By it's very nature, virtual reality can be an emotionally draining thing to experience if you're not prepared for it and the creative industries are starting to realise that, if they utilise this more immediate connection effectively, they can create experiences that help catalyse a more meaningful bond with the user than with more conventional, passive platforms. But, what I'm looking to answer today is this; with the advent of affordable virtual reality, will experiences entering the market in the near future use the technology to forge a more immediate, emotional connection with consumers? Or is the opposite true, and is VR a platform that will actually draw us all further apart?
Advertising and VR
If there is one area in which virtual reality has really spread its wings, its advertising. The advent of affordable headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Cardboard have given brands and agencies license to really experiment with the technology and provide consumers with unique and emotionally involving content. The real benefit with advertising, is that, whilst with gaming and other associated pieces of long form entertainment, users are expected to wear a headset for an extended period of time, most of the activations spearheaded by adland are shorter and more self-contained experiences that can be absorbed in minutes, not hours. A recent example that caught my attention was based around the reality TV series “The Voice” in France. The experience, available through Android and iOS, as well as the Oculus Store for the Samsung Gear VR and Rift, invited fans to virtually experience the show as a coach in a blind audition. This is the kind of experience that can be quickly experienced and shared in a matter of minutes and engenders a greater emotional connection with the show by literally putting fans in the shoes of its stars. In a similar vein, ITV recently partnered with VR production company VR City and media agency Goodstuff to launch a new VR campaign, showcasing daily highlights of the Cheltenham Festival.
One of the aims of ITV Racing’s on air coverage is to give viewers ‘the best seat in the house’ and Goodstuff and VR City wanted to extend that principle, identifying the potential for VR to immerse consumers in the unique live event. Footage will be captured by VR City every day of the four-day Racing festival and will be stitched together and packaged up into daily highlights packages, made available online at 7pm each night. A total of three camera crews will be making their way around the festival each day, going behind the scenes to bring to bring to life the inner workings of the vibrant festival, placing cameras in locations rarely seen on TV. It is the first time a UK Racing broadcaster has used 360-degree video technology as part of its overall offering. This is the kind of activation that would only be possible thanks to modern VR, and it feels like an organic way to build a connection between the consumer and the event.
For now, how adland responds to VR will depend on how the next few years play out. If VR turns out to be a flash in the pan then it will have been a worthy experiment that flew too close to the sun. If it really takes hold though, brands and agencies alike are going to have to start rethinking their ideas in order to make room for it, in much the same way they have had to adapt to the digital and social media revolutions of the past decade. If theres is one thing we know about adland though, it's that it's not adverse to rolling with the changes.
Gaming and VR
The gaming industry is the natural trend setter when it comes to virtual reality, given that many of the experiences we associate with the platform are video games, and have been since the technology was first bring experimented with back in the early 90s. The HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Playstation VR have proven that there is a burgeoning market out there, but not all corners of the gaming world are 100% sold on the potential of VR just yet. Nintendo's resident creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto, for example, recently shared his thoughts on virtual reality. Speaking ahead of the release of Nintendo's latest console, the Nintendo Switch, he said he felt that, while some of the issues with VR are being worked out, he still has a few concerns about the technology. He elaborated: “In terms of being together online in virtual reality, I think a lot of the problems have been solved or are starting to be solved,” before also adding that “this is something that we're looking into, too,” inferring that Nintendo might be looking into the technology in the future.
That being said, the designer behind some of Nintendo's most iconic franchises, such as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda, still has lingering concerns about VR. He explained: “When I see people play virtual reality, it makes me worry, just as ,for example if a parent were to see their kid playing virtual reality, it would probably make them worry.” Whilst this is obviously a translated statement, I gather that Miyamoto means that there is something inherently worrying about the idea of being 'closed off' in a virtual world, which is a barrier many would-be adopters are still struggling to get past. He also mentioned the comfort issues when it comes to extended play, which is another genuine concern for many people.
Obviously this doesn't matter as much when discussing shorter experiences, but I can tell you from personal experience with the Playstation VR and Resident Evil 7 that playing for any longer than an hour can be genuinely uncomfortable. The kicker here is that if you're noticeably uncomfortable, it's obviously going to be harder to make an emotional connection with a piece of content, no matter how 'in your face' it is. As the technology improves, we will undoubtedly see more comfortable headsets hit shelves, but for now, as far as gaming is concerned, I think it's fair to say that shorter, 'tech-demo' style experiences will be very much the norm for the foreseeable future.
