Beyond the Virtual Hype: Making Virtual Reality Work for Brand Innovation

Beyond the Virtual Hype: Making Virtual Reality Work for Brand Innovation

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Brands need to invest in VR early so that they are not left out of the emerging narrative surrounding this technology.

From Facebook’s Oculus Rift to VR theme parks and WeChat’s plans to develop social VR experiences, the past few months have seen an abundance of virtual reality-related news turn a once humbly obscure gadget into one of the most hotly discussed tech issues today. A host of players are doubling down on VR to create new experiences in gaming, commerce, entertainment and many other fields. These developments are capturing brands’ attention, but as is often the case with emerging technologies, they raise more questions than they answer.

At MADJOR, we firmly believe in the potential of VR for brands and are working with many of our clients to help them navigate this uncharted territory. All too often, VR is seen as an end in itself; it is used as a gimmick to attract a bump in attention, with little strategic vision or ability to offer tangible customer value. Harnessing VR’s formidable potential requires the right approach. We believe brands need to invest early so that they are not left out of the emerging narrative surrounding this technology and the crucial usage behaviors being realized. In this article, we take a look at what we see as being some of the most promising applications for VR-based digital brand innovation, and lay out concrete pointers that will enable your brand to get started.

VR: What You Need to Know

Virtual reality (VR) as a concept itself is hardly new, with the 80s seeing the first virtual reality arcade games. VR can be broadly defined as the practice of allowing full 360 degree user immersion in an artificial environment that can either faithfully replicate a real-life physical place (e.g. a room or an outdoor setting) or be entirely virtual (e.g. a game or a website). The distinguishing feature of virtual as opposed to augmented reality (AR) is that the experience “transports” the user to a place that isn’t consistent with their surroundings. In contrast, augmented reality draws on various technologies to alter one’s experience of an actual visual space (for example, projecting dinosaurs on a real life street scene through one’s phone).

Despite early experimentation with VR, it’s only now that the hype is being stripped back to reveal real, practical usages that are entertaining and delighting users outside of the typical core of early adopters (mostly gamers). The steady adoption of e-book readers gives another example of how a promising new technology initially flopped due to a lack of content and other technical limitations that have now been overcome. With the cost of hardware dramatically dropping, computing power increasing, and content becoming more readily available, VR is growing beyond initial novelty applications towards the mainstream.

VR can be plotted on an axis that distinguishes what you might think of as “genres” or “intensities” of experience. At one extreme you have “strong” VR experiences, and at the other, you have “weak” VR experiences. Different experiences can be achieved by experimenting with three core variables: immersion, interaction, and information intensity. An example of a strong VR experience would be a flight simulator, and a weak VR experience would be something like playing this relaxing mobile app.


Powell, 2007

As of today, we can breakdown VR access devices across 3 tiers:
 

  • Independent headsets: at the top end of the spectrum we find VR headsets such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive. These headsets offer the most immersive, high-quality VR experience. They are often tethered to a computer or gaming console that provides much of the processing power and come with integrated sound and control systems (through handheld controllers, motion sensors and in some cases, omni-directional treadmills). They are most suited to highly sophisticated experiences such as gaming or advanced simulations. Early optimism as to VR’s economic impact has been tempered to acknowledge that as of today, these devices are still in the early stages of democratization, being held back by, amongst other factors, their prohibitive price. This limits them to an audience of hardcore gamers or high-end professionals (the Oculus Rift for example retails at 600 US dollars and requires an expensive gaming PC to function at capacity).


 

  • Phone-based VR headsets: the VR experiences most likely to gain mainstream traction in the near future will be those projected on phone-based VR headsets. Such setups consist of a headset inside of which the viewer places his or her phone. The phone is the primary device for VR access, with the headset acting simply as a viewing device.  The Samsung Gear is probably the most high-profile example in this category. 

These VR experiences leverage an existing, ubiquitous device (the smartphone), and as such, offer an attractive combination of price accessibility, comfort and quality. They also offer basic control functions that make them suitable for web navigation as well as passive content consumption.
 

  • Cardboard headsets: what started as a side project at Google has enabled millions of people to have their first VR experiences. Cardboard headsets are DIY, fold-out VR viewers that can be bought for as little as a couple of dollars. The user assembles the glasses, places their phone inside and holds the glasses against their eyes to view content. This low-tech solution obviously isn’t suited to long-form content consumption or interactive experiences, but is ideal for short-form content on a large scale. 

