The concept of virtual reality (VR) first entered the public consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, but the technology fell far short of the expectations.
Even basic VR is technically challenging because of the detailed way we perceive the world. For example, each eye needs to be shown a slightly different angle on the same view. The graphical environment needs to react incredibly quickly to head movements, because even small delays can cause disorientation and “VR sickness”.
The technology has now reached the stage where VR can drop the user into a believable and emotionally resonant world. And what’s more, the technology is within reach of ordinary businesses and marketers.
There are three main types of simulated reality:
“Virtual reality” is the full immersive experience. VR replicates or creates a complete environment and enables the user to interact with that world. It’s usually facilitated by head-mounted displays, like the Oculus Rift or Google’s Cardboard.
In contrast, “augmented reality” (AR) overlays simulated elements over a real-world environment. Because the user is still in contact with the real world, the hardware doesn’t need to be so comprehensive: Google Glass, Microsoft’s HoloLens or even just a mobile phone can be used to access an augmented reality.
The third category is less well known. “Mixed reality” (MR) imagines a partially-simulated environment where the real and simulated elements can interact with one another. MR has vast potential but is the most technologically challenging, and a workable system is still some way off.
Taking virtual reality into the real world
Simulated environments have been the stuff of science fiction for decades, and perhaps that’s why it found its first adopters in gaming. Although commercially not a success, Google Glass reframed augmented reality as something with practical uses, and demonstrated how useful it could be as part of our everyday lives.
Large portions of our days are already spent online, whether it’s social media, work, shopping or just chatting. With our phones on us 24/7, it was only a matter of time before more seamless ways of integration were developed. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift in 2014 confirmed VR was destined for a more mainstream future.
Medical schools already use VR technology to make their training more “hands on” without the associated risks. Automotive and construction companies use VR in product design. Virtual spaces could be used for interviews, counselling, or collaboration between remote teams. Meanwhile, the applications for marketing are starting to be explored.
Virtual experiential marketing
Experiential marketing is the idea that the experience of a product or its brand is more important than the details of product specifications. This applies to things like pop-up shops, site-specific games, flashmobs, and even product testers. The difficulty with experiential marketing is that your customers have to physically be on location to be part of the experience.
Using VR, customers are able to drop themselves into an environment for an immersive and interactive feel wherever they are physically. For example, Volvo has used VR to enable drivers to take a high-end SUV for a virtual test drive along a beautiful country road, while London Fashion Week offered users a front-row view of the runway. Not only did this enable them to see the show, they were able to experience being a part of the exclusive clique who normally occupy that space.
Try before you buy, virtually
Augmented reality is far less immersive than the true VR experience, but that does not make it less powerful.
By mixing the virtual and real worlds, customers can interact with products in physical environments that are relevant to them. They can redesign their homes and offices, try out makeup or put together an outfit, without the hassle these things normally entail.
It’s also a convenient way to provide additional content. By scanning bar codes or packaging, customers can access detailed nutritional information, user guides or reviews. By accessing GPS data, AR can provide information about a user’s location, but in a more responsive and fun way than Google Maps.
AR doesn’t have to be serious, though. Snapchat allows companies to create custom filters which consumers can add to their photos to show their love for a brand, or just for fun. “The Peanuts Movie”, Gatorade and Starbucks have all taken advantage of this option.
What marketers need to know about augmented reality
In terms of technical setup, the entry cost for augmented reality is temptingly low. However marketers should consider carefully before launching an AR app project.
Studies have shown that if an AR experience is just a one-off, people are likely to be more interested in the technology itself than the brand behind it. For it to really improve customer opinion and to build an emotional resonance, the app has to provide benefits over repeated use. Support and development for the app over the long term is vital.
Marketers interested in jumping into augmented reality should think about their customers’ pain points, the way they shop and research, and the contexts in which they might use the app. Like any other form of content, it has to add genuine value in order to make an impact.