If there was one topic virtually everyone was buzzing about at both Advertising Week New York and IAB Mixx, it was virtual reality (VR).
And while talking about tipping points for technology seems dangerous — I’m looking at you, “Year of Mobile” — the consensus, as with mobile previously, is that VR will inevitably change our lives, but it’s just a question of when and how.
With that in mind, marketers are in what could be called an awkward adolescence as they try to figure out how to use VR.
In fact, per Resh Sidhu, virtual reality creative director at visual effects company Framestore, her job is really about persuading clients not to do bad VR.
Beyond that, Sidhu said it means holding client hands about what bad and good VR means exactly, as well as explaining what technology is available today, what its limitations are and how to deliver the right VR experience, whether it’s via Google Cardboard, which has reach but not the best experience, or HTC Vive, which has a great experience, but not as much reach.
“You should only use VR when it’s the only natural solution to deliver on [a] problem and no other medium could do,” Sidhu said. “Every time we do a VR piece, we try to do something that hasn’t been done before. We’re pushing the vision of what VR can be.”
Rob Holzer, CEO of creative agency Matter Unlimited, agreed VR is not for every story or use case.
“We have all seen our share of VR content that never should have seen the light of day. It’s such a new medium, so we’re all experimenting,” Holzer said. “And the brand piece is different because it’s a completely different medium and you have to throw out a lot of what you know about filmmaking. It’s much more.”
And, Charles Melcher, CEO of Melcher Media and founder of the Future of Storytelling Summit, added, “The criteria I use is: If it could be done as a straight film and could be just as good, it should be.”
‘A story experience’
Per Sidhu, there are two buckets in VR. One is passive like a ballerina twirling in a music box and the other — which is emerging — is driven by gaming. It allows users to interact in that world, which means storytelling will inevitably change.
“We’re finding in the early days of VR, it gives you that agency,” Sidhu said. “It’s not storytelling as we know it. That’s why filmmakers we work with have a big challenge. They have had years of controlling the show — there is no fade to black in VR — but you can orchestrate sound to draw attention in another direction. It’s not storytelling, it’s a story experience.”
In other words, users navigate a story that unfolds around them and their interaction and experiences determine the outcome.
“It took over 100 years of storytelling to get where we are today –- from the black and white train coming into the station,” Sidhu said. “It’s still very early days in VR, but we’re heading in the next few years into a direction that is exceptionally exciting. Spielberg is working on VR content…directors that understand it are gravitating toward it.”
And, Sidhu noted, there are other rules of thumb for marketers to keep in mind, such as not making users nauseous.
“The message to brands is to remember the age of the passive audience is diminishing,” Melcher added. “Now is the time to embrace the idea of [active/participatory storytelling]…”
Framestore activations include a video for Game of Thrones in which it looks like the viewer is standing on the infamous wall, as well as for footwear brand Merrell in which users were able to explore a virtual world that included perilous conditions.
For her part, Sidhu said some of the most profound VR experiences are the result of mapping the physical and digital world so that everything is choreographed and the wind blows and the floor shakes at specific moments, which heightens the experience and is what she called the “golden chalice of VR.”
“A very early pioneer talked about the Duck Test as a way to test a good VR experience,” Sidhu said. “If they are in a virtual world and a virtual ball is flying at them and reality is gone, they will physically duck. That’s a good barometer for good VR.”
And that’s precisely what happened in the Merrell video with the hole in the bridge when consumers would not cross it.
“There are all sorts of ways to experience virtual worlds together, which is even more powerful for empathy, community and understanding one another,” he added. “These tools will fulfill the adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes…the technology has to advance and the audience needs to evolve to the point they appreciate it.”
‘Good VR is not cheap and cheap VR is not good’
Per Holzer, audience is one of the key points for branded VR.
“Brands think very highly of the things they make, but why do I want to virtually eat cereal in VR? If I am, I want it to be super fun,” he said. “So you have to be mindful. If you let them down, they will be more pissed off than with an interstitial. You don’t want to be cheap with VR.”
In other words, interactive games require budget and time — and brands should seek to make good VR or to not tap into VR at all.
“We get that all the time. They expect the same delivery as if we’re creating a website or an app,” Sidhu said. “A lot of that is about educating clients about time and budgets. Good VR is not cheap and cheap VR is not good.”
Maria Dal Pan Dias, head of content marketing at Getty Images, also noted VR is a good tool for enhancing empathy.
That’s what Holzer said his firm did with nonprofit ChildFund International in telling the story of a woman who was sponsored as a child and grew up to become an advocate for girls’ education. As a result, ChildFund plans to arm street teams with VR headsets to play a short film about her to solicit donations. What’s more, when ChildFund did an activation at a concert, Holzer said 10 per cent of viewers who watched the film donated, which is an increase of more than 3X the average.
“That’s the power of empathy and connection,” he added. “The interactive part is coming. If a child in India can speak to a child in a classroom in the US, what will that do? That’s our vision — to look at education and healthcare and find the applications, tools and utilities to service the support of these efforts.”