VR is, currently, one of the few remaining new media refuges where advertising is largely non-existent. Up until this point, adland's relationship with VR has primarily been through sponsored activations, games and tailored 'experiences' that reinforce or promote a product, with traditional advertising kept very much in the sidelines.
This is for a multitude of reason, but chiefly, it's because the vast majority of marketers probably don't see the point in 'wasting' precious ad spend on a platform with such a small and niche user base. Advertising can also be slightly invasive at the best of times, and this invasion could be incredibly jarring if it's literal centimetres from your eyeballs, with no earthly way of looking away save for shutting your eyes and tearing off your headphones. As such, online ads have yet to make a real impression on virtual reality, but it was always bound to happen sooner, rather than later, and it was always going to be Google who landed the first punch.
Last Wednesday, Google (or more accurately, Google's holding company “Alphabet”) debuted a new project that aims to explore how to manage online ads in VR. The project is a part of the Area 120 workshop, which the company uses to test its new ideas quickly and covertly amongst its employees to see if they are feasible for mass market integration.
Considering Google derives the bulk of its dizzying revenues from online ads it makes sense they would at least begin exploring the possibility of online VR ads, especially given the recent launch of the company's very own VR headset, the Google Daydream. According to a blog post from the tech giant, Google is pitching the experiment as a means of VR app and game developers earning revenue through advertising rather than sales, which could actually further integrate the technology into the mainstream.
Currently, even the most low-key VR apps and games are overpriced in comparison to their non-VR competitors, and this is because charging a base rate for them is currently the only way developers can make any money from their creations unless the app in question is sponsored by a brand. By introducing advertising, Google presumably hopes to create a win-win situation, where they have another vibrant platform through which to sell ad space and developers have the means to make a profit without asking for an entry fee.
Currently, the ad takes the form of a small, floating 3D cube (see below) that sits at the centre of the users field of view and is adorned with corporate logos. By either clicking the cube or staring directly at it for long enough, a small screen is activated that displays a video ad. It's honestly a little on-the-nose and intrusive for my tastes, but it is just an experiment and will undoubtedly be refined in the coming months. To that end, Google is currently seeking developers to test the project via the Google cardboard headset, Daydream VR platform, and the Samsung Gear VR headset. Google has yet to reveal it the ads will work on competing platforms such as the Facebook Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Playstation VR, but one expects that the ultimate goal is for a 'catch-all' solution that works cross-platform.
Google themselves state that their work focused on a few key principles: “VR ad formats should be easy for developers to implement, native to VR, flexible enough to customise, and useful and non-intrusive for users.” They also stress that their Area 120 team has seen some “encouraging results with a few test partners.” If the idea of VR ad cubes gets your juices flowing, you can fill out a Google Docs form HERE and apply for the early access program. Personally, however, I'd perhaps hold off on pulling that particular trigger for a few months until more information is released.
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer and musician from Kidderminster in the UK.