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Does virtual reality need a reality check?

Virtual reality

With the first VR headsets finally on sale to consumers, many are talking up the power of virtual. But behind the hype there still remains significant costs, as well as creative and logistical challenges, which is why some of VR’s more considered exponents believe a real-world reality check is overdue.

“Hype versus reality is the key issue.” That’s the view of Dino Burbidge, director of technology and innovation at WCRS, which is embarking on its first VR production after creating a 360 video experience called ‘Operation X’ for the RAF last year.

“It takes a brave and rich client to get a VR project into production,” says Burbidge. “It just can’t compete pound for pound with print, social, display or even TV when reach and value are the main metrics. And most agencies don’t understand how it’s actually made and therefore how much it should cost.”

Others agree that lack of client understanding is a significant issue.

“VR is a powerful medium of communication and experience. It works beautifully if – as with any technology – used for a specific reason that plays to its strengths,” says Andy Hood, head of emerging technologies at AKQA. The agency has used VR for brands including Nissan and Martell.

“It’s easy to do things with VR just because it is cool, which results in arbitrary and unsatisfying experiences,” he says.

And a root cause is a misunderstanding of what VR technology can actually do.

“I hear from a lot of production companies that they are seeing so many attempts at hammering a square peg of traditional media into the round hole of VR,” says David Bruno, creative lead at Google Creative Lab London.

“The key challenge is ensuring VR is the right medium for the story you’re trying to tell.”

The critical first step for any brand owner and agency considering VR is to ask themselves ‘why?’ says Henry Cowling, who oversees VR at production company Unit9. If the response is PR value or to reach a lot of people, it’s the wrong answer he says.

For every VR execution, a balance must be struck between focus on the ‘hero’ object, exploration of a beautifully developed 360 environment and progression through a linear narrative. The right balance will be determined by the money, time and effort a brand owner is willing to commit. And this, in turn, will dictate the VR experience’s richness and how users experience it.

At one end of the spectrum is the smartphone-based experience offered by hold-up VR viewers like Google Cardboard, which are accessible and impressive. At the other is the depth of immersive quality and interactivity offered by latest VR headsets, such as HTC Hive and Oculus Rift.

At whichever end of the spectrum a piece of VR content is being conceived however, creative ideas and anticipations of user response must be scaled accordingly.

Current penetration levels make VR a primarily event-driven experience – for now, at least, according to Jason Snyder, chief technology officer at Momentum, which developed a VR live action tennis experience for Amex to support its sponsorship of last year’s US Open.

“But we believe when Sony releases its VR headset for the PlayStation and games come out with a VR option, this will quickly change and bring more immersive experiences into the home,” he says.

Delivery of VR-like experiences has taken giant leaps forward with Facebook and YouTube 360, but true VR interactivity still requires an app or bespoke installation, Burbidge points out.

“Fully interactive VR rendered on the fly with a super-powerful PC is as stunning and immersive as it is expensive to make. You need teams of coders, game artists, 3D modellers, effect shader developers. As an agency you’ll need to buy them in and that’s when even TV budgets seem reasonable,” he says.

How best to use VR to tell a story is a major challenge with which many are still grappling.

“Too often brand owners look at VR through the lens of traditional TV commercial concepts,” says Patrick Miller, co-founder and president of VR producer Vrse.works.

“But you are going to be immersing people with zero distractions into a world and a story. We can’t be as cavalier as we have become accustomed to in other forms of marketing. A little goes a long way.”

With conventional production, the audience sees the director’s vision. With a VR production, the audience is, in effect, the camera, able to choose to view in any and all directions. Directors must therefore direct differently, and the same applies to writers and art directors.

“It’s very complicated. You have to think in every dimension and write in 360 as at any point the user can turn around and look at anything,” explains Victoria Buchanan, creative director at Tribal Worldwide, the agency behind the ‘Invisible Made Visible’ VR experience for VW Passat.

“You have to be agile and flexible – you can’t write a script and just shoot it. You just don’t know what you’ll get until the day.”

Cowling adds: “Film narrative and language is not necessarily the way to go because events unfolding at a fixed distance from the camera – which is the user’s perspective – means VR is not so good a way to tell a story that is emotionally driven, subtle and nuanced.”

If a user can look in any direction at any time, pacing and timing are even more important than they are in conventional film. Comedy has to fight harder if it is to grab attention. Physical detail must stand close scrutiny should the audience choose to linger. And strong narrative is essential to encourage a user to move alone.

Interactivity is important, too, albeit challenging.

“There are too many passive, single pop, static experiences in which the user can do no more than look all around at 360 environments,” explains Hood.

“VR as a medium cries out to be interacted with,” Bruno agrees. “The key challenge is how we design filmic user interactions that feel native to film as well as VR – something we’re exploring ourselves at the moment within Creative Lab.”

But there is often a reason for this, according to Sanne Drogtrop, executive producer at 72andSunny, which has just launched a VR experience positioning the Netherlands as Europe’s West Coast for StartUp Fest Europe.

“Creative ambition is currently going beyond what hardware and software are capable of,” she explains. “We recommend our teams to stay clear of using too much interaction. It’s still quite clunky and therefore breaks the spell.”

As important as understanding how to shoot VR, however, is knowing how not to, according to Christine Cattano, executive producer at Framestore’s VR studio.

“Brand owners’ primary concerns don’t usually include comfort and nausea,” she explains. “I judged this year’s Association of Independent Commercial Producers’ awards (which now includes a VR category) and I’d rate 90 per cent of the experiences as extremely uncomfortable.”

Finding the right specialists with which to partner is another challenge.

“Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of VR production houses that will be more than happy to charge a small fortune and pretty much pay for them to learn the process,” Burbidge observes.

But, he quickly adds, this is by no means the norm: “We’re starting to see some VR production houses commoditise VR production with transparency from day-rate pricing, grading, shoots, post – all the things we’re used to, so we can compare without paying for mysterious unicorn sparkle.”

Despite lingering concerns, often obscured by hype, many believe VR’s role in brand communications can only – and, inevitably, will – grow. But its future value in marketing will be dictated by how it is used, according to Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide, behind the recent #befearless campaign for Samsung Electronics.

“The potential is huge for brands that have something more meaningful to contribute,” he believes. “And that means going beyond the same old thrill of the theme park roller coaster or Dos Equis’ voyeur’s party.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's special VR issue.

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