Education and VR
One particularly striking recent example is DriveVR; an education tool designed by the excellently-named Gooii consultancy based in Nottingham. DriveVR is an app which uses VR to warn young people about the repercussions of dangerous driving. Gooii was commissioned by The Safer Roads Partnership in Warwickshire and West Mercier, an organisation in the West Midlands which looks to reduce the number of people injured and killed on the roads. The app is designed to be used with a Google Cardboard headset, but can also be viewed in 360-degree film using just a smartphone and is aimed at educating 17-25 years olds (arguably the prime target market for VR) about dangerous driving. The concept involves users creating a personalised character, then viewing life events on a mock social media timeline, which mimics apps such as Facebook and Instagram. The user then enters into scenarios such drink driving or speeding, either as a passenger or a driver. These scenes are composed from real-life films with actors.
If we're talking about making emotional connections using VR story telling, then this is about as obvious as it gets, but Gooii deserve credit here for not pushing it too far. The experience might end with users witnessing accidents caused as a result of dangerous driving firsthand, but the immersive videos mercifully cut to black just before the moment of the actual accident. This brings up another argument; that VR might simply be too intense and immersive for many users, especially the more extreme, horror and reality-based experiences. Personally, however, I have noticed that, whilst intense experiences in VR can be a little overwhelming at first (I refer largely to the aforementioned Resident Evil 7), over time, you learnt to adapt to it and scale your reactions accordingly.
As such, I feel that the best way to normalise VR, and prepare our children for the more intense emotional experiences it offers, it to introduce it to them at an early age. A great example of how we SHOULD be doing this is the recent experience by Deutsch, visual content studio Ntropic and specialist VR company Tactic. They launched an educational social good initiative called the “Hidden Dangers Project,” in conjunction with the nonprofit organisation WaterIsLife, which included an interactive VR game in which a player floats in a boat while pollutants personified as evil monsters spring from the water, with the player using a purification device as a weapon against them. It's charming, appraochable, and speaks directly to children. There is also THIS wonderful activation from Pebble Studios, which slips the whole conversation on its head by putting US inside the mind of a child. Ultimately, educational use is probably the first chance most younger users will get to experience VR anyway, so it's important that companies get it right and make a good initial impression, otherwise they run the risk of turning an entire generation off the technology!
Evolution through Collaboration
Any fresh platform requires a little room and encouragement to grow when its still wet behind the ears, and, whilst competition can be a very powerful catalyst for change, collaboration can also be necessary during a technology's formative years. In this spirt, Red Bull’s chief technology officer has urged brands to partner and collaborate with each other if they want to unlock virtual reality’s potential, stressing that success will only come if experiences are shared. The technology has been at the forefront of the marketing industry for some time, but its limitations and the scale at which it’s being adopted has proven to be a barrier to any great investment. In fact, only this month did Red Bull Media House launch its own virtual reality platform, which hosts an array of sport, travel and music content.
Two companies that underline this spirit of collaboration are Samsung and the US-based theme park company Six Flags, who, after teaming up last year to launch North America’s first VR, recently announced a renewed collaboration that includes two mixed reality coasters with “complex gameplay, where riders make key decisions during the course of the ride that can affect their scoring at the end.” Dubbed the “New Revolution Galactic Attack,” the experience will be available at both Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom near San Francisco, and will reportedly offer guests “a thrilling, fully immersive ride of their lives as they battle to save the planet from an impending alien drone invasion.”
This is a roller coaster that has the potential to be different for every user every time, and it's the kind of advancement that could only have happened through the collaboration of two major players, who pooled their resources and ideas together to create something spectacular. Well, it looks pretty spectacular anyway and it's living proof that, whilst the technology finds its feet and companies are feeling out exactly how to best utilise it in an organic way, we're all better off working together!
A word I've found myself using time and time again throughout this piece is “experience,” and that's frankly because I struggle to think of another way to describe a VR activation. That says it all really. VR is not the norm, it is literally an experience of another reality that we just compare to traditional media in any meaningful way. Not yet anyway. For now then, it's up to the creators to really up their game and work with their audiences and one another to create those necessary emotional connections without taking it too far and putting people off. A slowly, slowly, catchy monkey approach is what I recommend then. But I have been wrong before, and we're all still learning.
For more on the subject, you can check out some top Creative Opinions from some of the most on-the-pulse names in the industy on the emotional connection that VR for help foster between creatives and their audiences, RIGHT HERE.
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and struggling musician from Kidderminster in the UK. For more of his thoughts on VR, you can find his last insight piece HERE.