Facebook is out to prove that virtual reality is more real than its detractors think, erecting an in-house studio to create fully immersive films on its Oculus Rift platform. If the medium is to be widely accepted by advertisers then the social network needs to show how the learnings can convey a more tangible form of the brand experience.
The technology giant’s virtual reality push is on. Four films are in various stages of production that will flout the Oculus Rift headset’s potential to change movie production. The first feature, titled “Lost”, debuts at this week’s Sundance Film Festival where those who try it will feel like they are traversing a virtual environment that reacts to their actions at certain points.
Experiential goes digital
Instead of channelling its energies into gaming, like many thought it would after the Oculus Rift buy last year, Facebook’s proposition for the platform looks likely to push the more mainstream movie format. This is backed by the calibre of expertise brought in to steer the project, including industry veterans from Pixar Animations Studios and Lucasfilm.
While the films are unlikely to impact the Facebook user experience in the near term, the learnings could pave the way for more experiential online activations in the future. Brands such as Nissan, Samsung and Coca-Cola have already tested the space, championing its potential to build brands through immersive experiences rather than interruptive messages.
But industry experts urge caution. Virtual reality won’t transform marketing tactics or business plans within the next year or two they add, and the cost of entry to the expensive tools could limit it initially to only a handful of brands, consequently stunting innovation.
Laurier Nicas Alder, head of social at TMW Unlimited, said: "When Facebook acquired Oculus last year, Mark Zuckerberg predicted that we’d see whole lot more than gaming from the company in future and they’ve certainly not wasted any time. I can imagine that studios and brands alike will be biting at a chance to be a part of this innovation early, if for nothing else, to be at the forefront of something so new and exciting."
Robin Thomas, digital strategist at content marketing agency Cedar, added: “Setting aside the technical, operational and budgetary considerations, the opportunities for brands within VR worlds are vast. For those with strong narratives and relevant stories to tell VR offers immersive experience at an unparalleled level. The key here, as with everything else, being relevance.
“As with all emerging technologies and platforms there will be a need for content, and lots of it, and those brands that invest early and learn quickly should reap the rewards. I just hope that the cost of entry for brands and customers doesn’t mean that this is limited to a few big spending brands creating experiences that no one sees."
The virtual reality equation
Facebook is bullish on its plans for virtual reality despite the dearth of information shared so far. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg teased at the really “exciting” upcoming desktop and mobile developments for Oculus Rift during its last financial call to analysts. He described the headset as a key component of the “next [computer platform] and revealed it has shipped more 100,000 of Rift developer kits to over 130 countries.
Matthew Payne, head of creative technology, We Are Social, which has tested VR technology, said consumers’ appetite for video would push devices such as Oculus Rift into homes, giving Facebook the scale needed to integrate it into its wider ecosystem. The prospect of seeing their favourite TV shows in 3D could tempt those lapsed users, particularly teenagers, back to the social network, he added.
"We have a multitude of VR headsets - the focus up to now has been on the hardware”, said Payne. “Now people want to see what really can be done with this technology. Software and content is the future - the real selling point - and immersive video content has always been the next step.
"Gamers will purchase the device for gaming experiences, but video is what will eventually put these devices in people's homes. Innovators in the VR realm have been experimenting along with some smaller film studios for this reason. Ultimately, people enjoy good stories. Facebook has evolved with this mindset, it knows what makes content shareable and engaging, and it will be using the technology available to it to take this to the next level."
Facebook is not the first company to produce virtual films but its scale gives it a unique proposition should it succeed in its attempts to court Hollywood and brand investment. As the likes of Google and Microsoft also prime moves for the space, the social network is flipping its own strategy into high gear.