AR seems to be having more uptake in a mostly-digital world than VR, but VR is unrivaled by way of immersion. And there are a growing number of VR users out there. So shouldn’t we be seeing more brands creating VR marketing activations?

AR vs VR

There’s been a lot of buzz lately around Augmented Reality (AR). We’ve been having more conversations with clients about it recently and it’s been popping up more often in my news feeds. That makes sense – it’s been a relatively pandemic-friendly marketing tactic. And there have been some advances in the technology with more likely on the way. But that’s largely true for Virtual Reality (VR) as well, and the technologies are closely related. So that got me thinking – why aren’t we seeing more VR marketing activations?

In some ways the answer is obvious. When I think about the VR activations that we’ve done over the past few years, most revolved around waiting in line to use a shared headset at some in-person event. Multiple elements of that sort of experience are no longer possible for at least some time more. But there’s no real reason why VR activations couldn’t make the transition to personal experiences delivered digitally, in much the same way that AR has.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long been more bullish on the promise of AR than I have been of VR, especially in terms of shifting our computing paradigms long term. AR has the potential to replace smartphones as our omnipresent companions and information providers. But that’s the future. Here in the present, the currently available AR headsets don’t have a wide enough field of view for the tech to “disappear” as you’d want it to. On smartphones AR can do some really cool (and even useful) things, especially when paired with good scanners and SLAM. But the experience is ultimately confined to viewing the world through a fairly small screen.

VR, on the other hand, is deeply immersive, even on the lamest of available hardware. When participating in a VR experience you are pretty much fully engaged until you decide to come out of it. That’s exactly why in the future it will never have the level of ubiquity we expect from AR – it’s not multitaskable (if that’s a word.) But it’s also why it could be a great medium for customer engagement today. If you can convince someone to enter into a VR experience (and then tell them a good story in it) that person will be deeply engaged with your brand and your message.

The Base

VR today does have one big advantage over AR in that there really is an installed base of VR headsets out in the world. It’s true that, as a consumer phenomenon, VR has been the “next hot tech trend” for years and has never really gained the mainstream success that its most ardent supporters hoped for. Maybe that’s due the still-high cost of headsets, or maybe it’s the lack of a “killer app” outside of gaming, or maybe it’s something else. But we don’t necessarily need to understand the reason, we’re just evaluating the situation here. And despite the failure to break out into the mainstream, VR is growing in popularity and is hardly an obscure niche these days.

Oberlo cites research from eMarketer indicating that 52 million Americans use VR technology on a monthly basis. Statista reported that 5.5 million VR headsets were sold in 2020 alone (though Facebook does not release exact numbers of Oculus headsets sold). AR Insider found that as of mid-2020 19% of adults said they had tried VR in some form, with 55% reporting extreme or moderate satisfaction with the technology. So it’s clear that a significant number of consumers do own (or have access to) a VR headset. And it’s probably a safe bet that many of them are young adults – usually an appealing demographic for marketers.

So it’s far from crazy to think that a VR activation targeted to existing VR users could find an audience. True, the installed base of VR headsets in not a monolith, consisting of a range of different devices. But they are more similar than different, so it’s not hard to imagine a strategy for creating and delivering a VR experience that would be available to most existing VR users. This would seem to be a great opportunity for customer engagement, especially for a brand skewed towards a younger and/or more tech savvy consumer.

The Rest

A big reason that AR is having a moment right now is because it works well on smartphones and almost everyone has a smartphone. But VR can also (sort of) work on any smartphone. Cardboard was created by Google way back in 2014 as an inexpensive entree into VR and it still works pretty much the same. Anyone can buy (or build) a cheap cardboard (or other material) headset and stick their smartphone into it. It was meant for Android, of course, but also works on iPhones.

Experienced VR users might balk at such limited capabilities now that VR headsets support 6DoF and inside-out tracking. But even a smartphone stuffed into a cheap cardboard headset provides the user with the most important element of VR – total immersion. You can’t support all the dynamism expected in a console video game, but it’s not hard to craft a storytelling experience that is compelling in Cardboard as long as you have a good story to tell. So a VR experience mostly targeted to current VR users could also be made more broadly available via Cardboard.

If your product already comes in a box, it may not be a huge life to get basic headsets to your customers. And they can serve the same purpose as any other premium giveaway. Over the years many brands have given away branded headsets in various ways, from trade shows to direct mail. Of course giving away Cardboard headsets is no longer the novelty it once was, so many might see it as passé. And as a gimmick of its own, it might well be. But in support of a well crafted story I believe it would be well received.

Having crafted a strong VR story you could even make available a simple 360 video version. Anyone could watch that even without a Cardboard headset, just on their smartphone or their laptop or probably even their TV. Since it would lose the fundamental immersion of VR, it might not be as impactful an experience. But a compelling story will carry through, even in that form, broadening the accessibility of your campaign that much more. Which would seem to add further motivation for producing a compelling VR experience in the first place.

So while embracing VR for a digital-first marketing activation is obviously not right for every brand, it’s clear that a compelling case could be made for its use by many brands. But I understand why more marketers aren’t pursuing such experiences. It’s nervous-making to try new things in the best of times, and the last twelve months have definitely not been the best of times. But I predict that fairly soon some of the more forward-thinking marketers are going to deliver compelling VR experiences. And then other brands will follow. Will you be one of the leaders or one of the followers?

Featured Image: by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash