Tech and media trend followers have been anticipating virtual reality consumer products for some time now. And, with the release of Facebook’s Oculus Rift — the first major commercial VR platform — at the end of March, the hype and momentum continues to build.
Since then, HTC has released its Vive platform in a big bet on VR. Sony’s VR headset, slated for October release, has been in the hands (and on the faces) of reviewers. And other tech giants have announced that they’re more fully stepping into the field, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Samsung (in partnership with Oculus). Not to mention endless speculation that Apple will also jump into the VR space.
At this point, with the investment of time and effort from tech giant after tech giant, it’s hard to imagine virtual reality won’t be a success over the next decade. It has the full faith of analysts and figures in the industry; Deloitte thinks 2016 will be a billion-dollar year for the industry, and consulting firm Digi-Capital believes virtual reality revenues will hit $30 billion in 2020. And many of us want to believe that it marks a new wave of media consumption, another sign of how our world is in transition.
But let’s take a step back. What does “success” really mean here? Virtual reality may make plenty of money. But is VR, as Mark Zuckerberg said, “the most promising candidate” for a new computing platform — will it change the world the way social and mobile did?
There are big question marks over how pervasive virtual reality will become, how it will be applied, and how much of its potential will be realized. The answers to those hold a wide-range of implications for brands and marketers; VR may become a central customer touchpoint, or it can be mostly an afterthought. Consider the scenarios below.
1. Virtual Reality Remains a Gaming Product
As it stands, video games are the bread and butter for VR platforms. “As for VR content, we expect most revenue generated [in 2016] to come from games sales,” Deloitte says, “generating over $300 million.”
Given the current players on the field, it makes sense for virtual reality to start with gaming. Oculus, acquired by Facebook in 2014, began as a Kickstarter project in 2012 that positioned itself squarely as a video gaming platform. Sony’s own headset will be part of the well-known Playstation brand.
But while video games and their proprietary platforms (chiefly the Playstation brand, Microsoft’s XBox line, and Nintendo’s mobile and home consoles) are a multi-billion dollar industry, they haven’t followed the trajectory of mobile devices — explosive adoption and delivery of a wide range of content and services. While most people may have played video games, much of that is thanks to free mobile games rather than proprietary gaming devices. Historically, video game devices have been relegated to video game content.
A good case study might be the Nintendo Wii, the most recently released platform to sell over 100 million units worldwide. The console engaged customers in new ways by detecting human movement; Nintendo wanted to leverage this feature and the console’s broad-based adoption to deliver content other than traditional games, such as Wii Fit — a program that guides users through exercise routines. While Wii Fit and its successor Wii Fit Plus sold relatively well — a combined 43 million copies worldwide — their impact on the healthcare and wellbeing industry hasn’t been nearly as large as, say, Fitbit’s has.
The company recently announced that the health and fitness market would become central to its strategy, but as of now Nintendo and its products are inextricable from video gaming. Virtual reality platforms may similarly stay pigeonholed in this realm.
How to tell if this will happen: Track revenue sources and proliferation of content types. Games may always be a primary source of growth for virtual reality — but if advertising dollars start flowing to other types of non-gaming media, more and more of that content will emerge and be subsidized. Otherwise, if games continue to dominate revenue by source, few may feel the need to create any other type of media.
2. Virtual Reality Delivers Wide Array of Entertainment Content
The next possibility is that virtual reality is able to become known less for video games and more for 360-degree video of entertainment media — more similar to TV sets, which hook up to other services and devices (cable, antennae, Blu-Ray players, video game consoles) to display content like movies, “tours” of foreign countries, or music concerts.
In this scenario, brands would likely be creating 360-degree entertainment (as GE is already doing) or purchasing ad space on other content — The Discovery Channel, for instance, is one of the most recent media companies to announce it will sell ads on its VR content.
The big question here is how VR products will be adopted — the more people using VR, the wider the range of content to be produced and subsidized by ad dollars. Adoption in itself is complicated by both the price of virtual reality and the quality of the experience.
While virtual reality experiences are possible right now with little more than a cheap-ish headset and a VR-compatible smartphone, they’re understandably outclassed by the experiences offered by the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, which are able to track your movement in a 3D space. But these cost $599 and $799 respectively, in addition to requiring expensive computer equipment to run.
How to tell if this will happen: Track sales, prices, and the range in the quality of VR experiences. If consumers adopt VR en masse but do so only with lower-priced products that are limited in the experience they can deliver, they may never really expect anything beyond the novel experience of 360-degree videos. To go beyond entertainment content, virtual reality likely needs to be able to track our movements within a room more fully — but high price points may pose a barrier to the wide adoption of those features.
In other words, a better compromise between price and a complete VR experience needs to be found for the industry to fully realize its potential.
3. Virtual Reality Becomes a Wholly New Customer Touchpoint for Brands
The broad-based adoption of full-VR experiences would make a bigger investment in virtual reality an easier decision for organizations. On top of VR entertainment and advertising, brands could take more full advantage of virtual reality to bolster the entire customer journey — in other words, not just using virtual reality to broaden awareness, but also help audiences make a purchase and help customers resolve issues.
These wheels are already starting to turn here. Online retailer ASOS is investigating how to use VR to let customers shop together and look at items from different angles. But use-cases like exploring a hotel room before booking, troubleshooting a product, or actually trying on clothes will only become commonplace once VR products of similar quality are widely adopted.
And it’ll become more common as enterprises use and experience them for their own internal uses. For instance, Ford is using VR technology to have engineers and designers all over the world to inspect and create vehicles together. And one team designed a program to let companies visualize, manipulate, and decipher big data.
As companies increasingly use VR services internally to get work done, and as VR becomes more widespread, they can figure out how to stretch its applications.
How to tell if this will happen: Track the adoption of VR by businesses. Again, the quality and price of virtual reality products have to stabilize to merit fleshing out virtual reality as a wholly new touchpoint in the customer journey — similar to mobile, which has become a key channel now that it’s widespread and experiences are relatively similar from device to device.
Once adoption happens in the VR space, it will be taken as a cue to reach out to customers in a similar way.
2016 is when the rubber hit the road for VR. Now it’s time to see how far it will go — whether it will reach escape velocity and go beyond gaming. While we haven’t covered every single detail to consider when it comes to virtual reality’s success, it will largely depend on how widely it’s installed and how businesses decide to use it.
To hear even more about how technologies like VR are changing media consumption — and the marketing opportunities they will bring about — join Percolate and guest speakers like Marc Mathieu, CMO of Samsung Electronics America, for Transition Conference 2016 in New York City, September 20-21.