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A few months ago, I drove a scooter through a cartoon market whilst being chased by a giant eagle. I raced through the streets and burst through various vibrant shopping stalls, occasionally looking over my shoulder to check whether the ginormous purple bird was gaining on me.
Before you ask, no, I wasn’t high, and nor was I dreaming. Instead I was testing out the Oculus Rift headset at BrightonSEO, courtesy of a fantastic creative agency by the name of Exploring Senses.
The Rift is just one of many virtual reality headsets that are further enabling content creators to provide users with fully immersive experiences, utilising VR technology to take people from passive viewers to active participants.
Whether you think the idea is revolutionary or kind of pointless, VR is here to stay, and now that the technology has come on leaps and bounds from the days of Lawnmower man and the Virtual Boy, brands are starting to notice. More and more businesses are standing up and taking an interest in how their campaigns can benefit from delivering more immersive experiences.
But before we talk more about how this tech is being used, let’s take a closer look at the hardware behind it.
There are now a high number of VR headsets readily available to purchase. They’re becoming so popular, in fact, that in the time it takes between me writing the post and you reading it, at least ten more newer headsets would have popped up. However, let’s take a look at the names leading the industry.
When you think of VR hardware, the first name that springs to many people’s minds is Oculus Rift. What started off as a prototype built in a garage in 2009 has gone on to become one of the leaders of the VR hardware market.
Founded in 2012, Oculus VR started out by gaining traction on KickStarter. Their revolutionary headset, used with either an XBox controller or the currently in-development touch handsets, gained so many positive responses that the company was snapped up by Facebook in 2014 for two billion dollars.
Whilst originally only available to developers and those who funded the Kickstarter campaign, the Rift is now available to consumers, selling for just shy of $600; although you’ll have to wait a while if you want to get your hands on one, as at the time of writing they’re not expected to ship until at least August.
Powered by Oculus, the Samsung Gear VR pairs with Samsung Galaxy smartphones to provide HD VR experiences. Unlike the other headsets on this list (bar the Google Cardboard, which we’ll come to later), instead of immersing you in a virtual world directly through the headset, the Gear VR acts as a conduit, enabling users to connect their phones to the goggles and experience VR up close and personal through various apps.
When two huge names in the tech industry combine their efforts in an attempt to break into the VR market, you can be pretty sure that the results are going to be interesting. The Vive, from mobile manufacturer HTC and PC video game developers Valve, is an award-winning piece of VR hardware that utilises a headset, motion tracking stations and wireless controllers to give users the 360 degree VR experience.
Of course, as you might expect, all of this swag does not come cheap. Currently the Vive is available at a special offer price of £759, with a couple of games thrown in for good measure.
Sony’s entry into the VR industry is another piece of new-generation VR hardware that’s dedicated to taking gaming to the next level.
Their lightweight headset pairs with the PS4 console, bringing players closer to their games than ever before by virtually inserting them right in the middle.
It’s due for release towards the end of this year, and is available to pre-order for just under £350 now.
If the high price tag of the premium VR headsets doesn’t quite appeal to your taste (or your budget), Google has a simpler, wallet-friendly alternative. The Google Cardboard is a DIY headset that pairs with your phone to deliver a semi-immersive virtual reality experience. When I say DIY I literally mean you make it yourself, in that it requires users to slot together several pieces of cardboard, creating makeshift goggles that contain a space for your mobile. Then all you have to do is download a VR app, or open up YouTube 360, and you’re away.
Although this may not sound as glamorous as the other hardware, or half as engaging, the simplicity of Google Cardboard (and the ridiculously low cost), offers a fun and accessible way for brands and casual users to get a taste of the VR experience without shelling out top-dollar.
There are of course many other brands that create VR-ready hardware, but the above are a few of the biggest names in the running. Now we’ve seen the hardware, let’s take a look at what it can actually do.
Below I’ve collected a list of eight of the best VR experiences currently available to showcase the various capabilities and advantages of VR. Whilst reading the list, think about how your brand could use this technology and how these experiences could inspire your campaigns.
Painting isn’t exactly a new thing. In fact, it’s the oldest method of expressing imagery that I can think of. So when I tell you that Google have reinvented painting, that is not a statement that I type lightly.
