News & Views

Opinion / Why Virtual Reality is Turning Heads

by Emily Hare

The prospect of jumping on a new technology and quickly putting it to use is an exciting prospect for savvy marketers. However, in the case of virtual reality, the technology isn't so much new as evolved. Flashbacks to eighties arcades and even earlier mean that creative minds have long been mulling over the possibilities of VR, just waiting for the tech to be sophisticated enough to execute ideas. Now we're approaching a perfect storm of virtual reality. The technology is sophisticated enough to pull off impressive and immersive vistas using sound, movement and touch as well as vision to create a multi-sensory experience.

Competition amongst headset providers has also been hotting up. The Facebook-owned Oculus Rift headset is towards the top end of the market, with the consumer version of its headset available to order at the end of the year. At the other end of the scale is Google Cardboard – an entry level version that the user fits together and then slots their phone in to. Costing between $5 and $10, the low price barrier means that many brands have the option to create great content that can be accessed by a number of people. Other players include Samsung and Oculus' collaboration, Samsung Gear, Sony PlayStation's Project Morpheus and Valve-backed HTC Vive. 

The choice of what headset to develop for, and the resulting costs of the project, vary depending on the desired experience. Volvo took a utilitarian approach: Volvo Reality is a virtual reality test drive built for Google Cardboard, aimed to get people behind the wheel of its XC90 without visiting a dealership. The immersive experience showcases the Volvo XC90’s features by literally helping shoppers picture themselves in the driver’s seat. The experience, which featured multiple episodes with different locations and weather conditions, was developed by R/GA in New York, with footage and VR created by Framestore.  

Outdoor brand North Face used Oculus to provide an extreme sports experience inside its Manhattan and San Francisco stores. Customers could climb a virtual cliff face in Yosemite National Park or go cliff jumping in the Moab desert. Here the brand is using the experience as a way of luring customers into its retail stores, giving them an immersive sense of the thrill of outdoor activities that tie back closely to its products. North Face partnered with VR tech startup Jaunt on the project, and filmed it with professional climbers Cedar Wright and Sam Elias, to ensure that the content was as authentic as possible.

The charity sector is also using VR to convey much-needed emotion, transporting people into a totally different situation and sparking empathy in users. Clouds Over Sidra is a virtual reality experience that takes viewers inside the Za’atari camp in Jordan, home to 84,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war. Shot for the United Nations by director Chris Milk via production company VRSE, viewers are introduced to 12-year-old Syrian refugee, Sidra, who escorts them through the camp and invites participants into her makeshift school classroom. The interactive film was used as part of the UN’s advocacy mission at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Attendees, including state and business leaders, were provided with Samsung Gear VR headsets to gain an insight into a totally different world.

Amnesty International is also using the emotional power of VR to generate a similar response on the streets of London. The human rights charity is arming fundraisers with headsets in a bid to increase the number of direct debit donations. Participants are transported to the war-torn city of Aleppo in Syria, thanks to low-cost VR headsets and refurbished smartphones and 365 degree pictures taken by a group of Syrian citizen journalists. 

Virtual reality has the power to enhance marketers' key tools of storytelling and emotion. In return, the brand who is able to get someone to put on a headset and engage with their content has the chance to engage a viewer who is giving them one hundred percent of their attention – pretty much unheard of. As these examples show, beyond pure entertainment, VR has the potential to be used in a wide range of other sectors  from a virtual product demo driving footfall in a retail environment.

Now we have to justify the length of time that the tech has been in our peripheral vision and do justice to it by creating compelling content that people want to devote their exclusive time and attention to. If we can do that, the rewards should be anything but virtual.