With one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history and a recent $2 billion acquisition by Facebook, it’s no surprise everyone is talking about Oculus Rift’s virtual reality technology which offers a degree of media immersion as-yet unseen by the screen-viewing public.
It’s hard to describe the Oculus Rift experience to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but if you’ve have the chance to experience Game of Thrones’ “Ascend the Wall” or Wrigley’s “Experience 5Gum,” you’ll see the creative possibilities are mouthwatering.
Thus far, experimentation with Oculus Rift has been restricted to developers, content creators and business folk, many of whom flocked last month to Los Angeles for the company’s first conference–Oculus Connect–to share their experiences, show off their work and discuss the future applications of the technology.
At Connect, Oculus VR was keen to position itself as a future tech giant with Apple-esque surprise product announcements, live-streamed keynotes and galvanizing visions of VR’s bright future. It was an edifying event, but is Oculus Rift poised to become a household name and should we–the advertising community–be preparing for virtual reality?
In my opinion, yes. Virtual reality is definitely something that advertisers should be excited about right now. My belief is that VR is going to take mobile, the dominant digital medium, to a whole new level. There’s a potential platform for new user created content to consider. Your brand has got a vast, new (albeit virtual) world to play in. There are plenty more innovations to come. And yet execution remains as vital, if not more, than ever before.
So here are five important considerations gleaned from Oculus Connect that the advertising community should consider when approaching the medium.
Virtual Reality is evolving along two divergent paths. On the one hand Oculus VR is developing the tethered (desktop powered) version of the Oculus Rift, slated for release next summer. On the other, they are working with an already ubiquitous technology–the smartphone. With mobile giant Samsung, Oculus will release the Gear VR mobile headset before Christmas. It will be the company’s first shot at the mass market.
With this strategic partnership, Oculus hopes to leapfrog the many challenges inherent in developing and deploying a consumer device from scratch. It will be a much less powerful–“VR-lite” experience–compared to its tethered sibling, but it means that Oculus will get virtual experiences into the hands of consumers much sooner than it would otherwise be able to.
A major roadblock to adoption is that, to put it simply, users might feel silly wearing a mobile VR headset in public. The Oculus Rift is typically used in the privacy of your own home–it’s safer and less likely to draw any unwanted attention. But maybe, just maybe, consumers will get over these hangups and we’ll see VR headsets freed from the wire strewn computer lair and bandied around in public like iPads.
Early mover brands would be smart to catch this casual VR wave by creating short form branded experiences, which–like viral videos–can be easily shared among peer networks. If mobile VR makes it big, establishing a foothold on the platform could be a big win.
Virtual Reality is at an interesting juncture. The technology is finally delivering on its promise while content creators are only just beginning to understand what makes a compelling experience. It’s a new creative frontier replete with new possibilities and pitfalls–and the “killer app” is just waiting to be made.
Hollywood is taking notice. The OC conference included talks with Robert Stromberg (a collaborator on Avatar) and John Gaeta (a Creative Director at Lucas Film), both of whom are experimenting in the space. The 360º immersive blockbuster is a tantalizing possibility.
Advertising will play its part in defining the creative possibilities of VR. Brands are at the frontline of experimentation, with installations like O2’s “Wear The Rose” establishing a narrative and experiential style that resonates with consumers. Imagine if Guinness “Surfer” were a VR experience?! Ikea Cats anyone?
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe used the phrase “you the community” at least 48 times during his keynote speech. He’s right to be proud of the following his company has generated, but will it evolve from a dedicated core of content creators to a social phenomenon like YouTube or Facebook?
For this to happen, users will need cheap, easy access to content creation tools–namely 360 cameras and the stitching software they require. Oculus has no official plans in this vein, but among the attendees of Connect were many smaller companies lining up to plug the gap (GoPro are you listening?).
Indeed there was the palpable buzz of a community about to mushroom. The hallways were lined with young developers showing off unique, sometimes bizarre content (a robotic exoskeleton and a virtual CPR device were among the highlights for me), and I think that’s a good sign. The VR community isn’t just interested in experiencing great virtual reality content, it’s caught the creativity bug.
When asked if anything could stop the rise of virtual reality, Oculus Rift inventor and founder Palmer Luckey joked that the Oculus directors all take separate planes. But barring a disaster, there’s still a very large elephant in the room when it comes to virtual reality: motion sickness.
The challenge is that virtual reality tricks your brain, and the brain isn’t a good sport about it. When your eyes say you’re moving but your body can’t feel it then the result–for most people–is nausea. It’s going to be a hard sell for a technology that has the potential, when used incorrectly, to make its users sick to their stomachs.
For advertisers the insight here is craft. VR is still a delicate medium–the trick is controlling the sensation of movement. Get it right and it’s the most powerful media experience we can deliver. Get it wrong and users will be reaching for the bucket.
Then there are the other senses. There is still no totally satisfactory way for users to interact physically with the VR environment, but there are a plethora of companies exploring different methods from live motion capture to robotic limb extensions.
Cracking this problem will solidify a sense of presence in virtual reality experiences. It’s one thing to see your hand reach out and grab for something, but if your hand actually feels that object, the potential of virtual worlds becomes real. Haptic feedback could place users in idealized situations while interacting with a product.
Even the newly announced Crescent Bay headset could vastly improve its experience with haptic feedback. Crescent Bay is lighter and more powerful (with better screen resolution) than the current DK2 development kit, but it’s still a long way from pixel perfect. There is still no solution for how the user moves and does not injure themselves during VR experience. That said this latest headset is a taste of where VR is going and frankly, it’s bloody exciting! But when this evolves further, just imagine the impact that could have for retail and product demos; it’s a marketer’s dream.
Henry Cowling is creative director at Unit9 VR, the VR division of production company Unit9.