As a creative technologist at a digital agency, I have a lot of tech-related conversations with brand marketers. These days, a number of conversations turn to the topic of VR:
“When will it really make sense for us to start using VR?”
“How do VR experiences scale?”
And my favorite:
“Is it just hype?”
In other words—“Is VR for real, and what's holding it back?”
VR is real. Everything that digital brand marketers and agencies have been doing for years has taught us almost everything we need to know to make immersive VR experiences. And VR platforms, while nascent in maturity, are everywhere and waiting for you.
We have the knowledge and the tools, we just need to put them together.
VR hardware is already mass market
If you have a smartphone, you have a platform for VR. The quality of the experience depends on the computer in your pocket, or desktop, and the supporting hardware to enable the immersive environment.
At the entry-level we have affordable handheld devices like Google Cardboard—something you can fold together, like an industrial designer’s origami View Master. It’s not very interactive, but it’s cheap, and it works. VR for all.
Mid-tier devices, such as the Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream, and the actual View Master, feature better optics and can add remote controls that give us a way to interact with the virtual environment good for a quick, more functional fix of a virtual world.
Currently on the high end are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, each enabling a highly interactive, full-range of motion to room-scale experience. Requiring a traditional computer with a high-powered video card, these devices are expensive but amazing. With a price tag starting at $2,000 for the computer and the VR headset, they are not mass adoption platforms, but they are great for understanding the power of high quality VR.
I hasten to add that there are other platforms (e.g., PlayStation VR sold over 1 million units in its first 6 months), and more on the way. The options are on the shelf. VR ubiquity is here.
You Already Know What You Need to Know
If you want to create a VR experience, focus on two things: 1) tell a great, immersive story, which is something we already do, and 2) design for a variety of devices, which is something we also already do.
As for the variety of devices: Think of mobile-first design. Start with your most constrained platform, a mobile phone, and design a beautiful experience. As your devices get larger and more powerful—tablets and desktops—the designs become more complex and immersive. It’s what we call progressive enhancement, a process by which we define a baseline user experience we want the widest, most inclusive, audience to experience. Then we build on top of that experience, adding more features and enhancements as platforms allow.
So why stop with a 2D desktop experience? On the flip side, why feel that your brand story isn’t worth telling unless it's done in room-scale VR? Great options abound.
For Now, You Can Keep It Simple
WebVR is an emerging standard that provides virtual reality experiences inside of web browsers. Expanding on the idea of progressive enhancement, WebVR can progressively enhance a traditional digital experience based on the hardware you have available. Do you have a Google Cardboard or Daydream? Great, snap your phone in (right now) and watch the mobile experience in VR. Oculus or Vive? Try a (currently) experimental browser and see the future of the immersive web. That said, even the ability to control the experience can benefit from progressive enhancement. With hand held controllers, a beautiful passive experience becomes interactive.
Next, You Can Get Social
Web browsing experiences aren’t the only way that brands will be able to use VR at scale. Social VR is coming. In fact, Facebook has placed a $2 billion bet on social VR by purchasing Oculus and furthered its inroads with the beta release of Facebook Spaces. Google is all in on VR being a scalable platform, and Google looks for things that scales to billions of users. The question isn’t will VR be adopted by the masses, the question is when. Price for a quality experience is the biggest problem now. The high-end hardware is already there in quality. When the quality of the Oculus and Vive experience can fit on your phone we will see mass adoption. And that’s just a matter of time.
But Always, Be an Amazing Storyteller
While the hardware and software to create immersive experiences are ready now, figuring out the storytelling angle is paramount. A 360-degree live action video is an inherently different experience than an interactive computer-generated environment that allows you to move about freely. For truly interactive experiences in VR, experience design is going to start to blend into game design. Game designers have been creating immersive worlds for decades, from text adventures to incredibly massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. This is a talent gap agencies will need to bridge.
VR is ready for brands to start telling stories that take advantage of the medium. If you don't feel ready, it's because you just don't realize how ready you already are.