For brands looking to navigate the evolving Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) landscape—and figure out how these growing technologies will transform everything from gaming to marketing—there’s probably no better guide than Robert Scoble. The iconic blogger, author, and tech evangelist made headlines a year ago when he announced he was joining VR-news startup UploadVR as entrepreneur in residence (see his essay “Why I Joined the VR Revolution,” which has drawn more than 600,000 views since it was published in March 2016).
I had the pleasure of interviewing Scoble on stage at the recent 2017 Clorox iConnect Conference (“Marketing in a Digital Age”). Some key takeaways from our conversation as well as additional thoughts I have about the art and science of VR/AR for marketers:
FIRST, UNDERSTAND THE BASIC DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VR AND AR
“Virtual reality is when you’re in a ‘black box’ and you play a game or watch a movie and everything you see is pixels,” Scoble explained at the start of our conversation. “Augmented Reality puts virtual stuff on top of the world.” In other words, VR is a fully artificial world, while AR puts a layer of artificiality on top of the real world in front of you.
There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace about the differences, so for marketers experimenting with AR/VR, the challenge is not only to get consumers to engage, but to help set expectations about what they’ll experience. It’s worth noting, that some AR/VR practitioners are increasingly considering mixed reality, which, as the name suggests, is a hybrid of AR and VR.
To simplify: VR is fake, AR sticks fake elements on top of your reality, and mixed reality puts “fake” in your reality in a useful and tangible way. In a mixed reality environment, for instance, your real desk could have a fake pen on it that you could pick up and use (virtually) as if it were a physical pen. That said, it’s possible that while the term mixed reality (nobody really seems to call it MR) might gain currency quickly, for now AR and VR are the most familiar labels among both consumers and practitioners.
And let’s not forget 360 video—the kind that consumers can shoot on their own with cameras such as the Samsung Gear 360, Nokia OZO, and the Nikon KeyMission 360, and then share on YouTube or Facebook—which is essentially video in the (all-a) round. What’s increasingly referred to as “mobile VR” due to its inextricable link with smartphones isn’t even considered VR by some purists, but the experience is still quite immersive and virtual, if not entirely interactive.
VR HAS SOME BIG SHORTCOMINGS—FOR NOW
“VR is trending right now and consumers are starting to get it, but it still hasn’t gotten pervasive,” Scoble said. What’s holding the technology back? Cost, basically. Good VR headsets—meaning the kind that are fully interactive such as those by Oculus and HTC, rather than the mobile VR ones—are still too expensive (the Oculus Rift headset starts at around $600; the Vive, $800), “And they’re too dorky,” according to Scoble. The hype factor surrounding VR also has consumers “a little confused that there’s not a lot going on.”
The retail experience doesn’t help much either. Recent research by the CTA and National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) indicates that consumers aren’t really discovering VR in retail situations due to the one-on-one nature of the small screen headsets—not to mention concerns about germs—as well as content that still isn’t that compelling. Facebook’s recent announcement that it’s removing its Oculus Rift demo stations at a third of the Best Buy stores where the VR systems are sold doesn’t bode well either. Just 2.6 million Oculus Rift headsets were sold worldwide since launching in 2016, which pales in comparison to the first year sales of Sony PlayStation 4 (14.5 million).
Even the best-selling “VR” headset—the Samsung Gear 360, which retails for just $99—sold just 5 million units since its launch in 2015, and many of those were bundled with smartphone sales. So driving interest is clearly an issue, and the VR/AR industry will need to continue to course-correct to pique consumer interest.
LOOKING FORWARD TO VR’S COMING GREAT LEAP FORWARD
Though low-cost mobile VR solutions like Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, and other headsets have indeed helped popularize the technology, Scoble said that he’s especially excited about new Apple VR products that he predicts will start arriving in September or October. He cites Apple’s 2013 acquisition of PrimeSense—an Israeli startup then best known for the technology behind the Xbox Kinect sensors—as helping to lead the way toward imminent consumer-tech VR breakthroughs, especially around interactive elements and augmented reality in affordable headsets of the mobile variety. Although Apple is famously guarded about specifics on its unreleased products, it’s a safe bet that its initial foray into the space will be a headset or even glasses that not only have some elements of AR and interactivity, but will also be tethered to the iPhone. And given Apple’s tendency to take existing technologies mainstream, this will in turn ignite innovation among competitors.
Imagine a near-future VR/AR ecosystem that’s post-”dorky,” with vastly improved portability as the core equipment shifts from a headset to a spectacle form factor. “I know of more than 10 glasses under development right now,” Scoble told me, “and the industry is spending hundreds of billions of dollars.” Tech giants from Apple and Google to Snap and Facebook to WeChat and Tencent are devoting vast resources to perfecting next-gen AR/VR platforms.
Even so, who wants AR spectacles when you can have AR/VR contact lenses instead? Samsung filed a patent for these last year, but so far not much has happened, so it might be a while.
VR/AR COULD BECOME THE ULTIMATE PRODUCT-EDUCATION TOOL
While the current generation of VR applications skew toward gaming, and some brands have been successfully deploying AR for product demos—Scoble cited Sephora’s virtual makeup app, powered by technology from a startup called ModiFace, as a great example—the real killer apps to come may be fundamentally educational.
Scoble explained, for instance, “Every car company is going to have to build virtual cars and virtual experiences for thinking about the car, buying the car, learning about the car.” He added that executives at one major car company told him they anticipate the price of VR/AR glasses to drop to the point that, “they’re expecting to give you a pair glasses at some point for the glove box so that if you blow a tire and you need to change the tire in the middle of nowhere, you put on the glasses and it shows you how to fix the tire. This is the best education technology the world has ever seen.”
The brand-sponsored/brand-centric possibilities are endless: “Imagine that you’re going to teach somebody anything. How to wash their clothes better. How to do things in the house. How to make a meal,” Scoble said.
IKEA already allows you to learn about its products and interiors in VR. And Lufthansa has introduced an AR snack box on selected flights; when viewed through a special smartphone app, “the cardboard box suddenly reveals things that were not visible before: a flight attendant appears on the screen and offers tips for the flight’s destination, or the Lufthansa WorldShop reveals its virtual shopping experience.”
The bottom line? Nobody knows exactly where VR/AR/mixed reality are headed, but every brand needs to be thinking about how consumers might make sense of, and interact with, virtual versions of their products and services in a virtual/augmented ecosystem.
And all of this is happening much faster than most of us realize. The bar is already getting higher and higher for quality implementations of VR and AR experiences, as are the costs (professional 360 videos currently cost around $100,000, while interactive VR experiences can cost around $500,000). As Scoble put it, “We have to change our entire approach to thinking through our products and our companies. We have to rethink them for this augmented world. We have a little bit of time, but not much.”
Illustration by Chris Fernandez
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