More so than any other trend this feels like an area where the groundwork has been laid for creators – whether that’s publishers, brands, or the creative community – to experiment with what is now available to them. Last year saw VR hardware releases from significant players such as Oculus, HTC and PlayStation. Of course, technical improvements will continue at a pace – in particular, the pursuit of untethered headsets and remote positional tracking. But, the technology is already available to create powerful VR experiences where users can move and interact in a manner that is impossible in any other medium. HTC have quashed rumours of a ‘Vive 2’ being released this year – though plenty of new accessories are on the horizon. So it’s over to the many creatives already in this space, and those getting on board, to develop content that makes use of VR’s unique properties as a medium.
It seems that VR entered, or perhaps re-entered, the public consciousness last year on some level. In terms of how many people own a VR headset of any kind, estimates suggest there are around 500,000 people with a high-end HTC Vive and 400,000 with an Oculus Rift. Sony say that “hundreds of thousands” of PlayStation owners have already bought PlayStation VR. Earlier last year, Samsung reported it had reached one million users for its Samsung Gear headsets. These figures were shared well before Samsung heavily promoted the headsets in the run-up to Christmas. We are still waiting for the numbers of the newest smartphone-accessory headsets in the market, Google’s Daydream. However, some reports suggest the reach of Google’s basic Cardboard headset has been as high as 80 million. Of course, unlike the other headsets, it is hard to know how many have kept these rather than used them once.
Staying at the ‘low-end’ of the headset market, but made of plastic rather than card, I saw a number of headsets retailing at less than £10 in-stores and online in the run up to Christmas for users to pop their phone into. I also noticed a heavy presence of ‘vr’ amongst the Apple Stores trending apps in the days after Christmas. So it feels like there is some appetite and recognition amongst the public of what VR is (even if they haven’t tried it yet). Brands should consider taking advantage of this willingness by creating a VR experience. The right VR experience could be more practical, like Jaguar’s I-PACE launch, or simply mindblowing, like Google Earth.
The question of ‘how many people have a headset?’ from brands considering VR, is perhaps misjudged. There are certainly only a finite number of people who will own a VR headset ever, even when the VR content available improves. This is an immersive and intense medium to be dipped into for ‘one-off’ experiences, analogous perhaps to cinema (how many people have one of those at home?). It fits for VR to be found in a store to aid a magical retail experience or indeed in cinemas to view entertainment content in a new form, and these site-specific VR experiences provide a rich opportunity for many brands. In London, we have already seen a VR Zombie chase, Björk’s VR-only exhibition and more recently the Royal Academy’s VR pop-up – all of which were ticketed events that sold out.
Beyond VR, the narrative from some publishers is that 2016 was actually the breakout year for Augmented Reality, because of the mega-hit that was Pokemon Go. This doesn’t ring true for me to the extent that it is touted as AR’s breakthrough moment. On a basic level because some research showed that ‘only’ 33% of users had the AR functionality turned on ‘most of the time’ or ‘always’ whilst playing the game. More significantly the success of Pokemon Go wasn’t down to the AR, but a multitude of factors (many of which were cultural) that I will spare you from debating here.
For me, Snapchat Lenses remain a far stronger example for AR. This technology is used by millions daily, even if the users don’t know or care to know that this tech is part of something called Augmented Reality. Facial overlays seem to be the most prevalent successful use of AR technology. This type of AR experience is neat for makeup brands or spectacle sellers but, obviously, has limited uses.
It’s the augmentation of objects into the real world in front of you that feels like the opportunity for a broader array of uses, but one that has been touted for some time. Maybe this year we’ll see brands really crack this opportunity through some hit applications. Markerless technology (a potential barrier to a slick experience) continues to improve and the digital recreation of assets for an AR world (perhaps the biggest cost here) may be something that a brand bites the bullet on or finds a more efficient way of doing, which could lead to a significant AR success story with business-changing returns.
Microsoft’s HoloLens exists as a unique outlier. Currently, it is available for developers but not for the public (which isn’t necessarily a problem – see my point on VR adoption). AR via a headset rather than through a phone, combined with the possibility of interaction and scalability of augmented objects that pushes this into the realm of ‘Mixed Reality’. This is ‘where it’s all going’. As future-gazers like to say, Mixed Reality experiences, like AR experiences, point to a potential for mass adoption far beyond VR because of the nature of the experience. The availability of the HoloLens platform, perhaps years before this technology truly develops on a larger scale, stands out as an obvious opportunity for brands to gain first-mover advantage and take a leadership position with a tech-powered experience for their customers.
What should brands do this year?
- Suspend disbelief and imagine the ultimate experience your brand could deliver, whether that’s practical or fantastical. Can this technology be used to bring this to life?
- Work with VR/AR experts who have made the easy mistakes in the medium already and are pushing the boundaries with what is possible. Also look out for select content publishers with compelling, well-supported VR offerings.
- Look at building platforms for VR or AR experiences that allow for updating and repeat usage over time, rather than one-off short-lived ideas.