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It is not difficult to see why virtual reality (VR) is being hyped as the next frontier of branded content considering its huge growth potential. The industry is expected to break the $1bn (£710m) barrier for the first time this year, according to Deloitte, and with Goldman Sachs predicting the market could be worth $80bn (£56.8bn) by 2025 the opportunities are only going to get bigger.

However, as with any new technology that enables brands to connect with customers, those that use VR must keep it relevant to their business, while staying curious about future developments.

Moves by some of the major players in the space are only adding to the anticipation. Earlier this month, Clay Bavor was promoted to head of Google’s VR division, having previously been vice-president of product management. He helped develop Google Cardboard, the entry-level cardboard viewer that enables VR experiences using a smartphone. To increase the immersive nature of the technology within apps, the tech giant recently added ‘spacial audio’ to Cardboard, which allows users to experience sounds in a more natural way.

A host of hardware launches happening over the next few months will also help propel VR into the mainstream. Samsung launched its Gear VR headset at the end of last year, which sold out on the day of release; Facebook started taking pre-orders for Oculus Rift earlier this month, with shipping planned for March; HTC’s Vive is due for release in April and Sony’s PlayStation VR is rumoured to be out this autumn.

A breakthrough year for VR

HTC Vive
HTC Vive

Graham Breen, EMEA project manager at HTC Vive, says: “We expect 2016 to be a breakthrough year for VR and this was highlighted by the number of companies using Vive across the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas [earlier this month].”

Breen believes that VR offers an “amazing opportunity to build something that can completely change how people interact with their world” and claims the possibilities are endless with the “only limiting factor being the imagination of those developing the virtual experiences”.

As the technology develops, the number of brands, artists and publishers exploring the opportunities is rising, from VR boxing matches to a virtual tour of Buckingham Palace and experimental singer Björk’s app for exploring her music videos. Meanwhile, theme park Alton Towers has revealed its first VR rollercoaster, and last year The New York Times gifted a million subscribers with Google Cardboard to promote its VR app.

Although the tech is in its infancy and brands are only just starting to explore the possibilities of VR, Unicef is one organisation that has already seen some success. Last year, it created an eight-minute 360-degree film called ‘Clouds over Sidra’ to draw attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. The film focuses on the life of a 12-year-old girl living in a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert. When it was shown to people on the streets of Auckland, New Zealand the organisation doubled donations, and the immersive experience is now being tested in the UK.

Katherine Crisp, head of strategy and innovation at Unicef UK, says: “You can see when people watch [the virtual reality film] that they are truly immersed in another world. On removing the headsets some people find it very emotional, some cry, some are moved into silence and others ask what can I do to help?”

Crisp says Unicef sees VR as a tool for raising awareness, encouraging people to donate and increasing advocacy (see Q&A, below).

Building a business case for VR

Despite many brands clambering to use VR, there are a number of things that must be taken into account to ensure investment is worthwhile. These include the price of production, consumer demand, relevancy and point of entry, as headsets vary widely in terms of how they are used and how much they cost.

“Brands have to fight the temptation to view VR as a shiny new plaything, since creating VR content for the sake of it will not be tolerated by users,” says Jason Kingsley, co-founder of games developer Rebellion, which has created VR game Battlezone for PlayStation VR. “Given that these headsets transport users to strange new worlds, a ‘multi-touchpoint, 360-degree, UX-centric customer journey’ isn’t what users are after.”

Kingsley adds: “Brands need to ask themselves what users [require and expect] and mustn’t get in the way of their experience.”

Restaurant chain TGI Fridays used VR for its ‘jingle effect’ campaign over Christmas, creating content based on a survey the brand carried out, which showed that dog sledding was the Christmas activity the majority of respondents wanted to try.

Participants, therefore, were transported to a snow-filled Lapland landscape to experience being pulled by 10 huskies. “Finding new technology to create fun with is a crucial part of the content strategy for Fridays,” says Jennifer Martin, head of marketing at the chain. “Our guests and team are creating more content for us. It shows the real-life Fridays through their eyes as they experience it, which is really valuable for showing other potential guests.”

The brand made use of the content by filming guest reactions during the campaign.

For Unicef, the use of VR is an evolution of how it tells the public about its work, so people can experience what a crisis situation is like beyond reading about it or seeing images. Crisp says: “It’s a step up from reading someone’s story; most people will interact with the refugee crisis by reading a story in the newspaper or seeing pictures, so to be put in the shoes of a 12-year-old girl builds an incredible degree of empathy.”

Multiple points of entry

The fact VR is not just one piece of hardware means brands have a greater choice in how they choose to deploy VR activity. Some use smartphones, such as Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, while others opt for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which require a full headset.

Andrew Smith, vice-chair at EVCOM, the event and visual communication association, and creative director at A-Vision, which creates VR content, says that different screens have different personalities.

