Let’s start with a truism. Beyond the $2 billion greens that Zuckerberg put on the table when he snapped up Oculus Rift in 2014, there is about ten times that amount floating about laboratories owned by Sony, HTC and, now, dozens of startups eager to leap on the bandwagon in the hope of becoming the next Unicorn.
With so much money in the industry there is, understandably, a lot of hype. Add to it two more things: First, Hollywood desperately looking for the next silver bullet to add just a few more years to a waning industry that’s become overly dependent on tech and second, consumer expectations who have become spoiled by seamless CGI on screen, and machine learning breakthroughs in RL and want to be dazzled.
What you end up with is hype amplified by expectation and powered by desperation. This is probably not the best combination to achieve the kind of breakthrough that weaned us off tape and made CD-ROMs the tech of the future. Most articles on the subject hem and haw and end up sitting on the fence because, really, no one knows which way it will go.
Here’s what will determine its future:
Form factor. Understandably the visual experience of a VR Headset is pretty awesome. But you do need to have it strapped to your head and although there may not quite be the public backlash that somewhat unfairly but perfectly understandably, greeted Google Glass there is still the sense that an elephant could creep up on you while you are deep in cyberspace and you may never even notice.
Uptake. VR Headsets are not cheap. A breakthrough technology is one which everybody wants even if not everybody uses all the time. Right now cost is an issue so this is a wait-and-see factor If costs start to drop uptake will increase.
Uses. Video games can be pretty awesome in VR and educational uses may explode our minds but these are niche environments which, despite their depth, have a relatively low visibility. Even more importantly each comes with its own clearly defined boundaries which can work against VR being accepted in other areas because of that. This is more a developers and apps issue than a hardware one but just like Blue Ray video players could not really take off until there was a sufficient number of Blue Ray movies to watch, so will VR be unlikely to entice others to experiment if there is little to experiment with in the first place.
Utility. Let’s face it. We are all mobile now and VR is not. This is a more serious issue than you might think. When tablets threaten PC sales you begin to realize that something expensive that’s anchored to our living rooms (or offices) had better had something really special to offer that goes beyond a glorified 3D experience, in order to really make a huge difference in our lives.
Physical limitations. The occasional feeling of nausea that has been reported so far may be the least of our problems. As VR environments become more compelling and VR Headsets more widespread the human body’s adaptive capabilities will bring a new set of issues to deal with.
Now remember that augmented reality (AR) has none of these drawbacks (except maybe price but I am not thinking just Google Glass here, smartphones are pretty cool at delivering a very powerful digital overlay).
Will Marketing Become Different?
Should VR succeed hell, yeah! When you consider that marketing is changing along the path described by the 4Es of Experience, Everywhere, Exchange and Evangelism you realise that a virtual reality environment, done right is perfectly suited to delivering just this kind of experience and message in a very compelling way. As always when we have a new development there will be early adopters, enthusiastic proponents and those who simply tick the check box of whatever label you care to put on the latest marketing gimmick.
Having said that, the undoubtedly increased data-density of a VR environment makes it harder to capture attention, lie or manipulate. Identity, consistency and clearly defined values (or at least an unambiguous message) are more important than ever.
Marketers, brands and businesses of all types had better remember the basics before attempting to jump onto the new bandwagon.
The real change however will be in something else. Whether we are talking VR or AR the truth is that consumers will be more distracted than ever, tagged in many different directions with their attention fought over, begged for and enticed with blandishments. In that environment even those with a compelling message and a product that is clearly useful will find it hard to stand out every time.
Ultimate business success comes down to a relatively simple factor: The cost of customer acquisition. It doesn’t matter if you are the best business in the world. If you have to fight for every customer every time and then repeat that fight all over again next time you are working with limited resources and a glass ceiling over your head.
In the new digital realm where RL, AR and VR converge at some point those who consistently hold the attention of their audience create a community feeling around those who use their services or products. That ‘community experience’ is going to be the next marketing battleground.