By James Britton

We’re in the middle of a tech revolution, writes James Britton. VR continues to inspire polarised reactions, and there are perhaps more people forecasting the future of the industry than there are headsets, but there’s no question that it is big business and accelerating fast.

Financial predictions are optimistic. The global market for VR is reported to likely reach $6.7bn this year, and is estimated to hit $70bn+ in 2020 — made up of both hardware and content business. These numbers are hard for advertisers to ignore, even if projections for ultimate market value have been modelled on that of smartphone adoption, when smartphones had the huge advantage of million dollar subsidy from service providers whose own interests were served by driving down hardware costs. This seems to be the biggest hurdle to overcome in the short term, with recent product announcements suggesting that a premium VR set-up could cost upwards of £1,000+ all-in. Some people are predicting that VR simply won’t survive what Unity’s John Riccitiello recently called “the gap of doubt”, where the present day experience doesn’t live up to the hype, and there has been skepticism about the potential for mass-adoption.

Ultimately though, the costs will keep coming down. Google and Samsung, for now, are taking a short-term strategy that places smartphones at the centre of the VR experience — a plan that makes sense given that everyone already has one in their pocket, and video services like YouTube and Facebook have been quick to roll out 360 services as a light entry point to a VR experience. A natural branch seems to have formed between these light experiences and so-called ‘tethered experiences’ that rely on beefed-up processing power; the latter providing more interactive, real-time experiences that open up to six degrees of freedom. Oculus and HTC Vive demos are getting more and more impressive, with intricate sound design and haptics adding depth and vividness.

Companies (like ours) are busy behind the scenes creating content to populate these new virtual platforms. There’s an ongoing conversation about new techniques for storytelling, where crafted linear narrative meets with interaction and environments that respond to the user. The area that seems to have most natural appeal for brands and advertisers is ‘the illusion of presence’ — that people will feel more empathy and emotional connection with an environment when they’re placed at the centre of it. From storytelling to education, it’s argued that VR helps people to lose themselves in the moment, and even take on the emotions and anxieties of other people in first-person scenarios. But this isn’t necessarily a new concept: Roger Ebert used the phrase ‘empathy machine’ to describe cinema decades before it was paraphrased to describe the power of VR. Equally, others argue that a 360 environment is a barrier to storytelling: why allow viewers to look in any direction when in most cases there is a clear point of focus in the story?

While there’s been a natural emphasis on the consumer experience, an even bigger race is on to innovate with new ways to capture content for VR. New cameras, new rigs, new lenses, and new techniques for combining moving image with graphics and volumetric capture — enabling the camera to view objects in a scene from all angles. How best to emulate peripheral vision in a first-person experience? How to manage focus and depth of field when the user has the option to look anywhere in the scene they wish? And how best to plan for capturing a story without the established tools and grammar of filmmaking? Experimentation with hardware on paying projects may be the only way to answer these questions, which presents an exciting challenge for established manufacturers, start-ups, and brands alike.

Brands arguably have the most important role to play in how things evolve. As advertising money becomes distributed across a fragmented landscape, there’s a huge opportunity to connect with paying customers by experimenting with VR and mixed reality. Brands need to lower the risk of being left behind, but also acknowledge that advertising has always been used as a sandbox for creative experimentation, helping to justify its role in popular culture. In a recent round table discussion of Hollywood directors it was fascinating to hear Ridley Scott casually brush off the complexity of shooting films like The Martian, because he’s been able to experiment and learn for decades making TV commercials. It’s not a new concept, but brands should be confident in experimenting with nascent technology as it matures. Sure, there’ll be a few howlers, but things will move forward more quickly and that benefits everyone.

As long as we approach this new technology with humility, and are careful not to lean too hard on VR techniques as a gimmick, then there’s no doubt VR can enhance experiences in a meaningful way. We’ve tried to take an honest and open approach with our clients, ensuring there’s a shared understanding that the VR landscape is in its extreme infancy. VR projects will require an openness to learn together along the way, and modern brands should definitely be excited to be along for the ride.

James Britton is Managing Director at Stinkdigital, and can be found on Twitter @james__britton.

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