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Creative Opinions: VR (The Emotional Connection)

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Dan Phillips, Head of Digital and Interactive at MPC Advertising

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Cutting to the core of who we are and evoking primitive human emotion forms the basis of experiences that are talked about, shared and remembered. In advertising, therefore, it is no wonder that we are somewhat obsessed with seeing ourselves as storytellers first, and marketers a distant second. We want to tell stories yes - but, in a way that explores our core emotions: fear, sadness, anger, happiness, joy, empathy, love, excitement and adventure - so that the brands for whom we create these stories become memorable. And while the pathways of traditional advertising and the routes to telling engaging stories in established advertising media are well-trodden, VR offers something new to brands and those that see to use stories and experience to extol their virtues. The keys to effective VR for brands are manifold, but the root is the same.

At best, VR enhances and enables users to get closer to experiences that are beyond their reach, both physically and emotionally. We'd be failing if the experience was great and memorable in itself but that did not encourage people to move closer to the brand, wanting to share and talk about it. Effective advertising is often linked to effective memory-building, and VR with its unrivalled creation of true ‘in-the-moment’ engagement and first-person experience, is the ideal place for powerful and lasting memories to be created. Engagement in an activity, doing things for yourself in a fully immersive world, is how we will best remember them. And when that activity is linked directly to brand messaging, immersive rather than overtly, the brand affinity and associated positive action are likely to be much more effective.

But, as with any medium, the power lies in good content which is simple to access and that is what brands need to focus on. Our own interactive VR installation for John Lewis’ Christmas campaign ‘Buster the Boxer’, was built around the same simple premise. It was designed so that users of all ages would find the experience intuitive from the off. The enchanted world they became immersed was designed so that it was instantly recognisable as the one seen in the TV ad, albeit a slightly fantastical version. One they could only visit virtually and not in actuality – how exciting! We provided users with a way to engage simply and for us this meant using hidden bespoke technology so they could interact with the animals using their real hands rather than controllers and therefore feel a real presence in the immersive space. Nothing more, nothing less, than interacting with a cast of cute recognisable woodland creatures, whom previously had just been characters on a 2D screen, then help them to share that experience with others. Purposeful, meaningful, self-driven, and immersive. These are some of the new vocabulary for brands in a virtual world.

 

Claire Walker, CEO and founder at Firefly Communications

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Over the past year the global search interest in VR has quadrupled and recent launches such as Playstation VR and HTC Vive have made VR content more accessible to consumers. This exponential growth presents an opportunity for brands to generate deeper connections with their audiences. From a marketing perspective, VR can deepen consumer engagement and understanding of a brand, through fully integrated, immersive and comprehensive VR experiences. This ‘virtual backstage pass’ shares a side of the brand that consumers would not have been able to experience before. For example, football fans can watch their favourite team from the side of the pitch, fashion brands can let you sit in the front row of the launch of their new collection and car manufacturers can allow their customers to test drive a new car– all without having to leave home.

To be truly effective in connecting with consumers, VR experiences must strike a balance between the user’s freedom to explore the virtual world and the brand’s ongoing narrative. CNN does this well with its new immersive journalist unit, CNNVR. CNNVR produces videos, live stream from events and create content for a weekly news roundup. For their first story—which was on bullfighting in Spain—viewers had freedom to explore the VR bullfighting experience with a 360-degree camera whilst staying within CNN’s chosen narrative.

VR experiences also have the ability to connect on a deeper level through personalisation. Alibaba launched Buy+, a personalised and immersive shopping experience that enables customers to browse items in a virtual shopping mall, including real shops, such as Costco, Target and Macy’s in the US. Personalised experiences gives users the freedom to explore the brand on their own terms and preferences, which in turn helps build the relationship between consumer and brand.

 

Andrew Cartledge, mobile expert at Mobiles.co.uk

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VR is a powerful tool for connecting with an audience, as it offers a level of immersion previously unavailable to marketers.This has already been employed across a broad range of brands, with an equally broad range of intentions. Online streaming services have already begun to release VR content as a way to promote various series, in an attempt to bring viewers even deeper into the worlds they’re promoting. Netflix enjoyed success with their VR trailer for hit show Stranger Things; placing the user right into the heart of the creepy and atmospheric setting. BBC iPlayer employed a similar tactic, giving viewers the chance to explore the scale of a massive dinosaur in the company of broadcasting legend Sir David Attenborough.

VR can also have more serious benefits however, transporting users to real-world locations desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. This was the route taken by Oxfam recently, who used VR headsets to immerse viewers in situations at Tanzanian refugee camps. When canvasing for donations, this style of emotional connection is clearly more likely to illicit a response than simple words and photographs. From travel agencies displaying destinations, to estate agents offering virtual house tours, the possibilities for VR marketing are endless. Where VR marketing really comes into its own however is when imagination and emotion are added into the mix. Whether you’re a BBC viewer rubbing shoulders with Attenborough or a charity member experiencing the recipient of your donations, VR offers an immersive experience that is totally unique.

 

John Watton, Senior Marketing Director at Adobe EMEA

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Increasingly, technology is being used by consumers as a way to not just connect to the world, but to disconnect from it, and foster individual moments of privacy. VR, in particular, is starting to empower consumers to create their own digital worlds, enabling them to have more private, untraceable moments. This in turn presents both an opportunity and a challenge for brands to connect with these consumers in more meaningful and personal ways than ever before. With this in mind, brands must resist the temptation to use technology to replace the human element of the customer experience. Instead, they should use technology to augment it, and provide moments that are consistent, personal and surprising. It’s clear that there is huge potential for brands to use VR to build deeper relationships, but marketers must ensure that these new experiences are built with care.

 

Sam Shaw, Head of Insight at consumer behavioural analysts, Canvas8

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VR is a medium with unique capacity for creating empathy. For example, the UN saw twice the normal rate of donations with a VR campaign to help people empathise with Syrian refugees. The experience, called ‘Clouds Over Sidra’, followed the struggles of a Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. ‘Waves of Grace’ is another example of a VR experience that boosted donation by putting people at the heart of the Ebola crisis. VR can immerse people in the lives of those less fortunate and form greater connections. However, just like people choose to turn away from distressing images and charity appeals on TV, they can also choose to step out of VR. Therefore, VR at scale will most likely be used to intensify existing connections. The tourist industry is an interesting example of this.

Thomas Cook created virtual reality videos for its resorts, making it easier for high street agents to convince customers to choose a hotel they’ve already walked through, over one they’ve only seen in a brochure. One in ten users of the tech at its Bluewater store booked a holiday there and then. Additionally, it offered individuals the chance to experience excursions in virtual reality long before they left the country; a VR helicopter tour of Manhattan boosted revenues for the real thing by 190%! The tourist industry is using the tech to create far more powerful connections, between customers and destinations, than brochures ever could.

 

Joss Davidge, Innovations Director at BEcause Experiential Marketing

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Blending live and virtual experiences is a new kind of magic, and VR is playing a huge role in engaging audiences through its ability to bring to life both abstract and unusual subject matters in an immersive way. The technology is exploding, and it’s on the cusp of completely transforming the way in which we all learn and experience products and ideas. For companies, it offers the chance for every fibre of a brand to be touched, felt or engaged with – powerful stuff indeed. It provides a feeling of not only being part of, but also central to, the narrative; that’s what makes immersive technologies both hugely powerful and engaging. Total immersion in a story is, for now, a new experience for most of us. And it’s very hard to offer something that is actually new these days.

VR’s single biggest strength is that it allows brands to create completely unique stories and environments. This offers huge story-telling possibilities: the ability to transport audiences back to any point in history, to speed up time, to slow it down, to visit places that are not humanly possible, to break the law of physics. The only restriction is the creativity of the story-teller. VR’s distinctly unique story-telling capability, combined with CGI film-making, presents incredible opportunities to present life-like scenarios. It’s this aspect that makes it such an emotive experience, and why more and more companies are now using VR to get important messages across.

 

VR City co-founder, Ashley Cowan

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What I love about VR is that it demands all of your focus and isolates you from the noise of modern day life. Once you’ve decided to engage with something, it’s headset on, get comfortable and start watching. After around a minute you are fastened in, the real world around you falls away and the chosen piece of VR content has your absolute attention. There’s no Whatsapp pinging, second screen tweeting, or irritating colleague disturbing you. It’s just you, your senses and the VR experience. If it’s a good piece of content you can temporarily forget where you are and your conscious brain begins to form connections with an entirely new reality.  And that’s amazing. With nothing to disturb your focus this experience can be incredibly powerful. I actually find it quite relaxing, as the state of being safe from distractions is quite rare and to me, rather therapeutic. It’s like taking a 5 minute holiday somewhere where there’s no TV, no internet and no phone. It’s bliss and can be a real doorway into all sorts of emotions and connections.

This isolation excites me very much and brands and broadcasters should be excited to. Imagine the impact you can have on your audience if your viewer has no distractions and is able to feel that the new world you’ve created for them is momentarily their reality. I for one love my isolating VR sessions; my little holidays from the real world.

 

Jason Alan Snyder, Chief Technology Officer at Momentum Worldwide

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Today, VR headsets do a reasonably good job at catering to visual and auditory stimulus - but those are just two of our senses. The human body is capable of so much more. Temperature. Smell. Touch. The computational power of VR will grow exponentially - just like every other technology. And it will be the human-computer symbiosis which will amplify the 'reality,' making the 'virtual' fade. One of the biggest challenges with VR is 'input.' The greatest future VR innovations will come not from better lenses, video cards, or who wins the 'wireless' battle first - but rather who will provide the most innovative and intuitive input methods. Relying on gestures with touch panels to control the device, or resorting to keyboard commands, sensor gloves, eye-tracking and limited voice commands are the best we have right now. The clumsiness of today's VR inputs erode the 'reality' of the experience resulting in suspending our belief. The solution will be found in better human-computer symbiosis.

Consumer Brain Computer Interface (BCI) offerings are scant at the moment. There are several products in the market however the applications are limited. But this will change. Coupling BCI with VR will mark a significant change in the way we consume and understand entertainment. The challenge of this is on the order of self-driving cars, tissue regeneration and scale domestic robotics efforts. Any curious mind can imagine the benefits, opportunities and magic that will result in a working, non-invasive BCI for VR entertainment offering. Suffice to say that you will find me first in line to purchase thought-powered VR entertainment.

 

How virtual reality can help brands engender a deeper emotional connection with their audiences by OptoVR, the company building a cable-free VR headset.

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Virtual Reality is the next step in telling a brand story, the next logical move following a 2D narrative. It tears down the divide between the audience and the brand’s story. A more authentic means of storytelling: the viewer is no longer a spectator but incorporated into the unfolding action. Transported to another world and placed at the centre of the narrative, they are able to interact directly with the message being delivered. Virtual Reality is the medium through which the emotions you are trying to create can be clearly and powerfully delivered. It allows you to define the parameters with which you present your brand. Enabling heightened empathy and engagement, VR is a powerful call to action. It ensures that brands are no longer dealing with passive spectators. They are enveloping clients in the story their company embodies. If you are looking to elicit a clear psychological, emotional and physical response, the level of engagement VR offers is unparalleled.

The physical aspects provided by VR create new, tailored environments with unending potential. Sounds can swirl around users, voices emerge from above, below and over the shoulder. All of this combines to craft a rich, detailed 360-degree environment that can be moulded, shaped and redesigned to accommodate the brand’s requirements. This depth of experience is central to Virtual Reality’s power as a medium. This is the boldest, most inviting and persuasive way to emotionally connect with new clients. This sensorial aspect of the technology is potentially the most powerful way to present ideas and ethos in a controlled but creative manner. Eliciting new emotions, establishing new horizons and exploring new connections: VR is the future of brand identity.

 

Leigh Chapman, Senior Account Director at Space (second from left)

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There’s no better way for a brand to immerse a consumer in their world than with a brilliantly designed VR experience. It’s hard to escape from a world where you are inside the action, and this is what differentiates VR first and foremost from other types of communications. And the technology is constantly improving to bring better realism, enhanced believability and thereby greater immersion.But thought needs to be put into developing content that truly works for VR. You need to remember that your viewer is essentially the director of the piece – the action is wherever they choose it to be – so you have to plan your set and story with this in mind, making sure you make full use of the 360° 3D environment to deliver true immersion. An easy trap to fall into with VR is letting the experience be too passive. The skill is in making viewers feel like they are truly part of the action. And it’s not just about the visual – with VR you can work with a range of senses. In our work for Glenfiddich we used binaural sound to encourage people to peer in certain directions at key moments to capture the action. We subtly guided them rather than forcing them so that they still felt in control of the action. Adding air and fragrance to the mix adds an even higher sense of immersion.

Another aspect of VR that has huge potential to heighten immersion and bring the technology into the mainstream is the community group element. Facebook are focusing on virtual avatars for communicating with someone the other side of the world via their platform, so that you appear to be face to face in a virtual world. VR can be quite an isolating experience - you are essentially cut off from the people around you - and that is one of the key criticisms levelled at it. This an area where developers are working hard to deliver greater sociability and broader appeal, particularly in the world of gaming. Anything that can get over this issue will count as progress.

 

Jamie Field, Head of Production at TopLine Comms

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Nowadays, you’ve got more chance of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack than you do getting and keeping someone’s attention online. But that was before VR. It will likely change in the future, but for now marketers are taking full advantage of the medium’s many benefits. Having a prospective customer’s undivided attention is amazing in itself, but couple that with the ability to actually have them walk in another person’s shoes and the goal posts shift significantly. Suddenly you’re connecting with your audience on a much deeper level.

