Buying into the Experience of Virtual Reality

You’re standing in a dimly lit living room. You hear a woman’s voice desperately ask if her son is alive. Something crashes. The lights start blinking and you start to follow them towards the kitchen. The phone rings, but the sound is distorted. The volume is fading in and out oddly. You turn for the phone, and the sound of a desperate child warns you that something is right behind you. You turn in time to see a monster practically on top of you, before you stumble back and remember you’re in your bedroom—and not surrounded by the world of Netflix’s summer hit, Stranger Things.

Netflix is just one of the companies producing 360 degree content for an immersive, virtual reality experience. Everyone from BMW, to the latest Blair Witch Project movie, to The George Washington University are all finding ways to give viewers an immersive experience.

“I see VR as being, potentially, a revolution in news and information,” says Frank Sesno, director of The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. “Because it has the potential to create a powerful immersive experience where people will not just see or read, but be part of a story and a world around them. That’s not like anything we’ve ever experienced before.”

The New York Times even has its own iPhone app – “NYT VR” – with sponsored stories from Infiniti, Mr. Robot, Ford, and General Electric appearing alongside their editorially independent news experiences. The app is sponsored by Google, and print subscribers were sent Google Cardboard, the low-cost version of a virtual reality headset. But the feature also lets viewers choose between using Cardboard or simply viewing the experience holding and moving their iPhone.


An online advertisement for Google Cardboard.

The low-cost Google Cardboard gives advertising a more viable outlet for VR, since previously many of the advertisements have been for more luxury brands like Volvo and BMW, according to Bloomberg.

Companies with a lower price tag on their products are getting in on the cardboard alternatives, like McDonald’s Happy Goggles – a headset made from their Happy Meal containers.

“I don’t think [virtual reality] is going to play a huge role until you can do VR with a pair of glasses like this,” said Sesno, touching his own glasses.

This prediction evokes brief hype in the expensive Google Glass, a failed attempt at augmented reality. But with the success of Pokemon Go, over 20 million people are newly using augmented reality daily.

“As long as you got these cumbersome goggles, and it’s another piece of equipment and more wires and strings, but that’ll work out quickly,” said Sesno. “They’re going to figure out whatever the technology is going to be, so it’s going to work out like anything else.”

The bigger, more expensive devices might be the key to or the downfall of virtual reality’s success. Currently, devices run anywhere between $99 for the Samsung Gear VR to $799 for the HTC Vive, not including any additional tech to enhance the experience.

Virtual reality’s success has been a subject of debate, especially after the failure of Google Glass and 3D TV (another immersive experience that was supposed to revolutionize home entertainment). But with many virtual reality devices releasing before Christmas this year, projections in favor of the new medium’s profitability are soaring above $162 billion by 2020.

Like Sesno, Shawn Knight from Techspot has faith in the development of the technology. “As virtual reality matures, the quality will inevitably improve and more importantly, prices will come down,” said Knight. And if there is a wider VR audience, brands with wider reach will want to provide the experience.

As demonstrated by the Stranger Things advertisment, drawing users into VR could boost confidence in virtual reality for advertisers and publishers. This could act as a new way to draw people in and form attachments to stories as well as products.

“If you are seeing pain in an immersive way, or seeing joy in an immersive way, does it make the viewer feel closer to the story? All the common sense suggests it does,” says Sesno. But he notes that more research needs to be done research he hopes to be a part of.

“Imagine if I can take you into a housing project and show you what poverty looks like up close,” proposes Sesno, “This could be riveting. It can be illuminating. It can be disturbing beyond anything that you can experience in a one or two dimensional presentation.”

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