Want to try on a new outfit without the hassle of taking off your clothes and guessing at sizes and color combinations? Don’t like the current camera angle of the telecast you’re watching? Want to see the world around you as you chase a bad guy in your favorite video game?
No longer the stuff of science fiction, interactive virtual reality technology (VR) is being rolled out at this very moment. VR can be found in dressing-room mirrors at select Nieman Marcus locations and on the Web with Elle fashion shoots. Microsoft recently released HoloLens, a move that indicates holograms and other VR will only become more prevalent as software catches up to the new hardware. According to James McQuivey, vice president of Forrester, “Holograms are coming fast and are here to stay; ignore them at your distinct, proximate peril.”
What was once a gimmicky science experiment is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with. As new agencies and clients invest in virtual reality technology, its appeal becomes clear to competitors that are getting left behind by the early adopters. As software and hardware iterate and drive prices down, the barrier to entry is falling fast.
Consumers will acclimate to interactive products the same way they embraced smartphones. Computers now feel cold and distant compared to the Internet-at-your-fingertips technology smartphones and tablets provide. Soon, the same will be true of VR. Destination BC created a breathtaking tour through some of its iconic Vancouver-area tourist destinations that can be consumed via virtual reality. The camera angles, many of which were obtained by drones, go beyond what humans can traditionally experience, and they’ll make you want to visit Vancouver right now. Soaring through redwood forests, hovering above seals in the Pacific, and zooming through downtown streets from angles that make you feel like a superhero are hard to argue with. The device is immersive, and the venue for the virtual tour impressive. In short: It works.
Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Google shelved its consumer-facing Google Glass program to build something more in-line with the future of wearable VR. In the interim, the company is offering Google Cardboard, which helps you turn your current smartphone into a virtual reality–lite headset. And Microsoft’s brand new HoloLens takes virtual reality in a new and unprecedented direction—from extending the user into a new environment to extending the current environment’s capabilities to wow users. The holograms of Star Wars fame no longer seem that crazy.
As branding becomes increasingly experiential, ads must follow suit. Vancouver isn’t just a place—it’s an experience. Watching seals jump after fish and bears lumber through some of the largest trees on earth is teased in incredible new ways with virtual reality technology. But instead of making you think you’ve been there once you’ve seen it through goggles, a great virtual reality experience will make you think that the only thing to do is actually go there.
Virtual mirrors like the ones in select Nieman stores will become widespread, perhaps someday melding the in-store and online shopping experiences in ways that we can’t yet imagine. Whether the whimsical experience of trying on new clothes without ever touching them happens in-store or via virtual reality goggles at home, it results in the same emotional experience as standing in front of a dressing room mirror wearing a new outfit. Ultimately, that emotion sells clothes.
The sensory experience associated with products can sell them in a way no amount of clever ad campaigns or well-placed marketing materials ever could. Take Chili’s fajita, an entrée with a signature sizzling sound that was almost trademarked. Now think about walking into your favorite store: Even the most beautiful website can’t recreate the way products are organized, the smells, the ability to interact with things you might buy or wish you could buy. VR has the potential to make online shopping much more enveloping, and therefore a more emotional experience. Speaking of emotional experiences, there was this one time at Coachella when I saw Tupac play with Snoop and Dre—in 2012.
How brands harness this potential to offer more realistic experiences will define their success in coming years. Trying on new outfits or visiting new places is inherently fun and positive, but consumers have limited resources and are prudent about how they spend them. Offering enticing free experiences is a way to advertise without simply placing an ad somewhere and hoping the right people see it and act upon it. If I could briefly experience a bike ride in Italy, Switzerland, and France before booking a flight and making all the arrangements, perhaps I could decide which famous European cycling destination I want to visit most. If only I could turn that virtual into a reality.
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