Why I’m So Excited By Immersive, Virtual Reality Content

The potential of virtual and augmented reality technology presents marketers and public relations practitioners with a wealth of opportunities to engage new audiences and help brands tell their stories, says Matt Silver.

Freefly Virtual Reality HMD
It may be raining outside, but I won’t let that bother me!

Virtual Reality – or VR – is something of a hot topic at the moment, featuring heavily on the conference circuit at big events like MWC and SXSW earlier this year, but it’s not a particularly new concept or technology – it’s been around since the late 1950s (arguably).

Indeed it’s been over 20 years since Nintendo launched Virtual Boy – a well-documented failure along the road to the VR renaissance we find ourselves in today.

A lot has changed since the fifties, the mid-nineties, and so on. Even the past few years’ advances in technology are quite staggering.

Virtual reality is no longer a fiction or a fanciful experiment confined to the development labs of Silicon Valley.

Higher-end systems from Oculus Rift and HTC are being shipped to early adopters, and for those with shallower pockets or just dipping toes in the VR pond there is Google Cardboard and a vast array of HMDs running VR content through apps on mobile devices, like the Freefly VR pictured above.

It’s by no means mainstream, but it’s not too far off either.

2016 has been touted by many commentators as ‘the year of the VR revolution’, and while a lot of the hype around the technology is just that, we need to be ready for when it does inevitably become ‘the next big thing’.

As communicators we need to understand the technology, its applications, and how it can be used to add value to our clients’ wider communication and stakeholder engagement efforts – the sooner, the better.

Why VR for PR?

Research shows that millennials value, and are more likely to spend money on, experiences over material things, and this presents communicators with both a challenge and an opportunity – we need to get better at designing increasingly experiential, emotive content to achieve success.

By creating engaging, interactive and immersive content we can help build relationships and sell ideas, services and even products by helping brands tell their stories in increasingly compelling ways.

We’ve already seen a number of VR-led PR campaigns achieve quite commendable coverage but most of these have been novelty experiments or stunt-based, ‘world’s first VR [insert pretty generic idea here]’, that have done little more for brands than generate a few vanity metrics – they certainly haven’t made any discernible impact on the companies’ reputations.

But we’re beginning to see campaigns that are creating real value emerging now:

  • 360 walking tours of art galleries for schoolchildren who otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit, widening access to culture. There’s even content exploring what remains of Chernobyl – helping to explain the nuclear disaster, what caused it, and what that means for the area now.
  • Samsung’s #BeFearless campaign showed VR technology being used to help everyday people conquer their fear of public speaking – improving the way business is done and tackling what is known to be a particular cause of anxiety in many of us.
  • Architecture firms are using virtual reality headsets to help sell big ideas to clients – allowing them not not only see, but experience the visions of the innovative designers before committing to them.
  • The New York Times has produced some fantastic immersive content to help it tell stories in ways it simply couldn’t do in print or online. Could this ‘deep storytelling’ emerge as the revenue stream that keeps journalism alive? I suspect not, but I could easily be wrong.
  • Amnesty International’s 360 experience ‘Fear of the Sky’ is another great example of a campaign that takes something almost impossible for most of us to imagine and brings it to life in such a way that brings about greater understanding of the situation in the middle east, empathy with the Syrian people, and encourages action.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, that’s the big question isn’t it.

Immersive content – first virtual, then augmented reality – is going to be a big thing. I don’t think that’s in doubt.

Communicators, and indeed marketers, need to think about what stories they want to tell, what audiences they can target with VR/AR, and what’s going to resonate with them.

Then comes – what you think is – the tricky bit, selling these ideas to clients. As with most things the bigger the idea, the bigger the budget required, and it might seem a bit of a hard task, but a good enough idea and a bit of show-and-tell should sell itself.

The real tricky bit is producing the content itself – engaging content creators with the necessary skills and knowledge to translate these bold ideas into experiences and do them justice. Far too many VR projects fall down here, with the idea oversold, and the result under-delivering.

Like anything new there will be a learning curve and some mistakes will inevitably be made, but I’m very much looking forward to the near future where we will see some of these innovative new campaigns in action – virtually or otherwise.

Virtually no AR?

While I mentioned augmented reality (AR) in passing, we didn’t really explore this technology any further. There’s a reason for that – it’s still a little way off – but those in the know are incredibly excited by it, and I am too!

 

I’m always on the lookout for great examples of Virtual Reality in action, so if you see anything interesting do send it my way, and as always feel free to share any thoughts below or on Twitter.

Matt Silver

Corporate & Technology PR bod at Ketchum with an interest in emerging technologies, online behaviours, sustainability & social business. Fond of fine food and drink. Member of CIPR & PRCA.