Is virtual reality the Holy Grail for advertisers?

17 May 2016  |  Tim Jones 
Is virtual reality the Holy Grail for advertisers?

Its immersive nature should mean virtual reality will work wonders for brands, but it's not without its risks, writes the7stars' Tim Jones.

The current user base is small, but with Virtual Reality headsets set to become this year's "must-have" gadget, could VR be the next big frontier for digital ads? It's certainly an exciting prospect.

Over the past month Oculus, HTC and PlayStation - the latest major players in the VR market - have all announced details of their highly anticipated headsets that will go on sale this summer.

The Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard VR viewers also continue to grow in popularity, and YouTube has now rolled out support for VR videos on its mobile apps. VR is fast becoming the hottest trend in home technology.

VR headsets strap over the eyes and ears, creating a fully immersive, distraction-free environment. This could be the Holy Grail digital advertisers have been after for years - a medium that guarantees the absolute, undivided attention of its audience throughout a viewing, along with an impactful and memorable experience.

The appeal is obvious and some brands have already begun to experiment with their own sponsored experiences for the existing hardware.

In May 2015, Mountain Dew produced 'Dew VR Snow Experience', a virtual snowboarding experience that sat at the top of Samsung Gear's most popular video list for months.

Clash of Clans created one of the most popular VR experiences on YouTube with its 'Virtual Raid' (see video, below) and Boursin, perhaps not the most likely brand for VR advertising, created its own 'Sensorium' experience - a virtual rollercoaster ride through a gigantic fridge stuffed with flying tomatoes, dancing jam jars and mountains of cheese.

Even a simple idea can result in a memorable experience in VR. But while the immersiveness of VR is what makes it so attractive to advertisers, it also comes with its own potential pitfalls that could seriously harm a brand.

VR content must be produced at an extremely high frame-rate and low latency (the time between a user's action and the on-screen reaction) to avoid motion sickness. Poorly produced VR content that doesn't accurately or smoothly track the user's motions could quickly have them reaching for the sick bag.

The technical requirements and expertise required to produce this kind of content should not be underestimated, and it is currently beyond the capabilities of many creative agencies.

Repurposing existing TV ads or video content should also be avoided. VR needs to be experiential to be effective - the viewer should feel like they are interacting in the world they are seeing, instead of being a detached observer.

As VR becomes more popular, we could begin to see more standardised ad formats, like the pre-rolls and mid-rolls we are so used to seeing on online video."

Some film and game releases have simply taken pre-existing footage, added 360-degree viewing capability and hoped for the best. A recent trailer for 'Just Cause 3' had the viewer watching the game's protagonist skydiving, whilst failing to ever create the impression that they too were skydiving - an opportunity clearly missed.

At the moment there are no standard formats for VR ads - brands are currently creating their own VR experiences and relying on shared organic reach. As VR becomes more popular though, we could begin to see more standardised formats, like the pre-rolls and mid-rolls we are so used to seeing on online video.

The main issue with VR ads is that if viewers are interrupted by an ad they did not choose to watch and do not want to watch, then they are physically unable to look elsewhere. The experience could quickly turn from annoying to downright unpleasant.

The solution is to retain an element of choice for users in what they watch whilst always offering exciting content that they will want to experience. The consequence of not doing this is that users will either be put off the platform in its early stages or ad-blockers will be created, prompting the same issue that is currently facing other digital platforms.

The high price-point and PC/console requirements of the latest generation of headsets (four USB 3.0 ports for an Oculus Rift) are also likely to be prohibitive to the mass audience in the early stages, appealing almost exclusively to tech aficionados and gamers. Brands should carefully consider their target audience before jumping on board immediately.

However, the future is exciting for VR. The platform will find a wider audience as a greater variety of experiences are made available. Soon viewers will be able to watch sport (this is already being trialled with football), concerts and other events from their own home.

VR 'cinemas' are appearing across Europe, with London set to get its own soon, and rumours abound of what will be the first Hollywood VR movie.

How and where digital advertising fits into this future - if at all - remains to be seen, but VR certainly holds the potential to give us some of the most exciting content we've ever seen.

Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.

Tim Jones is digital campaign manager at the7stars


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