From its often bleak portrayal by science fiction and Hollywood movies, to public expectation being over-hyped, VR’s early efforts to revolutionise the world never quite took off. After one too many false starts, the VR industry effectively closed shop in the mid-90s, just in time for the internet to take over the digital revolution.
Then, in March last year, Facebook announced the purchase of VR tech firm Oculus for $2 billion, propelling virtual reality back to the top of the innovation race. Today, some of the world’s biggest tech giants have joined the party, making big moves into VR. Among them are the likes of Lenovo, HTC, Samsung, Google, Microsoft and Sony. All these companies have products either in the market or waiting in the wings.
Virtual reality is back. And this time, it’s serious.
But with a history beset by false-starts, cybersickness, a bad rep and some not-quite-there technology, the question that rises is, just how seriously should we be taking VR?
“I think it’s going to be very serious,” says Jonathon Oliver, global head of innovation at Microsoft. “It’s the next big arms race for businesses to win.”
“This is not a fad,” says Don Anderson, managing director at We Are Social Singapore. “While there are plenty of detractors out there, any noise they are hoping to create is being drowned out by the commitment currently exhibited by the world's largest tech firms. VR is something none of us will be able to ignore."
Microsoft HoloLens: Oliver distinguises HoloLens' aumented reality with virtual reality
What separates earlier attempts at VR with the latest wave that’s poised to hit the market?
For Oliver, the key differences lie in the significant investment in the technology, that’s about to meet a tech-savvy, and tech-hungry consumer. The investment is there, and the market is now open to it and ready for it.
“One thing that you can say that is very telling, is the level of investment, and the level of motivation from a number of difference companies” he says. “The reason why people are reticent is because there have been a number of false starts over the years.”
“In the past, technology and consumer trends weren’t indisputable wedded together. Today they are. Consumer trends and tech trends are one and the same,” Oliver adds.
So what does this all mean for marketers?
The obvious opportunity for brands and marketers, Anderson points out, is to deliver first-hand, virtual experiences around particular products or services.
“That could involve anything from visiting a particular hotel or taking a vehicle for a test drive before purchase. Virtual reality allows marketers to deliver stories and richer content experiences that traditional forms of advertising can’t match,” he says.
Many brands have already started experimenting with VR, with the likes of Volvo, Virgin Holidays, Mountain Dew and Nissan among some of the early adopters. Most recently, BBC Global News used VR in a new interactive campaign to showcase how it delivers personal, portable and on-demand news for the digital age. Be Everywhere, premiered at Cannes Lions this week, “to illustrate the innovative digital opportunities available to advertisers.”
In another example, tequila brand Patron took users on a virtual tour of its distillery. “Virtual reality is capable of delivering unique experiences to audiences they can access at any time provided they have the technology,” says Anderson.
Greg Isbister, CEO at adtech firm BlisMedia, highlights the opportunity for brands to actually advertise within virtual world.
“Several companies are aiming to serve brands that want to advertise on these new platforms,” he says. “Sponsored content within the VR environment is an obvious opportunity for applications like gaming, but also billboards, videos and other kinds of advertising could easily fit into computer-augmented worlds.”
With many of the big players yet to release their products to market – including Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and Microsoft’s HoloLens – another big question mark over VR is whether or not it will ever be adopted by a mass market.
As Oliver points out, the market will decide whether wearing a headset looks funny, and the market will decided whether the VR price point is relative to the experiences that they want to dive into.
Google Cardboard: Grand Prix award winner for the mobile category at Cannes Lions 2015
But as the hype machine has been generating momentum over the past 12 months, one unlikely piece of virtual reality kit has already captured a massive audience, along with the imagination of consumers and developers alike. Where Google’s high-spec, high-tech Glass failed to live-up to the hype, a simple piece of cardboard that offers an authentic VR experience has found a market.
“Today, I'm proud to say that there are over one million Cardboard viewers in the world,” said Clay Bavor, VP of product management at Google at the company’s 2015 I/O event.
“Our goal with Cardboard was to make virtual reality available to everyone and so we started with a piece of cardboard, some velcro, added some lenses and a rubber band and amazingly enough that is all you needed to turn your smartphone into a VR device,” he added.
Such has been the impact of Google's Cardboard project that it took home the Grand Prix award for the mobile category at Cannes Lions this week – an award usually handed to campaigns. Judges said that Cardboard had given mobile “new possibilities to really change behavior and have a huge impact on consumer life.”
Anderson believes that the early adopters in VR will be the ones that benefit most. “Marketers would be best advised to start researching and exploring now, in order to get in front of the coming wave of device launches, all of which will need content to justify consumer purchase.”
Isbister agrees: “What we do know is that things tend to happened a lot faster than we imagine, so it’s important that brands and marketers join early adopters and manufacturers on this fast-moving learning curve.”
But for all the talk, the hype and the growing expectations that surround the biggest innovation wave of the moment, filmmaker Chris Milk offers the best conclusion.
“Unfortunately,” he said in his recent Ted Talks. “Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture.”
For a more in-depth look at VR, look out for our special Innovation Issue. Coming soon.
This article is part of the Campaign Innovate series, a collection of articles that examine the way innovation, startups and technology are affecting the advertising and marketing industry.
Campaign Asia-Pacific has also launched the Campaign Innovate competition, an event that aims to provide a platform for Asia-Pacific's startups to pitch to some of the world's biggest brands.