Are you experienced? Facebook, Google and Apple pile in to virtual reality

By Lucy Clark | 2 May 2014
Oculus Rift

Imagine being inside a 3D Cadbury World. Or on the side of Mount Everest. Or inside the World Cup stadium in Rio for the final?

All of this is now, in theory, possible – thanks to virtual reality (VR) technology. The world's biggest tech brands – Apple, Facebook and Google – are putting their money into VR. Potentially its the future experiential marketing and while it's some way off mainstream, marketers and advertisers that grasp the opportunity now presented could change the way they connect with customers.

“It's a whole new area of thinking for marketing and advertising,” David Francis, head of augmented reality company (there's a difference between 'virtual' and 'augmented' reality) Blue Star Interactive, told AdNews. “You have to think along the lines of experiences being completely immersive and viewing things in a different way.”

So what is the difference between 'augmented' and 'virtual'?

Francis explained: “While 'virtual reality' is a completely digital environment that you are inside and you can't see any of the real world, 'augmented reality' is where you are seeing partially the real world around you and partially a digital experience – such as a digital impression of someone standing next to you.”

Both are a shift away from the present.

“No longer are people sitting back and viewing a screen or a billboard – people are viewing things in the way they would view the world most naturally, and it's taking the word 'interactive' to its true meaning,” said Francis. “It's not about moving a cursor or tapping a screen. Truly interactive, to me, is about being active.”

Currently leading the space is Oculus, the company that was last month acquired by Facebook and responsible for the Rift headset.

Erik Hallander, Isobar's mobile and innovation director, outlined the ad opportunities: “There are a lot of opportunities for brands, especially for things that are hard to visualise, such as if you are buying a house and want to know how it could look, or if you want a different texture for your walls. Oculus would be a great sales tool if a brand wants to show how something could look.”

Deniz Nalbantoglu, managing director of digital shop Webling Interactive, said: “I think VR will be used for experiential marketing first. For example, there will be a fixed set-up in a shopping mall or a car showroom where you can put the Rift on and experience the brand. Especially brands that are targeting a younger audience.”

Nalbantoglu predicts the real estate market will be one of the first to adopt VR, having already dabbled with augmented reality.

“The industry that will probably be the first cab out of the rank in VR is real estate,” he said. “If you were able to look inside a property while sitting at home, or in a real estate agent's office, that would be a real benefit.

“But a whole bunch of industries could benefit from using it such as automotive and fashion; sit behind the wheel, try on the clothes. Anything that provides an immersive experience that's truly useful for the consumer could benefit.”

Francis goes a step further.

He speculated: “If an Oculus Rift is connected to your mobile and your mobile has information about you and what you like and where you go, there is no reason why a 360 degree virtual world cannot be a really powerful advertising platform as well, and brands could occupy some of the visual real estate in a virtual environment.”

Big money

Last month, Facebook's acquisition of Oculus was signed off.

"Why would Facebook buy a VR platform?,” asked Francis. “I believe it's because the future is all about 3D,” he said, also citing Apple's acquisition of Israeli-based 3D imaging company PrimeSense (the brains behind Microsoft Kinect) at the end of 2013, and Google's Project Tango phone, both of which offer 3D image capturing.

“Apple, Google and Facebook have no doubt that the future is 3D,” he added.

While the gaming world is the “low hanging fruit” for the Oculus Rift, Francis said: “When you look at the possibilities for people being able to travel from their living rooms, or for conferencing, or being at the board table, there is a lot of utility in it.”

But, for the time being, these devices are hard to come by and, according to Isobar's mobile and innovation director Erik Hallander, “it's going to be a long time before we see an Oculus as a staple in the home”.

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