Labelled Tilt Brush, this technology allows users to create gorgeous images in a three-dimensional space around themselves. Available on the HTC Vive, the user’s hands become digital paintbrushes with the aid of the two motion controllers, allowing people to realise their images like never before. It really is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed, so see it for yourselves in the video below:
Seriously awesome, right? Think about how brands could use this kind of experience to showcase their products. Imagine using VR to take yourself inside the latest release of a program like Photoshop, painting and editing with your hands instead of a mouse; or watching your child’s toys come to life around them as they move around in a virtual space.
Volvo aren’t the first vehicle brand to use VR, and they most certainly won’t be the last. The opportunity to virtually put potential customers behind the wheel of the latest and greatest automobile is just too good a chance for any company to pass up.
In Volvo’s case, they allowed users to test drive the Volvo XC90 around a serene landscape from the comfort of their sofa by offering a 360-degree driving experience with Google Cardboard.
This is a fantastic example of understanding what your audience want, and bringing it directly to them in the easiest possible way.
Download the Volvo Reality app to try a test drive on your phone, or watch the teaser for yourself below:
How great would it be if you could bring the Ikea experience directly to your living room? Imagine having unlimited access to all that flat-pack furniture without even having to leave the house!
Ikea thought the same thing, and decided to use the HTC Vive to deliver a free-to-play experience where users can explore and interact with their own Ikea kitchen in a virtual space. People can open and close draws, recycle vegetable peelings, and even change the counter top finishes.
Whilst this may not sound all that exciting, believe me when I say that these kinds of experiences represent the future of architecture, DIY and decorating related content. Imagine being able to plan out and see your entire virtual house right in front of your very eyes.
The great guys at Luminous Group recently allowed me to play with a demo of this very nature, placing me in a stylish house where I could walk around, interact with the furniture and choose the table and wall finishes just by clicking a button. Whilst previously this would have been a relatively passive experience, VR allowed them to immerse me in the content, making me feel like I was actually there and turning me into an active user. The potential this holds for brands is extraordinary.
Most of you have probably never heard of Iceland-based developers Sólfar Studios, but pretty soon they’re going to be one of the biggest names in the VR industry, with the launch of their latest virtual experience – Everest VR.
Having painstakingly recreated the killer mountain range using photo-realistic graphics powered by Unreal Engine 4 and Nvidia VR Works, Everest looks to be the most vertigo-inducing VR app yet.
This taps into one of VR’s most prominent selling points: being able to accomplish outlandish, improbable and amazing feats, all from the comfort of your sofa. I for one am certain that I’ll never scale Everest (the hill to work is quite enough, thank you), but Sólfar Studios are saving me the hard work by bringing the mountain directly to me.
Initial reviews are extremely positive, and I’d love to see this trend continue with other geological landmarks.
How do you convince people to keep visiting travel agents in a world where almost everyone books holidays online?
Taking them on the trip of their dreams from the comfort of your store will probably do the trick.
Thomas Cook have integrated VR into their marketing mix in a number of different ways, but their Try Before You Fly was the best use of VR by far, allowing customers to explore the Pyramids in Egypt, or take a helicopter tour of Manhattan using Samsung Gear VR headsets in key stores.
The campaign was a huge success, with the company seeing a 180% increase in selling NY excursions after people tried the VR experiences. Don’t feel left out – try it for yourself by downloading the Holiday 360 Android app here.
Some key takeaways, suggested by Kudzai Manungo, Product Manager at Thomas Cook, include:
Showcasing how VR can be integrated across all different kinds of industries, Visyon and Alzheimer’s Research UK teamed up to create the Walk Through Dementia experience, three separate videos that allowed users to experience the troubling effects of dementia first-hand.
I was given the chance to experience these videos with a VR headset recently, and being immersed in that situation made it incredibly powerful. The impact of the message was multiplied by the fact that I felt like I was living it.
This is a great showcase of how VR can inspire emotions and encourage action. In the same way that car brands can use it to showcase the luxurious feel of driving one of their vehicles, charities can utilise the technology to put people in the shoes of those they’re trying to help so that people empathise with their plight. That’s the wonder of VR.
American retailer Target jumped on the burgeoning VR and 360 video bandwagon late last year with this ghoulishly good Halloween marketing effort.
‘The House on Hallow Hill’ involved viewers using their phones to explore a spooky old house, taking advantage of YouTube’s 360 video capabilities to put their users directly in the middle of each room. Whilst there, users are encouraged to look around for a pesky raven that’s been causing trouble.
What’s really great about this project is that Target used YouTube cards to make each room shoppable, turning a fun interactive game into an immersive shopping experience.
