A New York Times news video on refugees shown through Google Cardboard glasses. A tricked-out in-store chair that transports TOMS customers to a Peruvian village. An Oculus Rift headset that brings viewers straight to Castle Black in Game of Thrones. Retailers, news outlets and cable companies have been dreaming up ever-exciting ways to leverage virtual reality (VR) for engaging with viewers and customers. VR enables viewers to become completely immersed in a virtual world. Publishers and media companies are all jumping in on the “latest frontier for marketing,” pitching ideas for creating and distributing branded content to consumers worldwide.
But does the growing supply match the demand? Marketers themselves are rather cautious about embracing the new technology. A recent survey by Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that only 8% of marketers are currently using VR, and 57% say that it does not apply to their organization. The majority still rely on standard mediums like social media and video. Samantha Merlivat, a Forrester analyst, explains that “it has been very difficult to find a brand that has made a compelling use for VR. Planning your brand story around a three-minute video…is not something I would call compelling.” Moreover, data on the consumer side show that sales for VR devices have been lower than forecast, and those who do make the investment are largely concentrated in one consumer group – gamers. The audience for the latest and greatest VR advertising ploys is, for now, quite narrow.
What does this mean for the future of virtual reality? Will it ever achieve scale and become a mainstream marketing tool? This depends on whether VR developers can make a value proposition that the average consumer can buy into. The industry today is cluttered with many different models of content, marked by varying user complexity and a wide range in pricing. In order to achieve widespread adoption, the technology must be offered on platforms that are simple to use and access but still high in quality, with some overarching “pull factor” that drives consumers to actively seek them. Analysts from Greenlight Insights believe that “mainstream adoption [of VR gear] will be accelerated by the development of a ‘killer consumer app,” perhaps from “social networking in virtual reality.” They also suggest that Google’s exploratory work on standalone headsets with built-in computing and communications systems could lead to the watershed device that brings VR to the mass market.
If the technology can reach that inflection point, the innovations of the VR industry will truly represent the new frontier of marketing and advertising. The next several years of VR development will certainly be an exciting time to watch.