Virtual Reality Has Arrived (Expectations are Still Somewhere Else Entirely)

by Michael Dowd
Apr 18, 2018

It’s 2018, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the US who still aren’t using virtual reality (VR) every day. What happened, and does it spell the end of VR as a marketing platform?

I was among the guilty several years back, projecting out the consumer adoption of VR using faulty assumptions. Based on some sloppy interpretation of Moore’s Law, virtual reality should be in the hands of tens of millions of consumers today and reach market saturation in a few more years. But we aren’t close to that.

Before we explore why that might be the case, let’s clarify VR in this context, because the term is used to describe several things and is often conflated with other technologies, such as augmented reality.

  • 360° Video is the most consumer-friendly interpretation of VR, but it lacks the depth and presence of true VR. Interaction is lacking or minimal, and headsets are doing little other than rendering a video separately for each eye. This is why I don’t consider Google Cardboard – compelling as it is – to be a VR platform.

  • Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony Playstation VR are the consumer entry points into proper, Tethered VR. They allow for physical interaction with a virtual environment and provide a true level of depth to the environment.

  • Finally, Location-based VR is a dedicated installation that typically includes a greater freedom of motion and whose scripted experiences and powerful equipment allow for a higher fidelity experience than your average at-home VR games.

Tethered VR is an experience that takes some dedication. You need a strong computer and a bit of technical savvy to get it running. Even several years in to the newest wave of VR, these restrictions are still prohibitive. Costs have arguably increased over the last couple years because of heightened demand for the RAM and graphics cards required to create an acceptable VR experience. Without those components, the choppy graphics and poor frame rates lead to disillusionment and nausea.

And even with greater access to computing power, tethered VR is an experience that requires some level of production by the consumer. So it’s reasonable to think that the interested audience will be a technical audience that is closer to the number of PC gamers than the number of, say, smartphone owners, and the demographics are likely to fit a similar profile.

Help is on the way in the form of more consumer-friendly hardware that allows for fully wireless experiences at home without a degree in electrical engineering. This means that marketers who are already engaging with consumers through eSports, Twitch, on in-game advertising are likely to find an audience here soon. But modular, expandable game consoles have never fared well, and asking consumers to spend hundreds more dollars just to uncomplicate their setup is not a short-term solution.

It will be another several years before self-contained, wireless VR headsets are both readily available and affordable in a way that should merit any marketer’s attention. That’s why, for most of us, Location-based VR is likely a better option for the foreseeable future.

Location-based VR hit the mainstream this year when Disney installed its Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire experience at its theme parks. The 15-minute adventure casts visitors as rebels posing as Stormtroopers to infiltrate an Imperial base. It is a fully mobile experience that allows the user to walk around and even see the other players rendered within their virtual world. This will give its 30 million plus visitors each year a chance to get a proper introduction to high-end VR by delivering a relevant experience directly to its target audience.

Several years out, Marriott’s Teleporter is a testament to its innovation and remains a standard for marketing in VR. This semi-portable experience traveled around the world, allowing users to step inside a tube and be transported to an exotic Marriott location in immersive VR, complete with smells and tactile sensations. They understood that the unique functions of VR – the sense of place, physical scale, and tangibility – are able to communicate things about their product that cannot be replicated in any other medium.

Brands and marketers need to think critically about how those same elements of VR can be used to deliver previously impossible experiences to their own consumers. Real estate trusts can provide interactive tours of remote properties from the convenience of its corporate office. Industrial machinery too big to transport can now have a physical presence at trade shows. Entertainment properties can set up promotional events in theaters to transport fans completely into fantasy worlds.

Most marketers who invested in consumer VR experiences years ago based on assumed reach were sold a bill of goods by their agency. VR was, and remains today, a platform for innovation and depth, not scale. Fortunately, for marketers who are looking to create rich, unique experiences, all of the components exist, and all that remains is finding a creative and development partner to bring it to life.

Want more? Hear Michael debate the current state of mixed reality in the latest episode of Maark’s Agency on Record podcast:

Photo credit: NeONBRAND

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.