Head on over to the first video to start your journey, or alternatively, you can jump right in to the dining hall scene in the video below:
When it comes to discussing the popularisation of new technology, it’s impossible not to mention pornography. Just look at the adoption of VHS over Betamax, and of Blu-ray over HD DVDs, and you’ll see a clear trend. Whilst the debate rages on about whether it hinders or benefits technology in the long run, porn is undoubtably the (phallic-shaped) key to unlocking VR’s success in the mainstream.
The brand leading the virtual charge? That’d be Pornhub.
They see VR as the next logical step in the world of adult entertainment, and are seeking to offer users an entirely new experience in the form of virtual reality porn (Video SFW… sort of):
Pornhub are going in deep and hard with this, and after partnering with a top adult VR entertainment brand, they launched the first ever free VR porn video page to grace our interwebs earlier this month (no, I am not linking to it). Their videos will work with almost all VR headsets, even Google Cardboard, making them more accessible than half the other VR content out there already.
And, just in case their audience didn’t have a headset to hand (or a hand free to buy one), the brand even gave away 10,000 free headsets to celebrate the launch!
This is truly one of the most accessible VR experiences I’ve seen across the web. Some VR apps only work on certain platforms, or need certain tools to work; but Pornhub, who by the way are fantastic at understanding their customer base, have created a deeply immersive and – more importantly – readily available virtual reality experience for all (or at least anyone over the age of 18) to enjoy.
Now you’ve seen what’s out there, let’s take a look at how you can apply these experiences to your brand, and decide whether or not you’re the right fit for VR.
Before you even begin considering using VR, you first need to understand why you want to use it. Make sure it fits your marketing goals. It can help deliver your brand story, but the medium is new and exciting – don’t just shoehorn it into your branding for the sake of it. Hang back, research what others are doing, and then see what you can do with it.
You’ve got to ask yourself, what do your customers actually want? Is a practically inescapable environment that’s focussed around your brand really the right fit for your demographic?
If that doesn’t sound like something they’d enjoy, it’s probably not worth investing in virtual reality quite yet.
It’s easy to embrace new technology, but will you end up wasting budget and even diluting the brand message by doing so?
VR can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including sales (expect V-commerce to be a rising trend in the near future), but if you just shove users into a world surrounded by your products, chances are they’re not going to enjoy themselves, or your brand, for very long.
As with all good marketing, the best way to make an impact is through storytelling – something that virtual reality is very good at assisting and enhancing.
Ask yourself, what is the focus going to be? Ultimately, you’ve got a story to tell, but which specific areas do you feel could be well served by VR?
You need to deliver a relevant story whilst creating a unique experience. For as many great virtual experiences there are out there, they’ll be endless terrible ones, so ensure you know what your focus will be before you experiment with VR.
One of the most frustrating things about VR is that it’s very difficult to get across how mesmerising it actually is, which can make selling it to your clients tricky.
Couple that with the fact that there’s currently no real way to measure the effectiveness of the tech itself, and suddenly selling it into your campaigns can start to seem like a difficult task.
But that should not stop you from trying. Explore how you can use VR to add to your existing or upcoming campaigns. Think about how it could allow you to do more with your content.
It’s important to remember that a VR experience shouldn’t just be a one-off. You need to plan how your virtual content will integrate into your overall marketing campaign.
Make VR a part of your regular marketing platforms. Don’t just have one piece of content; embed it into your marketing strategy. Tie it into specific events that relate to your brand. Think about how you can bring the experience directly to your audience.
From placing users into the depths of the rainforest to allowing them to remodel their bathroom, the potential that VR offers your brand, if used well, is endless. Just remember that cutting edge or not, a poor experience is still a poor experience, and you shouldn’t create VR experiences for VR’s sake. As Daragh Anglim, Head of Digital at Failte Ireland said, when it comes to VR, “Novelty won’t replace quality”.
It’s still a relatively new platform, so you should approach a VR project strategically, trial different campaigns and learn from them, but be prepared to invest time and money to begin with.
— Virtual Reality (@VRTechNews) June 30, 2016
And even if you don’t have the budget or time to produce a captivating piece of virtual content, let’s just be glad that the technology has evolved past things like this:
Have a favourite VR game or experience that I’ve left off the list? Seen the next big thing and want to tell me all about it?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or tweet me @hr_gardiner and keep the conversation about VR going.
Samantha Noble is well known within in the search industry, she even won the UK Search Personality 2016 at the UK Search Awards in November. This year, she continues to make an impact on the industry by judging not only one, but three, prestigious industry awards.