Virtual Reality Could Help Marketers Create Real Sales

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Virtual Reality Could Help Marketers Create Real Sales
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Virtual-reality headsets, such as Oculus Rift, have been described as fetish devices for gamers and fans of immersive entertainment. But there’s another potential audience for VR that hasn’t received as much attention: shopaholics.

In a recent piece in Ad Age, Adrian Slobin, SapientNitro’s managing director and digital strategist, described a scenario in which a customer visited The Apartment by the Line, a luxury home décor boutique in New York’s SoHo. The customer, who wound up buying a black opaline glass lamp, did so from halfway around the world, using a Samsung Gear VR headset.

Slobin said this isn’t a one-off. He believes that that “any sort of product that has complexity attached to it” is a good candidate for a VR-based sales experience. “Think tools at a big-box home goods retailer,” he said, “or anything where the back story to the brand is critical to the product–anything where you want to get the consumer to feel the brand and experience that product’s back story.”

At the moment, somewhere around 1 million people have access to a VR experience. The vast majority are using Google Cardboard, a DIY kit with asymmetrical biconvex lenses that attach to a smartphone and costs as little as $15. The market is expected to pick up considerably in 2016, though, when Oculus Rift, a head-mounted display that is currently available for developers, will go on sale to the general public for $350, and Microsoft’s HoloLens–an augmented reality headset–makes its debut.

Facebook bought Oculus, the company that makes the Rift, in 2014 for $2 billion. That along with Google’s, and Microsoft’s backing, plus the enthusiastic support of people including Slobin, has prompted marketers to take an early interest in VR. Whether they actually believe VR is the next big thing or are merely ensuring that they’re not missing out a potential disruptor in media is unclear. Slobin compared the opportunity to the introduction of World Wide Web in the early ‘90s, though he admitted it’s probably not quite the same.

So how big a deal will VR become?

Already A Reality
Top brands have been swarming VR for more than a year. During the World Cup in 2014, Coca-Cola introduced an Oculus Rift “experience” in which users could travel from the locker room to the pitch to score a goal. (Archrival Pepsi has also launched a few VR experiences.) Hotelier Marriott used Oculus to “teleport” users to Hawaii and London. Dos Equis launched a three-minute Oculus experience featuring its spokesman, The Most Interesting Man in the World, and a lion. Last year, Volvo used Google Cardboard to give users the experience of driving its XC90 SUV.

In 2015, VR is increasingly becoming part of the branding landscape. Virgin Holidays, for instance, uses cardboard VR goggles to let customers experience a hotel or resort before they book it. Some airlines are also providing VR experiences for passengers on long-haul flights.

As the list of brands and uses illustrate, VR is a medium that’s not tied to any particular industry. “Consider VR as a new-media platform,” said Dario Raciti, director of the Zero Code, the gaming unit of OMD, in an interview with CMO.com. “It’s not just a peripheral. It’s not just a device, like 3D TV with enhanced 3D. VR is really a completely new media vehicle.”

“We’ve seen this happen in mobile,” added Greg Isbister, CEO of Blis. “Brands who invested early with the view that mobile was a channel they needed to understand for the future are reaping the rewards today.”

An In With Gaming
Despite the various experiments by marketers, industry watchers say that gaming is likely to be the first mass-media use case for VR as a medium. For brands looking to spread advertising messages, product placement is the most logical route, Isbister told CMO.com.

“[Soft drink brand] Robinsons currently sponsors Wimbledon, but VR could take this ‘flat’ form of sponsorship to enhanced levels, experiencing and interacting with Wimbledon from the umpire’s chair … brought to you by Robinsons,” he said. “That’s a powerful experience, something memorable that will keep the brand at the forefront of consumers’ minds.”

Don Anderson, regional managing director at We Are Social Singapore, said that in addition to getting placement in games, many auto brands are creating “a VR game-like experience through driving simulations.” Such experimentation is good, Anderson told CMO.com, but “much like what happened when the iTunes app store debuted, we saw a lot of hackneyed attempts by marketers to create branded apps, few of which really found their target or took life. We’re kind of at that point again with virtual reality.”

That said, experimenting with VR isn’t prohibitively expensive. Raciti said it costs between $50,000 to well over $1 million to produce a VR “experience.” Because so few consumers are actually using VR, though, it’s tough to make a case for ROI, except if you measure it in PR buzz or the more nebulous concept of future-proofing a brand.

For instance, Patron Tequila’s VR “Hacienda Tour,” a 360-degree tour of the company’s headquarters in Jalisco, Mexico, that was shot with custom-built drones outfitted with seven GoPro cameras, was probably viewed by only a few thousand people, at most. However, Anderson said, “the initiative produced considerable discussion online and earned media coverage. They took the time and made the right level of investment for the initiative to come off as looking cutting-edge. Those who do it on the cheap will most certainly have less effect.”

For brands that are looking to get in on the ground floor of a potentially disruptive new form of media, it could be money well-spent–and many are willing to spend it. “I’ve never seen so many marketers creating content for a device that doesn’t have a significant install base yet,” Raciti said.

AR Versus VR
While gaming and “experiences” are the initial uses for VR, a July report by Forrester Research envisioned some others that employ VR and augmented reality (AR). What’s the difference? With VR you are completely transported to a computer-generated world. AR, meanwhile, augments what you are seeing and experiencing. For instance, an AR app could conceivably let you look at a billboard sign and then superimpose a related message, Pop-Up Video style.

Forrester believes that AR will be more useful to businesses than VR. The report gave several instances of AR in action. For example, phlebotomists can use Epson Moverio smart glasses with technology from Evena Medical to hit veins more accurately when they’re taking blood. L’Oreal’s Yves Saint Laurent unit uses Moverio to makeup counter retail associates to help them perfectly apply makeup.

The lines are blurring, though. Oculus recently announcedOculus Touch, a device that lets wearers use and see their hands in virtual worlds. Picture how that customer at the SoHo store could use such technology to shop at a digital store. “You can reach millions of consumers on AR and VR devices they own to envisage a digital channel that rewrites what it means for them to interact with your brand or product,” the report concluded.

Marketers have heard such hype before–remember how Second Life was going to revolutionize the field? Proponents, however, said marketers are just beginning to realize the possibilities of VR and AR.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this will be an adopted technology in the future,” Isbister said, “and for businesses who don’t understand, it will be very disruptive to them.”

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