Jumping the Virtual Shark

Nov 15, 2016

Every agency prides themselves on being on the cutting edge of creativity, innovation, and technology, and the hot topic as of late has been virtual reality. To have a fully immersive experience that tells your brand’s story and connects with your audience in a new, exciting, and interactive way sure is tempting, no? The medium shows promise, but because it is so new it’s hard to truly measure the impact and effectiveness a branded virtual reality experience or ad has.

Many tech experts have predicted virtual reality to be a multi-billion dollar industry by 2020, but right now the amount of people who actually have access to virtual reality is unknown. Some estimates put the number under 3 million globally, most of which are likely people developing content for virtual reality. So the question has to be asked: did we as an industry get ahead of ourselves developing all these virtual reality ads? Yes, it has the ephemeral ‘cool’ factor right now. Yes, it attracts clients and sure, it turns a lot of industry heads, but is it truly the most effective way to tell your story? The cost to produce a virtual reality ad, plus the means to get it seen by your audience, seems higher than almost any other medium except primetime television but there is no proof that the results stack up. Is creating a virtual reality ad truly worth it for both you and your client?

There are a lot of ifs and buts and unknowns surrounding virtual reality advertising, so lets look at what we do know. Most of, if not all of, your target audience probably do not have a way to view virtual reality in their own homes. The obvious (and usual) workaround here is to make the virtual reality ad a part of an installation. A large portion of people experience discomfort or disorientation (headaches, nausea, and the like) when using virtual reality headsets. So now you’re asking your customer to come to you so you can give them a very expensive headache. There is no point of purchase or consumer journey with a virtual reality ad. They put a headset on, they experience what you’ve created for them, and they leave. There is no issue with providing entertainment, but it might be foolish to do so under the guise of selling them something. On top of these surface level issues, we should also address the oversaturation of virtual reality creative solutions in the industry. Seemingly as soon as people were receiving their first headsets, creatives wanted to start putting 360° video ads in them. Quickly, it seemed every major agency was touting a “virtual reality experience” which more often than not seemed like a retrofitted spot converted for virtual reality.

I am hopeful though, for how we can find amazing and creative uses for virtual reality in the future. As the adoption rate for the technology continues to grow and become more mainstream, we will eventually find more innovative and creative ways to deliver content. However until that point, there is no logical reason to sink so much time, money, and effort trying to out-do one another with similar content that has unverifiable results. Virtual reality will still be cool as it continues to get better, but it is still in its infancy. Instead, I suggest creatives look to the technology that is available now, ready to go and awaiting the types of ideas and budgets our industry can provide.

Augmented reality, altering, overlaying, or adding to live video, is already in place, and most Americans have a fully capable device to use it right in their pocket. The most common use of augmented reality, arguably, is Snapchat’s filters. While they seem toy-ish, their use of facial and special tracking is unparalleled. Many took the wide spread success of the low level augmented reality in Pokémon GO! as a sign that the world was ready for virtual reality instead of pursuing the still vastly under-realized potential of augmented reality. With augmented reality, your audience doesn’t need to buy any new gear, they don’t need to go anywhere, they can simply download an app or visit a website on their phone. Not only is it more accessible, but you also have a more defined target, and the results are completely measurable. If you’re idea does hinge on a virtual reality-esque experience, there are still options. Some companies like the New York Times or The Guardian used Google Cardboard, a cheap, customizable, direct mail piece that the recipient can combine with their phone, no tools required. Who would’ve thought the most laudable technology this year would have been a direct mail piece of cardboard?

Perhaps, if you are looking to make an innovative, emotional connection to your audience, don’t look into the distant sci-fi future. Look closer to now, work with producers, developers, and studios that have a firmer grasp on the possibilities of current technology instead of banking on the latest and greatest virtual reality headset to be your ticket to a first-of-its-kind execution. The kind of work that actually connects with your audience is going to be accessed on the technology they are already using, with a device they already have. As the development and adoption of virtual reality continues, we will see it in more and more homes, that will be the time that we can truly make use of it’s potential, instead of using it as a gimmick to gather buzz about our work.

TL;DR – The world is not ready for your brilliant VR ad yet, but we should keep experimenting with AR and more commonly accessible technologies.

Written by Mitch Goldstein
(image via flickr)