology may seem a natural fit for a brand like Thomas Cook, VR specialists argue it is suitable for almost any brand.

Ben Fender, who as chief executive at Drive Productions is working with brands to create VR content, believes the medium can be suitable for any organisation from pharmaceutical companies to toilet-roll manufacturers.

Drive is working with a brand in the latter category, using the tech to map out the best in-store displays for toilet roll. He believes pharmaceutical companies can use it for “discovering what happens in the human body with emerging drugs”.

Next year

VR headsets including Oculus Rift, the PlayStation VR and Microsoft HoloLens are all scheduled for launch next year.

Until now, the use of virtual reality has largely been limited to experiential activity, but the headsets arriving in people’s homes are set to change this.

“VR going mainstream is about 12 or 18 months off ,” predicts Fender. “The tipping point is when there is enough challenging or engaging content out there for people to start to share it.”

The forerunner of VR was augmented reality (AR), which has to date seen some successful applications, but largely failed to take the marketing world by storm. One of the most famous instances of an AR campaign was a Pepsi Max bus stop in London that tried to shock commuters by showing them UFOs or tigers on the loose (see below).

“Real success for AR campaigns will come from them being much more intuitive rather than needing special apps to use them,” says Carat global head of media futures Dan Calladine. “With the Pepsi bus stop, you did not have to do anything yourself.”

Calladine believes Google Cardboard will help raise awareness of virtual-reality-style experiences because it is a piece of “smart lateral thinking” – it uses a cardboard viewer to turn a smartphone into a VR headset.

Pepsi bus

Wide appeal

Awareness is set to sky-rocket, particularly in the US, because The New York Times revealed it will ship Google Cardboard to the 1.1 million people who have the newspaper delivered to their homes.

It appears VR appeals to all demographics, according to usage feedback from the Thomas Cook trial. “The age range of people spans from the kids in the family aged 13 to the over-60s,” says Cook. “We’ve had singles, couples and families use it – it is also a very even split between male and female users.”

Such wide uptake bodes well for VR. Dave Ranyard, who as director of London Studios at Sony has been developing content for the PlayStation VR, believes the technology’s significance could turn out to be monumental.

Ranyard argues that people’s reaction to first experiencing the current generation of VR technology has similarities to the advent of the World Wide Web.

“It is a step change,” he says. “We’ve been involved with VR for three years now and early on it was, ‘Is this really a thing?’, and it has just got more groundswell and I feel more and more confident.”

However, Ranyard is careful not to be too laissez-faire when predicting the pace of VR adoption. “For films to go from silent movies to talking actually took 10 years because they had to fi t sound systems in all the cinemas,” he explains.

He believes there will inevitably be “teething problems” with the technology, while Fender adds there are also obstacles to be overcome around rendering non-CGI video.

The market is already reasonably fragmented, meaning it is hard for brands to know where to invest their time and eff ort.

Fender claims Facebook-owned Oculus Rift could be the platform that truly drives the VR revolution because its technology is also being used in the headsets of brands such as Samsung.

Ranyard, meanwhile, argues Sony is a “strong contender” because it has created an ecosystem that involves the most powerful console on the market with a larger user base and a “great camera”.

VR stats

Advertising opportunities

Beyond creating brand experiences, the other advertising opportunities of VR are quite staggering. Facebook has debuted virtual-reality-style video ads for Mondelez, AT&T, Nestlé and Samsung, while YouTube has also introduced 360-degree video capability onto its platform.

Fender believes the introduction of advertising into Second Life-style virtual worlds is an idea that has not yet been explored enough.

“I still think there is the opportunity for buying and selling media space within virtual environments,” says Fender. “If that virtual world has an opportunity for delivery of media and messaging then it becomes another place where advertisers can spend their budgets.”

Calladine is slightly sceptical about the prospect of selling ads in a virtual world, pointing to the high hopes for in-game advertising, which “did not really come to pass”.

But he also argues there is a trend of unforeseen commercial uses emerging from technologies that become really popular. “Instagram is being used differently from how people thought it would,” says Calladine. “People are using it to sell things as a different version of eBay or Craigslist.”

Emotional power

The emotions engendered by the VR experience could make it a gold mine for those brands seeking to strike a chord.

“In VR it is actually you, when you are standing on the edge of a virtual cliff your subconscious is telling you that you are going to die,” says Ranyard. “That emotional reaction is an enormous tool to anyone creating content.”

Ranyard argues the beauty of VR is that it has “levelled the playing field” for content creators because it is such uncharted waters. Anyone with an original idea can make a splash with relatively limited production costs.

“It is like when punk came along in music. There were really established huge acts and then suddenly anyone could pick up a guitar and put a gig on,” explains Ranyard. “There is a bit of that spirit around virtual reality.”

IM16 coverBrands that channel their inner punk will be well-placed to outmanoeuvre rivals when the VR revolution arrives in earnest.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply