The Real Opportunity Behind Virtual Reality

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First things first. Here is how virtual reality was portrayed in the 1990s. Also, this is why it tanked so spectacularly.

This clip was extracted from 1994s Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and the gorgeous Demi Moore. Actually, the plot has nothing to do with Virtual Reality (VR). In this movie Michael Douglas hooks up yet once again with a…let’s just say…a mentally disturbed lady. Yet once again he gets harassed, but the harassed becomes the harasser. If you are a hardcore feminist, I would suggest that you stay away from this film.

I could have chosen many other examples in film to illustrate my point. I chose Disclosure because it portrayed the most…how to put it? The most down-to-earth conception of VR. Other movies like Total Recall or even Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Mnemonic deal play with the VR concept in a way much more…is it fair to call it delirious? It was SciFi after all.

The first (and awkward) attempts.

As a nineties kid, I was absolutely sure that VR was about to be the next sh*t. Every company was going in that direction, either researching or coming up with the most useless and uncomfortable gear. The best examples you will find are in the video game field. Remember Virtual Boy? I swear you do not. It was the most uncomfortable device ever built. I did not have the, er, pleasure to try it myself, but it is known that many necks and eyes suffered greatly after 15 to 20 minutes usage. My cervicals hurt just thinking about it.

virtual reality

Be sure to check this Angry Video Game Nerd episode for a hilarious depiction of the way Nintendo got VR in 1995.

Every 1990s VR device may have bombed, but looks like virtual reality was not as messy as we thought it would be. Modern devices such as Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard proved that you do not need humongous gadgets that eat six double A batteries every 30 minutes to have an immersive experience. In all fairness, almost fifteen years transpired between the those first awkward attempts and the technology we are getting acquainted with today.

The two types of VR.

For a time, the efforts to create viable devices for immersive virtual reality were dropped. Then there came Internet, and non immersive was the name of the game. What is non immersive VR? A situation in which either only some senses are engaged, or they are all engaged but just partially. For instance, when you browse Google Street View your sight and touch are subsumed whereas your hearing, smell and taste are not. If you browse Google Street View using Google Cardboard Goggles, it will still be a non immersive simulation. It can be more intense, but some senses are still left out of the simulation.

Many companies claim they offer immersive experiences, and that is not always accurate – at least according to the strict definition. But we are getting there and, at this rate, we will be completely immersed in no time.

If you want money you sell experiences, not products.

I have said it many times before, experiences are everything. Products are nothing if they do not offer great experiences, and this is what the public craves – whether they know it or not. People are more prone to consume products or services that provide the most intense experiences.

When I was a little girl, I dreamed about a future in advertising. I would ‘binge watch’ commercials, a hard enterprise in the pre YouTube times. As expected, my favorites were the clever ones. No, that is not true. My favorites were those that made you laugh so hard that you missed out the product they were trying to sell. Little did I know – turns out that those two are the most ineffective kinds of commercials.

The ads that actually sell are those that give a glimpse of what the product is like – the bigger the glimpse the better. In the 1940s a radio announcer would describe the qualities of certain dish soap. In the 1960s, you could watch the product in action. In the late 1990s, you could visit Palmolive’s web site and play an in built game that dares you to snap dish soap bubbles (the above mentioned non immersive virtual reality) .

Thus, every new piece of technology adds another ‘touch of reality’ to the mix.

No distractions.

Good thing I did not follow a career in advertising, because those clever ads I used to like have no place in today’s industry. Technology is currently providing a way to make consumers concentrate on the task of…well, consuming. Do not get me wrong, this imperative does not make advertisements boring. Quite the contrary!

VR technology has the potential to merge advertising with entertainment. Entertising? Advertainment? Someone should come up with a better neologism.

VR allows audiences (I chose the term on purpose) to try a product without it being anywhere near. It shortens the distance between the user and the used. It creates intimacy. In its most immersive form, VR focuses the consumers attention entirely on the product – and the brand, of course.

The risks and the challenges.

VR in advertising equals brutal honesty. The flaws will be exposed. Advertising has always been about showing the brighter side of the matter. But asĀ Laurie Anderson once said to The New York Times, ‘virtual reality would never be true to life until developers put some dirt in it’.

The key here is to show the good without overlooking the bad, because bad equals real and real means profit. This may sound complicated, impossible even. However, consumers today have a great appreciation for sincerity. The use of VR in advertising might mean the end of a century of misleading publicity.

Does this mean that VR can only be used to advertise ‘perfect’ products? As of today, I have only seen million dollar companies using this technology: Samsung, Nike, Kawasaki, the NBA. But despair not, for this is only the dawn of this kind of technology. If you can get this just by looking through a cardboard box…

…the sky is the limit.

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