Drink brands for example - don’t just drink the drink but feel it. Enjoy this cold beer while ‘sitting on beach in the sunshine’. It’s taking selling to another level. We demand more - and want things faster. VR feeds into that. This is especially serendipitous for charities as well, who often have a hard time raising funds for their undoubtedly worthy causes. In the past, they had no way to really make their case relatable. Now we have organisations like Charity Water raising $2.4 million in a single evening and socially-minded businesses like Toms Shoes inviting their customers to join them on a virtual giving trip.

 

Katy Ellis, gaming specialist @ Amplify

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A good VR experience should create a real-world emotional response. Excitement, delight, fear, apprehension – whatever the feeling, it should allow you to experience things you never thought possible, or a view a perspective you’ve never seen before. This is called ‘presence’ – but packaging this into a brand experience doesn’t always translate as well as one might want. Our work with PlayStation and their virtual reality headset, PlayStation VR, proved to us that VR has the potential for mass appeal beyond its core gamer market. Good VR should leave a lasting impression on a consumer - whether they’re racing down the streets of Tokyo at exhilarating speeds in GT Sport or cage diving with sharks in PlayStation VR Worlds. Variety is key if you’re seeking mass appeal.

A great virtual reality experience goes beyond just visuals. Instead, it should create a link between a physical or even sensory experience that truly brings the brand to life. If a consumer can immerse themselves in the virtual world through good set design before they even put on their headset, that’s creating a real sense of presence.Take HBO’s fantastic Game of Thrones VR experience Ascend the Wall. It utilised tailor-made Unity game engine content for Oculus Rift inside a multi-sensory elevator, with rumble effects and cool air to create the sensation that the user was ascending to the top of the 700ft Wall. Or how about creating an exact replica of the space that’s being shown in the headset to give users a full 360° experience? Amplify did just that when we worked with Google and their collaboration with NME to create a giant Google Cardboard structure with a replica of Abbey Road’s world-famous Studio 2 inside. This link between physical and virtual allowed commuters at King’s Cross Station to fully immerse themselves in the legendary studio through the virtual app and share their experience socially of iconic moments such as the Abbey Road crossing. Marketers always want a brand experience to be memorable, and, if utilised well, virtual reality can definitely be a way to deliver on that dream.

 

Phil Birchenall, Projects Director at K7 Media

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When you talk about the emotional impact of virtual reality, it’s impossible - and as cliched as the phrase ‘immersive experience’ - to avoid the word empathy. Having a sense of empathy and connection with the protagonist is the element that sets what we experience through VR completely apart from a book, a show or, heaven forbid, a 3D movie. From the moment you ‘don the goggles’ it’s hard not to feel that you’ve been placed within someone else’s set of circumstances. Unlike watching your TV set there’s no glancing at the clock or peering out of the window that can pull you out of the moment; those glimpses in the virtual space just serve to add more detail to, and reinforce, the experience you find yourself in. Done well, this can work on so many levels; from the flippant and fun, to the deep and disturbing.

I’ve not been much of a gamer since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog, and back then Virtual Reality largely involved staring at a ‘magic eye’ poster, so when my colleagues installed 3D platformer Lucky’s Tale on the company’s Oculus I wasn’t expecting much more than getting a mixture of sore thumbs and frustration. Yet in a strange way the game actually convinced me of the power of VR than anything I’d tried to that date. Ordinarily, you can imagine what a VR experience might be like before you pop a headset on, but the difference between 2D footage of the flighty fox and what you see inside the virtual space was incomparable. And when I leaned down to get a closer look at Lucky, we made eye contact and he gave me a thumbs up: no longer my digital avatar, we were buddies; partners in crime.

On the flip side, VR can expose us to situations far beyond our comfort zone, again, giving us a deeper connection to the subjects we’re exposed to. There’s a myriad of example to choose from, notably the BBC/Aardman collaboration, “We Wait,” which transports you directly into the Syrian refugee crisis. As you board a sailing boat in an attempt to cross the Med, the fear and dismay of your fellow passengers is writ large. Aardman has always pioneered through its storytelling first and foremost, so though the GCI characters aren’t AAA console standard it really doesn’t matter, your empathy for the refugees as you stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the aborted mission feels far more profound than simply watching a report on the news.

Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK. For more on VR, check out the companion piece to this artice - Visions in VR: The Emotional Connection.

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