When Facebook snapped up Oculus for $2bn back in 2014, the co-founder of what would go on to become one of the world's most recognisable headsets, Palmer Luckey, predicted that Facebook, as we knew it then, wasn’t the future of virtual reality (VR).
“VR, will be social,” said the Rift creator, “but it’ll be on totally new platforms built from the ground up that really push VR, not necessarily applications we have today.” Fast-forward two years and his prediction rings true, and unsurprisingly it's Facebook that is leading the build of a VR-enabled web.
Speaking at the Oculus Connect 3 presentation on Thursday (5 October) Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg laid out how the company plans to evolve the technology, with a big focus on wireless headsets and software. Part of this, includes the roll out of a new VR web browser, codenamed Carmel which will allow users to surf the internet on via their headsets, removing the need for them to download specific VR apps, which at the moment are quite limited to 360-degree video experiences. The forthcoming product will let developers create VR-compatible experiences for audiences using any Oculus device, ie the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear, with an early developer preview set to land soon.
Once a nice-to-have, Facebook’s investment in the space could soon see VR taking its first steps to becoming a valuable part of the marketing mix for brands and media owners. Big names like Taco Bell, Sony Entertainment, and Visa have been toying with the channel. Sky, meanwhile, has just released a VR app, and the Guardian has enlisted an entire VR division to work with brands.
It’s also worth noting,that the last time Facebook doubled down on a fresh channel, Zuckerberg rebuilt the entire social network around mobile, which proved to be a triumphant move since 85 per cent of its total ad revenue now comes from those devices. But will the chief have the same Midas touch when it comes to VR, and what does that mean for marketers?
Pivot to VR
“There is absolutely a parallel between this pivot to VR and the pivot Facebook made to mobile a few years back,” notes Adam Azor, senior vice-president of integrated and digital Marketing at global brand experience agency Jack Morton Worldwide.
“Since Facebook was initially launched, it has gone through a relentless cycle of innovation and evolution. It’s not a coincidence that Facebook has continued to grow while other social networks have come and gone. Facebook reads and plans for future trends better than anyone else in its space and reacts accordingly.”
Elsewhere, Ben Little, co-founder of innovation consultancy Fearlessly Frank argues that Facebook was a bit late to the game with mobile and video, and now faces growing competition from the likes of Snapchat as a result. "Perhaps its now making an early move with VR which will come with its own risk and rewards," he adds.
"Right now the large risk is whether or not VR will ever be a mass experience, which is yet to be proved but if VR hits critical mass they are onto a good thing."
Little is yet known of Carmel, but one of the demos shown on stage by Zuckerberg during his speech was a product called Photo Spheres, which uses 360-degree photography to make users feel as though they are in a restaurant or a foreign location. Within that space, users can do things like pick up a menu, or make a reservation.
In terms of retail, e-commerce and live experiences, there are almost limitless opportunities this could offer up to brands and consumers. For example, imagine shopping for a new sofa and getting the chance to see what it would look like in your lounge, or 'visiting' a selection of potential wedding venues without having to travel.
Glyn Britton, chief strategy officer at innovation agency Albion believes that VR could be the best place to serve up what he describes at the "fourth era of customer service," which combines the best of local retail with the best of the internet.
"VR is perhaps the perfect medium to deliver that. The immediacy and empathy of a great retail service experience, but available anytime, anyplace, and on the customers' terms, giving them amazing choice and control," he muses.
There's no arguing that VR is still in its infancy and brands may be wary of spending on such a new Blade Runner-esque platform but a recent study from Greenlight VR found that the majority of consumers (71 per cent) thought the use of such tech made brands seem "forward thinking and modern," with 53 per cent noting they'd be more likely to buy from one that uses VR than from another that doesn't.
Although, despite the seemingly endless uses for the technology, and the fact it gives advertisers the a way to innovate their brand values, Jack Morton's Azor says that despite a few exceptions it's still quite difficult to justify VR providing a practicial return on investment.
"This is due to the current penetration and adoption levels of the technology, which will rapidly change, and when it does, it will become the game-changer for the industry."
He continues: "Imagine the power of a live brand experience activation combined with the reach of a Super Bowl media buy, that’s what a VR marketing campaign could achieve.
"Live events and their budgets have been limited by capacity, however now tickets to concerts can be tiered not only by quality of seats but by live and digital tickets… we can’t be too far away from Premier League football clubs installing 360-degree cameras and selling VR season tickets to fans around the world. Don’t be surprised if Manchester United starts to have attendance figures of 1,000,000 rather than the current 75,000 thanks to VR."
There are two elephants in the room when the likes of Zuckerberg chat about VR, one of which is that is hasn't gone mainstream yet, and the other being cost.
The tech isn't cheap, and the advent of wireless headsets is unlikely to push the price down. It's also costly to create and produce 360-degree video but thanks to the likes of Samsung's 360-degree camera this has the potential to decline, with prices starting from as little as £349.
For advertisers, investment in VR could put pressure on other spends like digital and social, but Albion's Britton believes this could go one step further, claiming that the medium won't just eat into, but will "eat up entirely," the money marketers have set aside for social and video. At the Oculus event Zuckerberg showed off how VR could help people connect online via cartoon avatars, using a cartoon version of himself which looked suspiciously like Justin Timberlake.
"Social will become VR. It's no accident that Facebook is focusing on social as the killer application of VR. Apparently it's an amazing experience talking with someone in VR, despite the cartoonish avatars, because of the eye contact and body language. Just as video is replacing text and photos in social feeds because it's so much more immersive, so VR will replace video," says Britton.
The other elephant, however, is a little harder to get rid of with some experts believing it will take years for VR to catch on a concept.
"Some people are more than ready for VR, some people will soon be, some are nowhere near ready and some never will be," asserts Azor, adding: I believe one of the biggest barriers to overcome is the fragmented VR/AR/MR landscape."
Pointing to the different experiences offered by Oculus, HTC, Sony and Google, he likens the landscape to historical battles between brands to lead innovation.
"Be it Betamax and VHS, or more recently Blu-ray and HD DVDS, it has always slowed down adoption for the masses and that adoption is needed for the technology to become mainstream and for us marketers to start to truly take advantage of what this technology is capable of achieving."