Big Picture: How soon is now? Virtual reality arrives

Nicola Riches
By Nicola Riches | 7 March 2016

This article first appeared in AdNews in-print. Click here to subscribe to the AdNews magazine or read the iPad edition here.

Virtual Reality has moved beyond the Matrix and science fiction’s sensational, dystopian visions. Now it comes in the palm of your hand in smartphones. Early forays have been made, but how will advertisers, brands and content makers utilise the new medium to campaign and convey messages? Nicola Riches reports.

Virtual reality (VR) is at a tipping point, although that’s been said before. Tech geeks and content freaks are ushering in a VR future with enthusiastic haste while the rest of the world appears content to languish in the very real present.

But the future is upon us now and it’s tipping in favour of the geeks and freaks. The mainstream arrival of Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR and the HTC Vive – all accompanied by a media furore quite unseen before – will happen in the first six months of this year.

Michael Abrash, Oculus’ chief scientist, told Vanity Fair: “Once you put it on and have that experience you never look at it the same way again. People sometimes say ‘Wow, that was incredibly cool!’, sometimes they say it was almost a religious experience. They know that things have changed.”

Abrash is clearly biased and his enthusiasm might well be infectious. Because of the cumbersome design of the headsets and a price tag not yet suited to your average suburban family, it’s not in every home yet. But courtesy of Google, Samsung and more, coming down the line are Android headsets powered by mobile phones, much like Google Cardboard, and it will be.

“Mobile VR is better,” Maxus’ director of technology Tom Kelshaw said, “everyone has a super computer in their pocket which can run great VR experiences. They just need a headset they can slot it into. That’s how VR is going to get into the hands of real audiences.”

Real audiences, mass appeal. Marketers, brands and content makers are already in the space, staking claims, playing with technologies, creating campaigns and bringing VR to the point where it becomes a meaningful part of our lives. As far as advertising and brands are concerned, VR has arrived and the possibilities it harbours are endless.big pic stats

There are a handful of excellent local examples of how VR can work for a brand. Isobar jumped in providing a VR accompaniment to its AdNews Agency of the Year entries; Tourism Australia’s campaign, where a team led by Clemenger BBDO shot 17 pieces of footage to be viewed in 2D and 360/VR; and Havas Group’s work with the Steve Waugh Foundation where Fitness First spin cycle groups could join in a charity bike ride. Telstra has also been playing with virtual reality 360 video for sport fans.

Tourism Australia’s foray has thrown down the gauntlet to other tourism bodies to match its power and effectiveness. Meanwhile, as a PR exercise, Havas’ work resulted in $1 million being raised for the foundation.

Understanding how VR can be applied is an art in itself. If you believe that ads will be delivered in a VR-optimised format during VR experiences, then you are probably wide of the mark. Instead, early indications show that VR will appeal most to those creating branded content solutions and those in the business of securing sponsorships.

Take, for example, NBA in the US.

“It has saturated the local market,” Red Agency and Havas PR APAC managing director James Wright points out. “Around the world, 99.5% of people will never get to see a NBA game live, so through VR, you can see how they can help people experience it. That’s massive.” And what’s massive for NBA is massive for sponsors too.

There is an implicit understanding that VR lends itself to putting people in environments they wouldn’t normally be in, giving the consumer a rare and engaging experience. Kelshaw’s Metalworks team at Maxus, which until December was working out of an R&D lab in Singapore, has been taking thisconcept one step further.

“There has been a lot of experimentation,” he explained. “We had to learn as much about these emerging technologies as our clients and other agencies so we could at least have reliable vendor assessments.”

Part of that experimentation included the creation – in association with an external partner operating out of California – of a multi-sensory communication tool to enhance the VR experience with fragrance and touch.

Confirming that it is working with a ‘large cosmetic brand’, Kelshaw explained that, “We felt that misting perfume when someone sees a perfume logo in a VR environment is not how the tech should be used.

“Rather, it’s about the provenance of things. For example, putting someone into the workshop where an expensive handbag is made so they can see it happen in VR 360-degree and smell the wood and the leather around them. We’re working to roll it out soon.”

A common theme from creatives and tech geeks is the advertising notion of storytelling has to be adapted to fit the VR environment since this is where the technology will really come into its own.

“Imagine a ‘Chanel presents…’ VR experience which you could download to your phone and slot into your headset,” Kelshaw enthused. Clemenger executive creative director Paul Nagy, who was responsible for Tourism Australia’s play, also stressed the need for adland’s storytellers to get to grips with the opportunities proposed by VR.

“We need to think about the fundamentals of storytelling and how that translates in a VR arena,” Nagy said. He explained that traditional adverts, where the point of focus appears in front of a 2D camera addressing the audience, just can’t work in a VR setting.

“There’s no behind the camera,” he said. “It’s an entirely new form of creativity to learn. Wonderful, but very difficult too.”

Interestingly, despite any yet-to-be-ironed-out hurdles and challenges, some people complain of motion sickness when viewing VR, for example, it has been noted that storytelling will be underpinned by two themes: empathy and education. The former because you can literally step into someone else’s shoes and the latter because you can experience the rare or unusual.

The New York Times has already set out its VR stall, beginning a series of VR stories with a film called The Displaced about three refugee children growing up in Lebanon, South Sudan and Ukraine. It begs the question – what’s next for campaigning, charity awareness and fundraising?

But, as Nagy said, “everything in marketing is about selling the dream” and more than any other medium VR promises to sell the dream in spades.

In fact, VR delivers not just a virtual experience, but a hyper-reality or an accentuated reality, as demonstrated by the Tourism Australia campaign.

“Even when you’re in that environment [Australia’s Northern Territory], you can’t actually experience what VR can bring. Only a drone can go there. You can’t float above a river and swoop down to the side of a cliff, carved out with rock art. You can only do that with VR. It offers a different reality than the one we experience first-hand with our own senses,” Nagy said.

A hyper-reality offered up by VR sits very neatly with aspirational marketing, particularly if it’s wrapped in a clever and immersive narrative.

“It’s far more theatrical than just an audio-visual platform,” Kelshaw added. “People who work in events and for experiential agencies already know how to work in VR, they just don’t know it yet.”

Once the creases are ironed out – controlling the motion sickness (apparently this is solved by including a shadow of your own hands), a proliferation of cheap, mobile headsets and a coming together of technology and storytelling, VR’s limits will know no bounds.

As Wright concluded, “we have had the technology and the information age, now we are entering the experience age.”

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