“We are big on saying [VR] doesn’t need to have the barrier of the headset experience. What people are doing on YouTube with 360-degree video is interesting because there is virtually no barrier to view. It’s on mobile with Google Cardboard and YouTube, so you don’t have to make something at Oculus level,” he explains.

Investment therefore depends on the platform for which content is created. Arguably, smartphones could reach a mass audience  but might not offer the same experience as wearing a full VR headset.

Louis Jebb, founder and CEO at Immersivly, which creates news content in VR, advises brands to “think carefully” about how people are going to consume content. He says: “There is a great difference in experience. Are you going for something where you want to get a cheap and cheerful message across or do you want it to reflect the quality of the brand? This is why this format has a great future because there are multiple points of entry.”

There is also some crossover between VR and augmented reality (AR). A report by Digi-Capital last year stated that the AR market is projected to generate $120bn (£85bn) in revenue by 2020, compared to just $30bn (£21bn) for the VR market. Goldman Sachs also reported this month that AR and VR would together be worth $185bn (£131bn) by 2025.

Last October, AR platform Blippar bought ‘virtual try-on’ company Binocular, which Omaid Hiwaizi, Blippar’s president of global marketing, describes as creating a “mixed reality”.

Although Blippar’s focus is on AR not VR, he says the two  are “obviously related”. Binocular allows users to virtually try-on items through smartphones, for example the company worked with sunglasses brand Ray-Ban to allow customers to virtually see how a product looks on their face before buying.

Hiwaizi says: “[VR has] caught the attention of marketers, and rightly so, the immersive nature of storytelling is out of this world. AR tends to be functional, so you wouldn’t rave about it quite as much.”

He compares AR to Google Maps, an app that many people use regularly but do not necessarily talk about. He believes “sustainability is driven through a value exchange that drives habitual usage”.

Creating content that is useful to a consumer is the future of using AR and VR technology, according to Hiwaizi. “The idea of what branded content [can offer] is developing, and for a few years now we have started talking about brand utility and branded content, [therefore] brands need to think clearly about what objectives they attach to that content.”

He advises brands to understand the emerging opportunities in detail before working on the execution of any project “otherwise it can look like crass product placement”. He adds that as consumers “get more adept to digital”, they will screen out irrelevant content.

Unwanted side effects

Although VR offers many opportunities, the technology has created some issues for users as many experience motion sickness after viewing content, even if they are not prone to it.

Steve Dann, CEO at digital development studio Amplified Robot, says: “Without a well shot or designed VR experience, the user can have trouble with their sense of balance or inertia with a decrease in the sense of telepresence [the sensation of being elsewhere created by VR], or they could experience ‘cyber sickness’, with symptoms of disorientation and nausea.”

Dann also believes that as the technology is new, the “chances are the average consumer won’t be rushing to buy their own device just yet”, which is something else for brands to consider.

Jebb at Immersivly suggests there is a “great deal that brands are yet to do in this format”. Many have stuck to action pieces, for example motor racing or experiencing a hotel, but for Jebb it is a format that is increasingly seen as an “intimate storytelling medium” and he believes that this is where the value lies for brands.

Dann believes brands can still “leverage the technology in pop-up experiences, at events and with smartphone apps to deliver content on a whole new level”. He says: Virtual reality has so much potential that it’s impossible to know exactly where it’s going to go. But it’s definitely going to be big.”

The next year will certainly see more VR-related headlines and launches, but with Apple yet to reveal its first move into VR – although CEO Tim Cook yesterday (27 January) described the technology as “really cool” – it is important for brands to observe what the potential opportunities are before rushing in to create content without a clear strategy.

Katherine Crisp, head of strategy and innovation at Unicef

Unicef Syria

Q: Why did Unicef decide to use virtual reality for campaigning?

It’s a powerful tool for building empathy. It’s completely immersive and puts a human face on Unicef’s work. Supporters can explore, discover and experience first-hand what their support does on the ground.

We are using it in the UK to share our work with major partners: corporate partners, foundations and philanthropists; and we are testing it at the moment with the wider public in shopping centres, airports and train stations.

Q: Why is VR different from other emotive films you create for campaigns?

It’s an innovation in storytelling. ‘Clouds over Sidra’ (right), which draws attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl [called] Sidra and you really feel like you are part of her life, going to school with her, sharing food with her family, playing games. You are experiencing her life but also how her hopes and dreams are on hold.

It enables you to feel as if you are there [as] you are surrounded by that experience. People watching it try to interact or talk to the people in the video.

Q: Did you consider consumer access to the content given the variety of VR headsets available?

There is no doubt that a full headset [offers] a more immersive experience, but equally the [Google] Cardboard viewer is a significant increase in immersion than watching a normal film at the cinema. You don’t feel like a part of a crowd watching; it becomes more of a personal experience and interaction with the people in that video.

Q: Does Unicef have more VR films planned?

Another film is in development. We would love to have more content to use, as we test and understand the impact it has, to amplify our messaging and support our work. The technology costs are reducing and it’s becoming more accessible, so it’s really exciting to be able to trial this innovation in storytelling.