“Is 2016 the year of VR?” This is the question on everybody’s lips at the first ever VRUK Festival. Frustratingly, the answer isn’t anywhere near as simple as “yes” or “no.” 2016 is the year that a number of headsets will hit the mainstream marketplace, and when that happens, the previously inward-facing VR industry will finally find out what consumers like about their products — and more importantly, what they don’t like. But the “year of VR”, aka the year of widespread adoption, might well be 2017 or 2018.
How do you monetize the unknown?
The VR industry is expected to be worth £100 billion by 2020, with £500 million invested last year alone. Brands are going to become a part of this space, that’s just a fact, although that isn’t to say we have to start bracing ourselves for interruptive advertising. “You have to give users something of value if they’re going to go to your product,” says Marisol Grandon, Head of Creative Content at DFID, during VRUK’s panel on the role of brands in VR storytelling.
“VR itself is so broad, it’s like saying TV,” says Sol Rogers, Founder and CEO of Rewind. He sees it as more of a scale, with linear 360 video at one end, and interactive, immersive experiences at the other. And people working within different sectors will find that they might not be quite ready for full-on immersion, but that 360 works for them. “These are all stepping stones,” adds Grandon.
Rogers envisions a whole range of possible ways to bring brands together with this new technology. Product placement within VR would be a fairly simple way to begin, he reasons, although there are other, more creative ways to capitalise on the immersive side of the experience. For example, while nobody buys singles any more, Rogers thinks it is more likely that music lovers will be open to paying for experiences which feel unique, such as a “private” performance by their favourite artist, where it feels as if they are in the same room.
As the currently amorphous idea of what constitutes a “VR experience” becomes more solidified in the public consciousness, the brands that are open to adventurous, unconventional means of marketing will be the ones who get ahead. Rogers cites Red Bull as a prime example; the energy drink brand has carved out a niche in all things extreme, offering unforgettable experiences. This model, he predicts, might be the way forward for other brands hoping to capitalise on VR. “No brand wants to do the same thing twice, which is great from a VR perspective,” says Visualise CEO Henry Stuart.
New technology, same old traps
Daniel Harvey is Experience Design Director at Sapient Nitro. His background is in QA, and he confesses that his first instinct when trying a new piece of technology is to try to break it. He notes that while we are exploring new frontiers with VR, we are still coming up against age-old unconscious biases such as sexism and ableism. The motion sickness associated with VR headsets, for example, is more likely to affect women, as VR headsets are primarily designed to suggest distance via motion parallax, a method prioritised by men, as opposed to shape from shading, which is largely favoured by women.
Left to Right: Dave Birss (writer/director), Sam Gage (VR designer), Marcy Boyle (filmmaker), Daniel Harvey (Sapient Nitro)
Harvey recalls a common niggle with Google Glass, namely that it was impossible to wear if you wore prescription glasses; many early VR headsets suffered from the same issue, and so a trade-off has been required of viewers. Similarly, audio cues to direct the viewer’s attention would be ineffective if the user were deaf. And other serious conditions have yet to be factored into design; while VR has the potential to open up the world to somebody living with muscular dystrophy, it is of no use whatsoever if the viewer is unable to move their head.
Then there is the “badvertising” that has been prevalent in every form of new media since the birth of cinema a century ago. Harvey argues that each new storytelling medium has relied on the language of its predecessors; early films followed the rules established by theatre, and it wasn’t until ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903 that new techniques were introduced. Even after that, argues Harvey, it was decades until film reached its full potential as a medium for storytelling, with ‘Citizen Kane’. Advertising is no different, he says; web and mobile have largely followed the tropes laid down years ago by TV and print, and VR runs the same risk.
“New media require new grammar, new metaphors, before they can become an art form,” says Harvey. “I don’t think we’ve had our Citizen Kane moment.” Brandwidth’s Head of Innovation, Dean Johnson, agrees: “We live in a world of iterations,” he says. “We owe the world some new dreams.”