Were you to ask people on the street if they knew what Nintendo was, you would likely get some variation of “yes” from everyone. From the most tech-averse grandparents to screen addicted twelve-year-olds, the company’s pervasive digital marketing strategy and success in electronic entertainment have made them a staple in households around the world.
But back in 1995, the do-no-wrong giant took a chance on the first commercially available virtual reality rig called the “Virtual Boy.” Between a rushed production, headache-inducing display, and monochromatic presentation, what was hyped as the future of gaming technology turned out to be a huge failure that was canceled within its first year.
For many technophiles and disappointed children (myself very much included) this seemed like a nail-in-the-coffin for 3D reality. The technology simply wasn’t there, and the future would have to wait for some far more distant time. The dreams of science fiction would have to remain fiction.
Just over two decades later, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are rekindling every Neuromancer-inspired daydream that the 90s had set in motion but failed to fulfill. While the rigs are currently prohibitively expensive for most consumers (around $500 to $800, not including a computer powerful enough to support it) and primarily geared toward gaming audiences for now, a number of huge brands have already begun to express interest in the new tech—not the least of which being Facebook, which acquired Oculus back in 2014 for 2 billion dollars.
There seems to be a demonstrative shift toward VR tech taking hold of the digital world right now, and while it may take a few years to truly become common at home, the effect it’s having on marketing is already present.
So what trends should marketers consider, and what opportunities do these futuristic headsets promise for the future?
There are two key elements that make VR so much more immersive than anything else available today (short of reality, of course). The first—and most obvious—is the “blinding” nature of the headsets, which makes it so the user can literally only see and experience what’s being piped directly to the screens in front of their eyes. The second, however, is that VR relies heavily on motion-based input: Users can look around freely, move within a defined space of a room, and interact with their virtual environment by “touching” things with handheld wands. In this, a fundamental shift has occurred in the digital space that has never been possible before.
For some marketers, this presents a pretty apparent combination of traditional and digital marketing strategy: What if billboards, pamphlets, or TV ads could be delivered as part of an ongoing entertainment experience? Or even more directly, what if a virtual version of your product could be represented in VR? Fox Sports has already seen some potential in this idea and has signed on with Next VR to begin bringing its programs to VR headsets. Meanwhile, some ad agencies have begun to offer VR services, and it seems that the great cycle of interrupt marketing may begin once again.
In terms of people seeing ads, VR does also offer the benefit of collecting motion data, meaning it should theoretically be easier for data-driven marketers to learn a lot about how engaging their advertisements are—indeed, it already seems that Facebook has begun utilizing Oculus as a means of collecting data about user behavior and movement.
The technology is certainly impressive. But what is perhaps most astounding is that given a technology that allows marketers to create experiences that users literally enter into, the best we’ve been able to come up with so far are ploys that distract from entertainment that VR aims to deliver. It’s the first years of the internet all over again, and as time has shown us how many internet users have negatively reacted to these tactics over time, it begs the question as to how else VR could be used to tell brand stories.
Currently, marketers are looking at VR and are thinking in a traditional marketing mindset. But the interactivity and immersion of the platform seems to more readily lend itself toward experiential marketing and user-generated content.
At the moment, there are some clear technical hurdles that could be preventing this approach. Product placement doesn’t take an enormous amount of development time, but creating a whole experience for users does, while user-generated content requires a thriving user base that just hasn’t been established yet. But even so, some brands have begun to give VR a swing.
Wells Fargo, for instance, has begun letting people try VR at a number of its locations around San Francisco. No specially branded ads or product placements, no purchases neccessary—just an opportunity for their community to come in and try something that has a lot of people curious. The company has stated: “The primary purpose is branding and getting Wells Fargo out there in a new and different and fun way.” And that’s exactly what this use allows, even if at the moment the approach is somewhat rudimentary.
A great example of a fuller experience is Valve’s “The Lab” (Valve is the primary video game developer working with HTC on the Vive, Oculus’ main competitor). Aside from VR, the company publishes a load of video games of its own, as well as hosting the largest publishing platform for PC games in the world. With the release of VR, the Valve team decided to release a game that’s a collection of successful (and failed) experiments it created for people to try with VR rigs. From engineering puzzles to archery games and a load of other stuff in between, this sort of free content lets users dive into using new technology in a fun way, all within the confines of an environment that is entirely attributable to Valve, effectively conveying the brand’s own excitement for the tech, as well as earning trust for how they’ll help users to interact with it into the future.
Does VR have to be an integral part of your digital marketing strategy today? No. Very soon? Likely not. There is plenty of time and breathing room for brands to consider how they want to use the space.
But brands should learn from the mistakes of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. The tech itself is exciting, but if using it pulls people out of the experience or just makes it generally uncomfortable, then your ads are absolutely never going to hit. Think experience, create something you yourself would want to be immersed in, and be amazed where VR takes us next.