Why Marketers Shouldn’t Get Overexcited About Virtual Reality as a Branding Tool

Until it is, in fact, real

Virtual reality is an extraordinarily hot topic right now in media and technology circles. We've seen some amazing developments in recent years, but for the purposes of marketers, technology has not caught up with needs. Beyond functioning, we need it to scale and affect consumer behavior.

This will likely happen in time, but many years from now. To understand why there is so much buzz in adland about VR and why expectations need to be contained, it's worth taking a look back.

Andy Maskin Illustration: Alex Fine

In the 1990s, there was a spike of interest on the subject. Books like Snow Crash and movies like The Lawnmower Man ignited the imagination, and virtual reality games started popping up in arcades. And then, unlike most major innovations of that era, it seemed to fizzle out. Fast forward to 2012, and the advent of Oculus Rift reawakened the sleeping giant. Since its legendary Kickstarter campaign, other players have rushed into the market including Samsung. The acquisition of Oculus Rift by Facebook caught many off guard and has many wondering whether this time VR is for real.

The original wave of VR excitement was really built on metaphor. The idea that computers could connect to each other was relatively new to most outside academia and the military. Just as the physical world concept of folders holding documents was borrowed to explain how computer files were organized, people shopped in online stores and met in chat rooms. Once it clicked for people that there was this virtual place that was everywhere and nowhere all at once, collective imagination ignited. What else from the real world could exist virtually?

Indeed, the idea of a virtual world that you could explore, like the world inside your mind as you slept, was too compelling to set aside. And so we had the 1990s VR boomlet, with clunky and expensive technology, paired with dissatisfied users. The world inside the headsets was blocky and unrealistic. The promise was so alluring that reality couldn't help but fall flat. And so VR entered the wilderness, waiting for Moore's Law to catch up.

But now the hardware to create satisfying VR experiences is starting to deliver on the promise of two decades ago. Faster chips, higher-resolution screens, advanced sensors and powerful 3-D capture and modeling software have come together to make a product like Oculus Rift possible. Open development platforms have accelerated the library of available experiences.

But what is inherent about VR that required a wait? What makes VR different is essentially this: The experience needs to be high quality at a minimum, or else it is effectively useless.

The word "reality" is baked right into the name; your brain needs to register what you're seeing as a plausible, non-nauseating environment. Little defects such as lag when you turn your head don't just degrade the experience, they ruin it. The spell is broken. YouTube can get away with a video buffering, and a news website can afford to have some lag when loading the page. Our brains are trained to wait for things. But these things are not trying to emulate our 360-degree experience of a realistic world. In short, if you're going to aim that high, you need to hit the mark or else not bother trying.

Modern VR platforms have done much to address these challenges. For one, they react much quicker to our head movements. They can sense even slight tilts and rerender the visualizations too fast for the brain to notice. Moreover, the screens themselves are high enough quality to pass for views of a real-world environment. Modern headsets also often take advantage of sound control, using left-right balance in headphones to trick your brain into thinking a sound is coming from a specific direction. Some of the hardest parts of creating truly immersive VR have been solved.

And yet, we find ourselves today years away from mainstream adoption. Current technology is expensive, still a bit physically cumbersome, and there is not a huge library of experiences to run on it just yet.

In fact, we are so many years away from wide adoption, it is likely unproductive to spin our wheels dreaming up marketing experiences based on the existing state of the technology. It's a pretty big leap from being immersed in a 3-D environment to making a purchase decision based on that experience. Volvo recently released a VR experience promoting its XC90 model, and while certainly groundbreaking and well executed, the reach was relatively limited compared to other types of campaigns. For other less visually driven categories such as CPG or financial services, it is harder to imagine in today's environment how a VR project would result in positive ROI.

By the time the technology is of high enough quality and ubiquitous enough to move the needle for most brands, the platforms and user experiences will likely have evolved several times over.

For now, it's best to let other industries such as gaming push the state of the art forward and observe how people adopt this technology. The use cases we haven't even dreamt of yet are probably the ones that will inspire the great VR marketing of the future when the time is right.

So for now let's spend our energy on cross-channel attribution, cord-cutting, programmatic buying and the other tech revolutions already on our plates.

That's the reality of virtual reality.

Andy Maskin (@aspersions) is an emerging technology specialist.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.