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Virtual reality has been a sci-fi dream for decades, but recent technological advances have lifted it off the launchpad more quickly than many tech experts thought possible. Analysts expect the technology to blossom by 2018 into a US$1-billion market.
VR puts users in the middle of awesome experiences, from ascending (and falling to your death from the top of) The Wall in Game of Thrones to flying through the skies of Azeroth in Warcraft or experiencing Sept. 11 from inside the World Trade Center.
Every marketer dreams of connecting customers so intimately to events and experiences, allowing brands to move beyond clunky pop-ups toward contextual product placement in lifelike environments. Although the market is still relatively small, more than 5 million Google Cardboard viewers have shipped globally, making it a bigger step along the VR path than Google Glass.
VR is still in its infancy, to be sure, but brand marketers are already using it to delight and awe consumers:
1. The New York Times
The New York Times recently mailed Cardboard sets to its 1.1-million print subscribers and announced its free VR mobile app, which it will use to distribute immersive, documentary-style news stories to viewers around the globe.
Through the Times’ app, consumers can experience everything from crime scene and vigil recreations to educational content about war-torn areas and even up-close-and-personal encounters with presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The past few decades have been rocky for the newspaper industry, but the Times’ innovations in areas like VR have earned it more subscribers than ever before.
2. The North Face
Specializing in outdoor gear, The North Face doesn’t seem like the type of company to pioneer VR experiences, but the company generated a lot of buzz with the SXSW debut of its The North Face VR experience for Google Cardboard.
The company’s first attempt at a VR experience enables users to virtually scale a cliff at Yosemite National Park, an adventure many wouldn’t dare to try on their own. By bringing to VR the action-cam style popularized on YouTube, The North Face has successfully positioned itself as a cutting-edge outdoor brand, and other outdoor companies like Mammut have debuted similar VR experiences.
Redesigning a kitchen can be a pain. Predicting which cabinet finish will go with which countertop is tough enough, and visualizing the completed project is practically impossible. At least, it was until Lowe’s introduced its Holoroom 3D showroom at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Built using Marxent’s VisualCommerce 3D virtual reality design studio, the Holoroom is preloaded with all the company’s offerings and allows users to step into a virtual room and design it from the ground up. Through a virtual environment, customers can experience exactly how Lowe’s home improvement products would coordinate within their homes, helping Lowe’s to attract more customers.
While most companies experimenting with VR have engineered their products for consumer-owned devices, Marriott is providing the equipment to ensure a premium experience. Hotel guests using the company’s virtual reality teleporter can don an Oculus headset and explore the world’s wonders right from their rooms.
Not only has Marriott afforded customers the opportunity to use a headset currently unavailable to the consumer market, but it has also added a fourth dimension to the experience with sensations of mist and warm air for exotic locations. This innovative use of VR has attracted the attention of the tech and travel industries as well as consumers using social media via the #GetTeleported hashtag.
Bridging the gap between immersive VR and traditional screens, Volvo Reality built a compelling episodic narrative compatible with both for would-be Volvo drivers.
Although optimised for Google Cardboard, the spherical video is also viewable through traditional channels for consumers who may not have experienced VR, leading to the campaign topping 230-million impressions.
By creating content that works well in both mediums, Volvo is maximizing its viewership and setting a standard for brands developing VR content.
What’s Next for VR Marketing?
Although Google Cardboard is cheap, creating content for the platform isn’t. Each of the experiences above, some of them just minutes long, required months of production and heavy investment by marketing and development teams.
VR is a new medium, and our thinking on it is still pretty primitive, similar to the infancy of mobile phone marketplaces. Still, expect by 2020 to start seeing live events (especially sporting events like the NBA Finals and Super Bowl), Hollywood movies, and even college courses offered in VR.
Consumers have reacted well to virtual reality so far, but marketers who wish to create VR content will need to retool how they build brand experiences: Open-world sandbox environments are much different from on-rails storyboards that must be followed linearly. Immersive VR experiences literally put users into brands’ worlds, so creating vibrant, intriguing atmospheres will soon be just as important as delivering a brand narrative.
So, for instance, instead of showing people performing extreme stunts on a mountaintop and telling them Mountain Dew is responsible, the beverage brand will need to put customers in the driver’s seat. Instead of watching professionals perform stunts, consumers will perform those stunts in a virtual world and receive a crave-worthy reward upon completion of the course.
Whether brands are ready or not, digital marketing’s future lies with virtual reality. Hundreds of companies, studios, and development companies are hard at work producing VR content for the estimated 50-million users expected by 2018. There’s no better time to jump onboard than right now — because you might already be late to the table.