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The Next Wave of Virtual Reality is Portable, Accessible, and Social

DigitasLBi

The Next Wave of Virtual Reality is Portable, Accessible, and Social

Today marks another big day in VR, with the NBA announcing a multi-year virtual reality partnership (that promises to rival the courtside experience) and Toyota’s partnership with USA Today’s new virtual reality program. This comes on the heels of last week’s big hardware announcements from PlayStation and Google and WebVR news from Facebook.

With the entry price point dropping, the expansion of content, and an open app-friendly platform on the horizon, consumer VR is clearly primed to scale. According to Juniper Research, VR hardware alone will be worth up to $50 billion by 2021. And, while it seems like VR has been on our minds for a long time, it’s important to remember that there have only been consumer-level devices on the market for around 6-12 months*.

For VR purists, it’s a race to hardware affordability

With the recent release of the PlayStation VR headset and the upcoming Google Daydream headset, Holiday 2016 marks the race to affordable VR hardware. And while both PSVR and Daydream will give many users their first VR experience in the home, their strategies differ slightly. PlayStation is naturally betting on games (like Star Wars, Batman and Final Fantasy) while Google is bringing killer app experiences (like YouTube, Street View, and The New York Times).

Out of the gate, it looks like Daydream will offer the most opportunity for marketers. For starters, the Google Play Store has always been an open platform for marketers to release VR app experiences for Cardboard. (And in 2017, we’re betting on the store embracing even deeper and more interactive experiences.) But, the most exciting feature for Daydream is the bundled motion tracked controller. Last week, Google showed off a Harry Potter universe game that gave the user control of a magic wand using a controller. A far superior user experience compared to the clunky gaze-and-click method on Cardboard.

One of the most interesting developments coming out of the Oculus Connect keynote, was a demonstration of Santa Cruz, a stand-alone Oculus Rift headset featuring “inside-out” position tracking capabilities. A device like this is the holy grail of VR tech in the near future. It allows you to move around a room-scale virtual environment without being tethered to a high-end PC. Oculus has set the bar for what to expect from VR hardware in the next 2-3 years. It gives current and prospective Oculus users a reason to choose that platform, knowing they’ll get a great experience both now and in the near future. The challenge will be sustaining users’ attention beyond pushed content to hardware.

Oculus has set the bar for what to expect from VR hardware in the next 2-3 years.

For the masses, the future of scalable VR is on the web

The tech community lit up with Facebook’s latest announcement that will pave the way to democratization of VR. Their new web browser exclusively for VR content (codenamed ‘Carmel’) and their ReactVR javascript framework will allow developers to create enriched VR-compatible 3D and 360 experiences without requiring users to be tethered to a game or an app. Without the requirement of traditional download, this WebVR shift will allow brands to think more broadly about VR experiences because of lack of user—and creator—commitment to hardware.

Through the Carmel platform, Oculus users will have the ability view VR experiences built in HTML and JavaScript. With the boundaries and complexities of creating VR experiences for a high-end headsets coming down, marketers can more easily create immersive experiences like product demos, interactive shopping or live-streamed 360° events. Most importantly, WebVR is not a platform that will be limited to Oculus users. Any brand can jump in and create content right now, offering immersive 360° to mobile phone, GearVR and (soon) Google Daydream users.

The case for making VR more social

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Social VR was coming “as soon as possible” to the Facebook platform. That’s because Zuckerberg wants to use VR to revolutionize how social interactions happen. In his keynote, Zuckerberg showed off a social experience where friends met in a mixed reality 360° environment. Bringing friends together to share content is central to the Facebook experience, and they are investing over $500 million dollars over the next few years to bring that to life. But it’s hard to believe that social will be limited to walled gardens like Facebook. With programming and events VR services like NextVR inking deals with the biggest networks and performers, the ability to have a virtual immersive experience with friends at your favorite game or concert is likely just around the corner.

With the rise of “conversation as UX” and human-to-computer interactions evolving to be more speech based, the way we currently communicate and share is quickly becoming outdated. Social VR presents an evolutionary opportunity for marketers to enhance the individual and group connections with audiences who already interact with them on social media. 

Imagine an exclusive product launch in VR or a luxury hotel tour hosted by a virtual concierge. With Social VR these immersive experiences are not only possible, but will be built into the Facebook platform.

How do brands move into the VR space?

As the digital landscape changes, consumers will increasingly look to brands for sensory journeys anchored in authenticity and emotive experiences that leave lasting impressions. Charles Melcher, founder of the Future of Storytelling Summit, has dubbed this “sensploration.” The key for brands will be tapping into empathy by focusing on moments attached to deep emotions like joy, fear, sadness, frustration, and curiosity.

  • Joining/creating events and cultural zeitgeists
  • Replicating hard-to-reach environments
  • Bringing fantasy to life
  • Nurturing individuals, groups
  • Teaching new skills/experiential education

Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, believes virtual reality can have a deep effect on behavior. “We are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can transform the self and [you can] experience anything the animator can fathom.” By tapping into consumer’s empathy, storytellers have the ability to create near lifelike experiences that can change perceptions. For example, Charity:Water raised $2.4MM in one day by transporting guests at their annual black-tie fundraising banquet to a small village in Ethiopia.

What are some current challenges?

The ability to capture and fuse 360 stories (audio/video) has greatly improved over the past 12 months. But haptics—any interaction involving touch—is still lagging behind. Touch is central to the way humans experience, and process, the world around them. And the VR community is furiously trying to solve for ways machines can authentically replicate touch sensations. Richard Moss of New Atlas believes improving tactile feedback in consumer technology will be crucial to bridge the divide between all that is physical and tangible from all that is digital and virtual. “The future of haptics seems limited only by our imaginations. The technology is maturing rapidly, and it’s making its way into the mass market on a scale worthy of developer attention. Now the interfaces that apply it need to catch up.”

How will VR reach its full potential?

Josh Constine of TechCrunch believes that the answer lies in developers, not consumers. “If Oculus can allow titles built for its headsets to also play on the web thanks to ReactVR and Carmel, it could expand the audience its developers can reach, which will attract more of them to its platform. That’s critical as the big VR platforms like Oculus, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR are all competing for developers to fill their headsets with the best games and apps.”

Photo Sources: (1) Google, (2) Facebook, (3) USA Today

** The lower-end GearVR was released in November 2015 and the high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were released right at the beginning of Spring 2016.