 

These different platforms offer different opportunities for brands at different price points and complexity levels.

The following examples illustrate the broad range of applications that have been enabled by these various VR devices; from gaming to advanced business applications to entertainment:
 

  • Quarterback training: along with many other NFL teams, the Dallas Cowboys use custom software uploaded to Oculus Rift headsets to train their quarterbacks.  Using VR, players can rehearse key game phases, relive important moments of past games and sharpen their observational and decision making skills. VR allows teams to offer more training time, in better, safer conditions that reduce the risk of injury.
  • VR augmented journalism: along with a few other media outlets, The New York Times has started distributing VR documentaries via its app. Subscribers receive a NYT-branded set of cardboard glasses they can use to view documentaries on their Android or Apple smartphones.
  • LeTV: Chinese video site LeTV has recently unveiled its own VR headset, priced at a competitive 23USD. Viewers connect their phones to the headset and can then browse LeTV’s library of VR content including films, TV shows, live concerts and sporting events.
  • VR theme parks: halfway between a gaming arcade and Disneyland, The Void is a virtual reality theme park that allows visitors to wander through magical universes and live VR adventures, from a zombie apocalypse to a space odyssey.
  • Marriott VR postcards: VR early adopter Marriott allows travellers to explore iconic locations such as Chile, Maui or Rwanda, through Samsung’s VR gear. The service - called “VR postcards” - is available in-room at selected properties.
  • Volvo VR test drives: through Volvo’s “XC90 experience” application, car enthusiasts can take a test drive of the Swedish brand’s latest SUV model. The experience uses a cardboard viewer that consumers can order or pick up in physical dealerships.

 

Where Does (or Doesn’t) VR’s Potential Lie?

Any technology is only as good as its applications. All too often, VR is seen as an end in itself and used with no clear strategic vision. Brands need to take a step back from the hype, and to carefully consider when and how VR can contribute most to forwarding their strategic goals, while creating better consumer experiences. Gimmicky applications may drive short-term excitement, but will only go so far. It is only when technology intersects with brand objectives and consumer needs that the magic truly happens.

Before diving into ideation, a good starting point would be to consider how your audience might enjoy a VR experience. Firstly, are they likely to acquire a device in the near future? Which type of device and under what circumstances? Then we can think about experience: What sorts of experiences cater to their needs? Do they enjoy intense experiences that create a sense of escape (floating through space), or lighter, more utility-based experiences (going to a virtual bank to carry out a transaction)? Do they seek isolation, or do they wish to join a virtual community (this is particularly important for gamers and brands looking to nurture their online communities in this emerging space). Take time to move the focus of your thinking away from the technology, and more towards people, and how their preexisting media consumption habits interface with these new devices. This is a crucial, often overlooked step.

Based on our experience and observations, we can identify several ubiquitous cases in which VR offers meaningful added value:
 

  • Presenting complex products: because of their complexity and high price tag, certain products or services can greatly benefit from the immersive quality of virtual reality. Take travel products for example, where being able to be truly transported on-location will no doubt greatly increase one’s propensity to book. From a more B2B perspective, complex pieces of industrial machinery can now be viewed in granular detail by prospective buyers, who can inspect and review every aspect from the comfort of their offices or boardrooms.
  • Simulating physical experiences: certain experiences are extremely hard to replicate online, be it because they require direct interaction with a human being, or because they call for customers to physically come to a given location. Many of these experiences can now be digitalized on a large scale through virtual reality. For instance, a prospective homebuyer can easily visit 10 homes in less than an hour without stepping outside.   
  • Offering better customer support: customer support is often one of the biggest pain points in customer journeys. Virtual reality opens up new opportunities to provide better, easier to use customer support tools. Instead of looking at a 2D furniture assembly guide, a confused customer can use virtual reality to look at the assembly process from all angles. Virtual reality live streaming can transport bank customers in front of their financial advisor, who can then conduct a conversation just like in a physical bank, all while displaying information about the customer’s account.
  • Presenting rich brand universes: many brands, especially in the luxury industry, have very rich extended identities and brand universes. Showing the full extent of this universe is often a challenge for them that can be solved through VR solutions. For example, fans of a French luxury brand can be instantly transported to its birthplace in the Parisian boulevards, and get exclusive virtual backstage access to its fashion show.
  • Creating new services: virtual reality’s applications go beyond marketing or support service innovation. Brands should fully embrace the potential of VR to serve as the basis for completely new services that open up new revenue streams. A football team could create VR season passes that allow fans from all over the world to get the full sensorial stadium experience (sound + audio) from wherever they are.

