The music artist Laurie Anderson once said that virtual reality (VR) would never be true to life until developers “put some dirt” in it. She’d probably find the level of grit in the New York Times’ new VR venture encouraging. The newspaper’s VR app, which drops viewers right into news events around the world, includes an immersive VR film about children uprooted by war, and another documenting the vigils in Paris in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
The app launch, which saw the newspaper distributing more than 1m Google Cardboard headsets, has been part of the move VR is making towards the mass market.
The launch of the Samsung VR Gear headset in the US for just $99 (£65) and the proliferation of cheap cardboard versions, is helping VR to go mainstream. Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Playstation VR and HTC’s Vivewill go on sale at the beginning of next year. Mattel has even updated its classic View-Master toy as a virtual reality headset.
VR developers are also working to ensure the technology no longer comes with the side effect of motion sickness which has hindered its appeal so far. Estimates predict there will be more than 12m VR headset sales by the end of 2016. By 2020, the VR industry will have shipped 30m headsets globally, according to Juniper Research.
The anticipated surge has thrown the medium into sharp relief for marketers, with many busy pencilling VR into their 2016 budgets. General Electric (GE), one of the early adopters, has been experimenting with VR for a year, and launched a VR animated video on the New York Times app. GE’s global chief marketing officer Linda Boff, believes VR has the potential to revolutionise marketing. “For the brand and user the intimacy of VR is really dramatic,” she says. “It’s a tool to tell a powerful story in a way that’s much more personal and up close than we’d normally be able to.”
The capacity for VR, combined with 360-degree video, to put the viewer at the centre of an experience such as transporting them to a holiday resort, music gig or sporting event, opens up new territory for brands. Hiking boot brand Merrell launched a VR ad this year which allowed viewers to feel as though they’re walking over a rickety bridge in the mountains. Meanwhile, Nike got fans to virtually step into the boots of Brazilian soccer star Neymar with its immersive content.
In future, haptic technology will allow VR to impact the body as well as the mind. Anthony Batt, co-founder of virtual reality firm Wevr, says: “You can see brands creating room-scale simulations where consumers will interact with branded content. For example, Airbnb could create sims for real rental properties so users could experience what it would feel like to stay there.”
However, advertisers need to tread carefully. Because of its immersive nature, consumers will be much less forgiving of a bad VR ad than they would of a poorly made TV commercial. “Watching badly conceived VR can make you feel sick for the rest of the day,” says Patrick Milling Smith, co-founder of Vrse.works, the VR company behind Apple’s recent VR music video for U2. Milling Smith is keen to stress that VR does not operate like any other medium. “VR is as different to film as film is to radio … It’s a different storytelling language,” he says. “There needs to be restraint in VR. You can’t just slap a logo on a piece of branding.”
As well as gaming, entertainment and marketing, brands have adopted the medium for more utilitarian purposes. Ford is using VR to aid product development via its Immersion Lab; Toyota incorporated VR into its TeenDrive365 campaign to educate teenagers about the dangers of distracted driving; and Samsung plans to help people conquer phobias, such as public speaking or heights, with its upcoming technology.
Marketing is fast becoming a test bed for the advances that can be made through VR technology. GE’s Linda Boff urges her fellow marketers to dive in. “You have to start experimenting,” she says. “Marketing may be a proving ground, but if we can take this tech and make it a business application, that’s huge.”