The ideas and tech behind Virtual Reality (VR) are extremely exciting. The potential to create fully immersive virtual environments where every detail can be designed or manipulated in ways beyond what is possible in reality sets my imagination on fire.
However, can brands produce VR content that transcends the novelty of the tech and remains relevant to their story? Technology should be a tool to tell the story, not the story itself. Before brands look into the world of VR, they need to ask themselves if there is a reason this medium will tell their story best.
I encountered a VR demo on the recent auto-show circuit. The experience involved virtual environments: a snowy mountain, a lakeside shoreline, a desert oasis, etc. There were certain elements you could interact with: you could throw a snowball, pick up a stone, and wave to a mountain lion. In each scene, the manufacturer’s vehicle was present in the background. However, once the experience was over, I struggled to make a connection to the brand. They are a car maker, not a VR company, and the content of the VR demo didn’t tell me more about their cars or their brand story.
Furthermore, the setup was cumbersome and bulky; as a result, so was the experience. I had to suit-up with a VR helmet, headphones, a hardware backpack, and a special pair of gloves so that my hands could be visible in each virtual environment. I also had to be chaperoned through the experience by a staff member because once the helmet was on I was blind to the actual world while interacting with the virtual one. This is far from the seamless integration experience consumers have come to expect from high technology.
The infrastructure needed to facilitate VR’s limitless possibilities ultimately become its hindrance. In order to create compelling user experiences, companies need to invest heavily in software, animation, and design when that may not be related to their primary business or their brand story. The other option is to make modifications to generic computer-generated environments, then try to shoehorn the elements into a relationship with the brand.
The very nature of VR is to fully immerse a person in a virtual environment while shutting them off from the actual one. This makes the experience inherently insular, which is great for relaxing at home or commuting to work but not when occupying a shared, communal space, which is what you encounter at mass-attended events.
I see VR as the playground of game developers who are well-versed in creating virtual worlds and telling stories within them; and I see brands inserting themselves into those stories. Product placement and brand messaging strategically inserted into a communal, game-based virtual universe is the effective way for brands to capitalize on this emerging technology while managing costs and avoiding the pitfalls of shifting into a space they don’t naturally occupy.
On the other hand, Augmented Reality (AR) is the related technology I am very excited about. AR is the integration of virtual images with real-life objects and environments. Pokémon Go was an international phenomenon and Google Maps recently made their API available to developers allowing any city or location on Earth to become the interactive setting for a brand’s story. Developing proprietary experiences that capitalize on these technologies is relatively simple compared to designing full VR environments and is several times more cost effective.
World renowned stage and set designer, Es Devlin worked with Treatment Studio to create a game-changing AR concert experience for U2 fans on their current world tour. Using the app packaged with the new album, fans can use their smartphones to view virtual images that are made to appear from the giant LED screen set in the center of the arena. The ingenuity is astounding. They’ve created a way to enhance and elevate the concert experience when people use their phones instead of distracting from it. In the process they have managed to bring the spectacle directly to the farthest seats in the house in some of the largest venues in the world.
Every festival, conference, proprietary event and venue should be building this functionality into their apps; in turn, the sponsoring brands should be capitalizing on it by building AR-enhanced design elements into their physical footprints. QR codes printed into the signage, video content, vehicle wraps, and even staff uniforms should trigger an entire additional dimension of user experience. Instead of begging consumers to share a photo with a hashtag, we should design experiences where their smartphone use becomes an integral way of unlocking the complete experience.
The development of virtual tools offers a proliferation of possibilities for brands to communicate with their audience. The first key is to recognize that what you are communicating is just as important has how you communicate it: the mediums of VR and AR wont elevate an uninspired idea just because it’s presented with a lot of computing power. The second key is to know that if you’re not enhancing the experience, you’re distracting from it: the tech is not the story.
The next time you’re at the auto show, you should be able to point your smartphone’s camera at a vehicle display and manipulate the colour of the car or see how it would look with custom rims; or maybe a virtual ambassador will appear and outline key features. The next time you’re at the movies, sporting event, music festival, or industry conference you should be able to point your phone’s camera at any screen, piece of signage or branded display and be able to interact with augmented reality elements that surprise and delight, and enhance your experience. No helmet required.