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According to a recent industry report by Greenlight VR, there will be two million VR headsets in circulation by the end of this year, and 36.9 million by the end of 2020.
A sudden—even explosive—increase in the use of VR is coming. Brands are interested, with many pushing to get their own VR technology on the faces of consumers. Facebook is working on their Oculus Rift, HTC on the Vive, Sony on PlayStation VR, and Samsung on the mobile-based Gear VR—and there’s even a chance you’ve already tried Google Cardboard.
Other brands have begun creating VR experiences of their own. McDonald’s made headlines after including cardboard VR headsets with Happy Meals, and debuted an interactive VR game on the HTC Vive headset at this year’s SXSW. Marriott has been experimenting with transporting their customers to their properties worldwide through virtual reality. The North Face lets their customers experience the thrill of rock climbing and BASE jumping in Yosemite and Moab without leaving their stores. Patron, Gatorade, the NFL, and Volvo have all crafted virtual stories of their own.
The allure for brands is clear: users aren’t just passively consuming a message, they’re participating in an experience the brand has fashioned. But does VR build stronger connections—does it have the potential to change our relationships to one another?
I sat down with Colin White, David Hong, and Anthony Bonamassa, who are heading up Interbrand’s VR initiative. The idea for this initiative was born out of several conversations Colin and David had around how to leverage their unique skill sets to create a new service offering for Interbrand.
Colin is responsible for the tech side, and David for the creative oversight, with Anthony providing testing, feedback, and support. Each of the team’s members has grown up watching technology change the way we communicate and tell stories, from home computers to video game consoles to smartphones. They see VR as the next frontier for technological innovation and are putting together strategies for crafting relevant, intuitive experiences for Interbrand’s clients. I was able to get their insight into this evolving media—and learn how brands are best-positioned to get involved.
Why should brands start working with VR in the first place?
Colin: The VR experience, where you’re truly placed in someone else’s shoes, is a totally new form of communication—the first of its kind in human history.
The generation who has grown up totally immersed in the internet and smartphones will be at a decision-making age when VR hits its prime. That’s when things will really start to change, and that’s the generational market you really want to get the attention of.
However, with so much uncertainty about how best to use VR, the prospect of creating your own virtual content can feel daunting. What should brands focus on?
David: One of Interbrand’s design principles is “It’s all story.” Immersion is not limited to just technology. At the heart of it, the concept and story are what’s driving that immersive experience.
Telling a good story is like digging for gold. Once you’ve found that gold, you can refine it, shape it, and set it in the technological framework of VR to enhance its inherent beauty and value. But you can’t do any of that until you’ve found it.
If you’re relying on the technology as a crutch to tell that story, then you’re in a bad place.
Many marketers already know how important it is to find the story—and telling a story is always engaging—but how can that virtual story fit into the brand experience at large?
Anthony: VR itself is an experience. That’s what brands are working on now, but this takes it to a new level.
Beyond storytelling and towards experiences that are applicable to people’s daily lives and occupations—that’s where many brands are going to need to explore.
For example, Stanford’s athletic department is using a software called STRIVR that simulates athletes in actual game time situations, to avoid injury and understand how plays form in real time. Rather than watching a film, they can feel like they’re in the moment.
The NFL has been experimenting with the technology as well, not just for providing 360° virtual training or entertainment, but for educating players on harassment and diversity issues.
David: How a customer experiences a brand is now becoming synonymous with how they perceive the brand. And perception is ultimately what drives today’s market.
Colin: You need an overarching strategy for how your story gets played across all your touchpoints, and VR will be one of those. How can you tie it in so it doesn’t feel segmented? How does it meet your goals as a brand and the message you’re trying to tell there?
You’ll want someone on your team who understands that, which is why we’re getting into VR early—to experiment with it. We see a future here, for us and for our clients.
When you begin to think of VR as more than a gimmick or a new way to repurpose old media, but as a unique type of experience in its own right, you can start to see the array of applications brands could explore, and why it’s such a rising interest.
VR is Silicon Valley’s hardware version of a killer app, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every storytelling situation. For example, we experience the narrative language of film (and animation) through editing and cinematography. This visual language, paired with a compelling narrative, is what keeps an audience engaged.
According to David, the rules of VR are different. Instead of cuts, we experience the narrative through a series of slower “moments” that fade in and out, like a dream. This is closer to the seamless reality we experience in our waking life. If our real lives played out like traditional film or animation—a series of fast cuts and perspective changes—we’d get motion sick and disoriented (as in early VR attempts). It is important for brands to first consider their story, then ask which of these visual languages would work best for telling it.
Yet the diversity of some of the more creative applications—from editorial reportage in the NY Times Magazine’s partnership with Vrse “Walking New York” , to animated entertainment in Oculus Story Studio’s “Henry”—really open up the possibilities of the medium.
There is an inherent power in putting users at the center of the action, in letting them experience what’s happening on their own terms. It leads to more engagement, even empathy. It puts experiences that are out of reach to 99.9% of the population—from luxury hotels to war zones—in the hands of the majority, or at least a fast-growing minority.
While we may not yet know how we’ll each use VR as its popularity grows, there is already tremendous potential. Any brands that want to provide novel, gripping, emotional experiences to their customers should be looking to harness it.