Brands must also consider the full spectrum of VR content. The need for more content to drive adoption in the short-term will most readily be met by repackaging and adapting pre-existing digital media including film, e-books and image galleries for VR consumption. Netflix, LeTV and others are pioneering this movement with their “virtual theatre” offerings.

Specific content formats you may expect to see include:

  • Short form video
  • Long form video
  • Animations
  • VR live streaming
  • Applications
  • Websites
  • Games 

Crafting a VR Roadmap: Long-Term Vision Versus Quick Wins

Having reviewed the current state of VR, you are now equipped to get thinking about applications. How can you most effectively put VR to use for your brand?

At Labbrand, we believe that a “tick the box” approach to VR will get you nowhere. It is critical to understand that VR isn’t the latest content fad. VR has the potential to re-define the way people access branded content, buy products, and experience services much like smartphones did in the mid-2000s. For many brands, VR will have key implications on their core business model and brand experience. This potential calls for a rigorous approach to assessing VR’s potential and delivering the right VR content and applications.

Steps for creating a VR roadmap:

Step 1: Reviewing existing brand assets

An easy first step is to review existing brand assets to identify which of them would be best suited to be transposed in a VR format. Brand assets can include catalogs, product specs sheets, websites, mobile applications, videos, photos and more. Brands should consider the purpose these assets serve, the way they are currently used and the cost and complexity of transposing them into a VR format to establish a clear classification based on “VR suitability”.

Step 2: Auditing the current customer journey

Like any other digital brand action, VR should be done with a consumer-centric mindset. It should bring real value to the customer journey and create a tangibly better brand experience. Consequently, finding the right uses for VR means knowing where the existing experience is sub-optimal and where VR can have the biggest positive impact. Brands should list customer journey pain points and assess for each of them whether or not VR would be a viable solution. This mental exercise will make it easier for brands to get out of the “VR as a marketing gimmick” mindset to truly unlock the technology’s full potential.

Step 3: Building an understanding of the technology

To effectively work with VR, brands must internally be clear about both the technology and the underlying principles that guide VR content production. VR indeed changes the rulebook on many actions and items, from shooting to UI and UX. VR video production and shooting must take into account the fact that the user is in control of where he looks. Century old tricks such as a simple zoom-in don’t necessarily work in a VR environment. Designing websites and applications for VR also means re-thinking traditional UI and UX practices. How do people scroll? Select? Click? How do you visualize a 360 degree e-commerce experience? 

Brands should coordinate with their existing networking of partners to gauge their capabilities of handling VR work, proactively looking for new partners if necessary. They should ensure that all relevant decision-makers have a good understanding of VR, organizing “show and tell” sessions to build understanding and get a conversation going.

4. Crafting a roadmap

Once brands have surveyed opportunities, they should get working to create a VR roadmap that should look at least 3 years into the future. In our view, the right VR roadmap combines 2 key components.
 

  • An ambitious vision: VR is a disruptive technology. Brands must not be afraid to look beyond existing technological limitations and must realize the inevitably rapid rate of customer adoption and technology advances. They must come up with bold scenarios that harness VR-enabled customer journeys: projecting their future experience in a VR environment.
  • Quick wins: having an ambitious vision still requires brands to start somewhere. They should identify a limited number of potential “VR quick wins” that can be executed in the first year, realizing value and acting as checkpoints along the way. These initial efforts need not be overly complex. They can leverage existing brand assets and be rolled out cheaply on a large scale through cardboard glasses.  They will allow brands to build a proof of concept and most importantly get familiar with this new format.

Conclusion

The best way to think of VR is by drawing an analogy with mobile in the mid 2000s: a new technology with huge potential but many question marks. In many ways the keys to success with VR will closely mirror those for mobile: focus on the applications instead of the technology, have a long term vision that looks beyond the hype, link it back to real life customer needs and craft a clear strategy that goes beyond isolated instances. Brands who manage to get the equation right will win on all fronts.