What The Growth Of Virtual Reality Will Mean For Brands

As the personal computer boomed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a small faction of sci-fi geeks and gamers tried to bring the endless potential of virtual reality (VR) to life. But the technology was too rudimentary; by the mid 1990s, most in the industry had closed up shop. At its core, VR is the ultimate manifestation of the collision between our physical and digital worlds.

But the digital technology must be advanced enough that it is able to trick the human mind — a pretty intelligent computer that can detect the slightest delta from how we perceive our physical world and cause the entire digital reality to fall apart.

We’ve all used primitive VR at arcades or hokey “interactive” tourist traps. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a different world, it makes you feel nauseous. The imagined VR in the 1992 horror film Lawnmower Man hardly foreshadowed a future where the tech can induce an altered state of reality born from an incredibly designed digital experience. It still just felt like a gimmick, exciting more for its imagined sci-fi potential than its execution.

But everything has changed. Sparked by a progression in technology, VR is now poised to become a mainstream platform that completely reinvents how we work, play, share and collaborate. In 2016, headsets from the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the HTC Vive will all hit the market and give consumers access to experiences that once only existed in the Matrix and the cyberpunk stories of Philip K. Dick.

According to a report from market research and consulting firm Tractica, consumer spending on VR hardware and software could reach $21.8 billion by the year 2020.

We are at the dawn of the age of VR. Strap on your headset, it’s going to be a wild ride.

What VR Is — And What It Isn’t

For those not as tech-savvy (that is, you didn’t spend your childhood in the dark watching sci-fi movies and coding), let’s establish precisely what virtual reality is.

Virtual reality is immersive multimedia that digitally simulates physical presence in real or imagined worlds, and lets the user interact with that world. Artificial sensory experiences enhance the immersion.

Although it has made great strides, VR is still a technology in its infancy.

It’s important that a distinction is made between VR and augmented reality (AR). AR is a technology that enables digital interfaces to be overlaid into the physical world. The physical environment is enhanced by digital, but you are still very much present in the physical. VR immerses you into a completely computer-created experience that artificially replaces your physical surroundings.

The Google Glass, renamed Project Aura according the The Wall Street Journal, is an example of augmented reality tech. The headset uses digital displays and functions to enhance the physical, but it doesn’t immerse you in an artificial digital world.

Entertainment. Value. Utility.

A big mantra often repeated at Digital Surgeons is, “experiences build relationships, and relationships build brands.”

As marketers, we strive to create memorable brand experiences that leave lasting impressions. Virtual reality is an invaluable tool for creating a deeper connection between consumers, influencers and brands than ever thought possible. There is a seemingly endless number of use cases for everything from product demos to sponsored invite-only experiences.

It’s pretty cool to watch someone skydive from space, but the Red Bull campaign of tomorrow will allow the consumer to break the speed of sound as they plummet 24 miles back to earth in the safety of a VR headset and noise-cancelling headphones.

Or maybe it will simply allow a shopper to stand in the camping tent they are about to buy off Amazon and feel firsthand if it’s roomy enough for their family before they end up in the woods at night doing a bit more bonding than they bargained for.

From the practical to the extreme, VR can and will revolutionize brand/consumer interaction.

Everyone Has The Best Seat In The House

Today’s consumer is under a near constant barrage of visual and auditory stimuli across every device and medium; we can no longer rely on a passive audience to see an advertisement and take action. Therefore, today’s marketer must create experiences that cut through the noise of the media landscape and deliver brand impressions that are impossible to ignore.

We used to say seeing is believing. Now we have to say experiencing is believing. Shuhei Yoshida, head of Sony Worldwide

With VR, you can give every consumer the best seat in the house.

Want to promote that an NFL team is now wearing your sports apparel on the field? How about placing the consumer on the field next to their favorite quarterback on a critical third down and short? Let them feel the crowd grow silent, let them stare down the whites of the middle linebacker’s eyes as his tense body waits for the snap so he can explode with 260 pounds of power. Let them see it’s your brand on the front of the quarterback’s jersey as he deftly avoids the oncoming pass rush and throws a perfect spiral for the first down.

Fashion brands can place shoppers at the end of the runway as this season’s styles stride toward them. Fender could put the consumer against the stage watching their favorite guitar player solo on their signature-brand guitar in front of a festival crowd of a 100,000 people.

VR empowers us to create experiences our consumers could only previously dream of.

The Social Network

The first time Mark Zuckerberg used an Oculus Rift VR headset, he knew he was ”seeing the next great technology platform that’s going to redefine the way we connect with each other in the future.”

Shortly thereafter, in March of 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus rift for $2 billion. With its ability to completely change how we share our lives, Zuckerberg believes VR fits squarely with Facebook’s goal to make the world a more connected place.

Five or 10 years ago, we mostly used text to share our experiences. Today, we share visually with photos and videos. Tomorrow, with VR, we’ll be able to share by placing others squarely in our experiences. This will enable deeper human empathy and meet a human need above all else, the need for meaningful connections with others.

The Future Of Storytelling

It’s no surprise, given the storytelling capabilities of the medium, that Netflix and Hulu are among the big companies to become early adopters of VR.

Netflix worked with Oculus to develop a just-announced app that allows wearers of the Samsung Gear VR headset to step into the Netflix Living Room and watch movies and tv shows in virtual reality.

Hulu took it a step farther and, in addition to allowing users to stream 2D content virtually, they will also be creating original content for a number of VR platforms. An upcoming VR short film, The Big One, was created from a partnership between traditional studio Lionsgate, digital studio Rocket Jump and the VR startup WEVR. In the short film, users experience a meteor shower that turns into an apocalyptic nightmare. “The end is near, and Hulu VR viewers will have a front seat,” says Hulu in a release.

Enabling A New Ecosystem Of Creators

Although it has made great strides, VR is still a technology in its infancy. As it grows, developers and experience designers will be empowered to join an entirely new empowered ecosystem of creators.

Software designers will create integrated development environments. Hardware engineers will design the devices that enable tomorrow’s filmmakers to create the stories that push the emerging medium to its boundaries. VR development agencies and content studios will vie to build the best digital worlds.

At its core, VR is the ultimate manifestation of the collision between our physical and digital worlds.

One of the most exciting things about emerging technology is the minute it becomes open source and entire communities of technologists are able to “mod” and “hack” the technology to best suit their needs. With a VR experience, the ability to tailor a digital experience to precisely what the user wants or needs will be incredibly powerful.

Now that the 6s has a 4K video recording, it isn’t hard to imagine a future when we carry 360° cameras that can capture everything around us to build virtual experiences.

VR Will Enable The Future Of Remote Work

Less obvious, but just as powerful, are the implications for VR in our own professional and academic lives.

Imagine being able to whiteboard and collaborate with coworkers from across the world in a shared virtual meeting space, making long flights and days of jet lag an extinct relic in the business world.

With more and more college classes already taking place online, is the classroom of the future truly virtual?

VR is far from the geek-only gimmick medium it started as. It’s growing at a rapid pace, and it is time to get on board with the tech and entertainment giants deepening their investments in the incredible platform.