Total immersion

Paul Crouch immerses himself in the topic of total immersion and what it new virtual reality experiences may mean for brands.

It’s just a couple of years ago that the phrase ‘virtual world’ would conjure images of back bedroom nerds at their computers exploring the often seedy environments of Second Life or the life eating World of Warcraft. Today though, a quick Google news search for the phrase returns a string of stories in which a virtual world is not simply a particularly large computer game on a 21” screen, but total immersion in a virtual experience whether that’s an alien spaceship (warning, sweary), a spot of tourism, or a sculpting workshop.

Virtual reality has existed for decades, but due to some fairly clunky early attempts had previously never really dented the public conscious other than through Tron and an under-rated Spy Kids movie. However, 2012’s Oculus Rift Kickstarter resurrected the industry by showing there was still a great deal of public interest in virtual reality gaming. The actual appearance of a Rift prototype, morphing it from presumed vapourware into a real palpable glimpse of the future, showed virtual reality could also be created far more cheaply than anyone had expected.

Fast forward to 2015 and Rift Mk.1 has proven itself the catalyst for a market that should be worth $5.2bn in consumer product by 2018 and a complete re-evaluation of how the public at large understands virtual worlds. Though the people at the front of the queue for an Oculus Rift or a Sony Morpheus headset are still gamers imagining themselves at the wheel of a Mario Kart (please Nintendo, please), there’s a far wider constituency that is genuinely intrigued by the ability to get lost in far away and impossible worlds from their armchair. For businesses beyond the Googles, Sonys, Samsungs and (as of MWC) HTCs of the world, this is a huge opportunity.

The new generation of virtual reality headsets are yet to make their way into the hands of the everyday consumer, so hard data on how people treat virtual reality vs a traditional computer game, film, or website are a little hard to come by. We do, however, have data on how people react to the original ‘virtual worlds’ which provide the same ‘get lost and discover’ experience. Pre Rift, the most popular form of ‘virtual world’ was (debatably) the massively multiplayer online game. The largest of these, World of Warcraft, a game where players assume the role of a fantasy character and go exploring a mythical realm, sees gamers play for an average of 3.7 hours according to research from Taiwan University. That’s 61% more than an average Netflix session at 2.3 episodes, so around 2 hours. People get pulled into experiences that they can explore and discover and consequently engage for longer, a fact that can only be intensified by virtual reality. The complete immersion created by the combination of headset and headphones pulls you away from life around you and into the experience, it’s a connection that no typical computer game, film or website can deliver.

For brands, total immersion’s uninterrupted connection with consumers is a huge opportunity. It provides two unique avenues for them to reach their audience – either practically as a direct sales channel or as the ultimate in brand building devices.

Firstly, the practical section; just like websites before them, VR offers a direct interface with the public in which people can see, manipulate purchasable items and even buy them from the comfort of their own home. Stepping well beyond a website, it allows those items to be seen in 3 dimensions. With a little extra work, a clothing brand could show you what the dress would look like on your body, stepping well beyond the capabilities of a website. It also provides an opportunity to offer a shopping experience beyond that available in the physical store. At its lowest level this means a shopping environment that transforms to match the latest item touched (looking at swimwear? You’re on a beach, touched a little black dress? You’re in a cocktail bar, Spacesuit? Space), but at the most sophisticated end that means utilising analytics to create stores designed to each customer’s taste. Just as a visit to the Amazon website sees visitors fed a series of recommendations based on their tastes and purchases, retailers can generate stores entirely tailored to a user’s tastes and purchases. Only wear blue things (like my mate Dave)? Here’s a shop that only stocks blue, with a blue ocean theme to offset the clothes. For retailers, virtual worlds provide an opportunity to deliver deep, personal shopping experiences, for consumers. They offer the chance to enjoy the shopping experience in a way that they might on the high street from the comfort of their own sofa/bed/toilet.

Then there’s the branding section; the chance to build worlds that immerse a consumer in the vision of a brand. This idea is best illustrated by a now defunct relationship between Red Bull and Playstation. The Playstation 3 came with a built-in virtual world (in the old 21” screen sense) called Playstation Home. Within Home, users could make an avatar and walk around talking to other players, playing mini games and just generally chillaxing between Call of Duty ragefests. Red Bull created a completely branded section of Home filled with minigames built around extreme sports and its real life Red Bull air race event. You could win virtual Red Bull goodies and compete against friends. Home wasn’t the greatest success – Playstation axed it from Playstation 4, but when Red Bull closed its area it caused much consternation amongst loyal Red Bull fans. VR provides an opportunity for brands to pick up where Red Bull left off (and will no doubt be picking up in the VR world before too long) by building their own entertaining and immersive worlds.

The idea of brands becoming entertainers is hugely prevalent in marketing at the moment, and rightly so – if I, as a discerning consumer, am not being informed, educated or entertained why would I listen to your brand and not any of the thousands of others vying for my attention? I wouldn’t, it’s why I follow @BetfairPoker (I have no interest in online poker but the feed is hilarious) but not @Microsoft (dry product announcements mainly), even though I work in technology PR. If brands can use the immersive, interactive elements of VR effectively, they can entertain consumers in a way that television (too many distractions), websites (one dimensional), or print (less dimensional) can never do. They can grab their full attention and tell their story from beginning to end, and the consumer will listen. Imagine if that Chipotle game had been VR. Imagine if you could have connected to Felix Baumgartner’s headcam and seen his stratospheric jump through his eyes courtesy of Red Bull. Imagine if IBM could show you what its smarter planet will look like and let you walk around it? You’d want to hear and see more wouldn’t you? You’d want to see what other new experiences that brand could provide and engage with them again? You’d also associate IBM with smart cities technology because IBM showed you that world. You’d associate Red Bull with adrenaline fuelled fun, and you’d get the Chipotle’s sustainable call to action because you’d fought for it (all be it disguised as a scarecrow). That’s the kind of interest and engagement that Twitter, press, Facebook, YouTube and TV advertising just can’t provide.

The most imaginative and ambitious brands will manage to marry the VR sales experience with brand building and achieve unprecedented gains. One rather unexpected brand, Top Shop has already done this. At London Fashion Week 2014 it placed Rift headsets in its Oxford Circus store allowing to them to experience Topshop’s Fashion Week catwalk show, as if they were sat in the front row, with the added opportunity to explore back stage at the show. The idea grabbed headlines and footfall for the store and directly sold Topshop’s clothing range (having a customer see a model wearing a nice dress, take off the headset and that dress is right there in front of them to buy is a fairly seamless sales journey) all to an audience of teen girls that are fairly detached from the hardcore gamers we’d once have associated with virtual reality.

These worlds will by no means be easy to create (or cheap), but, particularly now at the very outset of the VR journey, they represent an unprecedented marketing opportunity, and the brands brave enough to jump in will emerge with huge gains that dwarf the cost. Mark Zuckerberg saw that when he went big on the acquisition of Oculus, and with the dearth of new headsets due to arrive on the market this year, it’s time that marketers of all stripes followed Topshop’s example and began to explore what this huge new channel could achieve for their brand.

Photo credit: Dombis

Paul Crouch

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search