Storytelling

What Virtual Reality Can and Can’t Do for Your Brand

In October of 2016, I attended the Future of Storytelling Festival, a gathering of innovative storytelling formats, most of which dealt with virtual reality and augmented reality. I was performing as part of a pop-up Shakespeare exhibition that put on scenes from Romeo and Juliet in the midst of the crowd every few hours, which meant I had plenty of time to play with the other installations. It was a theatre-nerd-turned-tech-geek’s dream weekend.

What makes virtual and augmented reality so effective for storytelling is how they put multiple senses in the middle of the action. During the three-day festival, I experienced famous peoples’ deaths, played Picasso and altered famous works of art, and—my personal favorite—strapped on wings and flew over the coast of New Zealand.

Customer experience has been a huge concern for marketers lately. Brands are hoping that VR fosters a unique, entertaining, and unforgettable experience. But while it seems like there’s an endless wealth of content possibilities, that’s not always the case. Here’s a closer look at what VR can and can’t do for your brand.

What Virtual Reality Can Do

1. Sample a product

Augmented reality lets consumers sample products without going to the store and dealing with the hassle that is brick-and-mortar shopping. IKEA’s Place app allows customers to see how furniture looks in their house before they commit to that new settee, and Sephora’s iOS app lets users simulate how makeup will look on their face before they officially brush on the blush. (Think Snapchat filters but with actual products.)

IKEA augmented reality

Smartphones currently make up up 41 percent of online purchases. AR sampling is already a viable way to attract business, but as digital shopping continues to thrive, that sort of testing is only going to become more important.

2. Transport Audiences

Suppose I’m taking a break from the reality of my NYC snow day to check out a tropical island via VR, and I find myself suddenly inspired to book a vacation. As someone who once impulsively bought a flight to Italy because I was drinking a glass of nice Chianti, I am the prime candidate for VR-fueled travel planning.

Marriott’s Teleporter wants to help make this a reality by sending VR users to the top of London’s Tower 42 or a black sand beach on Maui, letting people escape their lives for a moment and realize how nice it would feel to actually book that vacation. Qantas has a similar VR program that lets travelers experience Australia virtually before the book the flight, and British Airways has a VR Madrid campaign.

Instead of using AR to superimpose new products into your life, VR travel tours make audiences feel like they’re somewhere entirely different for a while.

3. Turn Ads 360 Degrees

Facebook has housed 360-degree video since 2015, but the format is new to Snapchat and may be a solution to some of its previous advertising concerns. Brands can publish 360-degree VR videos through Snapchat’s Discover channel, and since they’re not native ads, viewers can only see them by swiping up.

Earlier this year, Universal Pictures published a 360-degree ad for the release of “Fifty Shades Darker” and saw twice the engagement over other swipe-up CTAs. The ad took the masquerade ball scene, apparently a fan favorite, and let viewers feel like they were part of the spectacle with the ability to glance around at the whole spread. Characters, including Christian Grey himself, address the viewer, making the experience feel that much more interactive.

What Virtual Reality Can’t Do

1. Compensate for The Wrong Format

Despite the hype and excitement of virtual reality, simply sticking a 360-degree feature on a video won’t make it good. To properly capture 360-degree video, creators need specific, expensive cameras designed for filming multiple angles. When publishers attempt to stitch fixed-frame videos together to make them 360-degree, it often results in headaches and motion sickness.

“The 3D world behaves differently from the 2D world,” said Dr. Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Georgia who researches how virtual environments influence user attitudes and behavior. “You can’t take 2D knowledge and apply it to 3D.”

Unless marketers are willing to commit the time and resources into scaling their 360-degree video operation, it’s not worth the risk of butchering regular videos.

“A big problem with [branded] VR experiences is that users don’t always connect the experience with a brand,” Dr. Ahn added. “Advertisers don’t know how to take advantages of available VR features. A true branded VR experience would let the user interact with the brand’s product in an alternate reality.”

2. Overcome Technological Hassles

For now, most branded AR opportunities require additional app downloads. App Annie tells us that the average consumer only uses nine apps per day, and a recent study by eMarketer found that 92 percent of respondents deleted apps if they showed technological issues. For VR and AR to reach their full potential, consumers would need to own a VR headset.

While Google shipped more than ten million Cardboard headsets worldwide last year, the hardware question still limits what brands can realistically do with VR and AR knowing that most users will be relying on mobile. “Right now, VR comes with a lot of heavy, clunky cables,” Dr. Ahn said. Headsets are becoming cheaper, but they’re not regarded as a necessary piece of technology just yet.

3. Combat Isolation

Amit Singh, Google VP of business and ops for VR, told Marketing Week that Google attributed the disappointing sales of the Occulus head to the isolation that comes with virtual reality. One person may not want to make the commitment to buying a headset if their spouse, partner, or friends aren’t onboard. Comparatively, AR games like Pokemon Go are often geared towards community involvement.

Unfortunately, VR and AR are not full of the promised endless possibilities just yet. Ethical issues also contribute to VR’s trickiness. “Imagine that I’m a brand, and I can build a VR avatar that looks just like you to try to sell you something,” Dr. Ahn said. “It’s hard to say no to yourself.” Brands will have to decide how best to traverse the ethically murky waters of VR persuasion.

Though we’re not living in the VR and AR heyday just yet, Dr. Ahn thinks mainstream VR will arrive in the next decade. “Think of it like the evolution of cell phones,” she said. When that happens, brands will be more prepared to explore the nuances of VR advertising. But until then, unless they have a team of 3D videographers, virtual reality may be too tall of an order for 2018.

Image by Migs Govea
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