Virtual reality (VR) is unavoidable at the moment. It is one of the industry’s most discussed topics. The spectrum of devices spans from Cardboard to the Oculus Rift, and Google introduced a new VR concept called Daydream at their I/O developer conference a few days ago. The technology is market-ready, and looks for new creative possibilities with which to address consumers, whether at home, in store, or on the go.

Not all places where you see the words virtual reality are also virtual inside.

Because not everyone who discusses and reports on VR means virtual reality in a strict sense; they also mean 360-degree video, or augmented reality (AR). Two factors help to differentiate these: the user’s environment, and the kind of experience.

With augmented reality, the real environment is enriched with computer generated content that blends with the user’s vision via AR headsets or corresponding apps. The virtual enhancements come in various forms, such as an overlay with additional information, or 3D objects with which you can interact. Often, they are directly connected to the environment (location-based services), or to objects (beacons/QR codes).

With virtual reality, a user is taken out of their physical reality and transported to a closed virtual environment, where they can freely move around. Additionally, the visual sensation can be supported by sound or other stimuli, such as temperature, wind, or smells; enhancing the fantasy, and giving the user an impression of being in the middle of things. This is referred to as an immersive experience.

On the contrary, 360-degree videos, which are filmed from a fixed camera position, provide only a limited experience. The user can’t move freely; they can only change their point-of-view through head movement.

The crucial added value of VR against other technology is immersion. The feeling of being in the middle of things lends itself amazingly well to creating surprising and compelling brand experiences, and also to interacting with the consumer in a special way. But 360-degree videos and AR apps also offer exciting use scenarios. They differentiate themselves from other communication channels through three unique selling points.

1. AR and 360-degree videos make classic communication channels interactive and digital

Digital AR and 360-degree videos enhance the spectrum of classic media, and make newspapers or TV sports interactive, for example. With the help of AR apps that are used with a smartphone or tablet, products from print advertising can be experienced in 3D. Integrated buttons point to a website with more information, or directly to the company’s e-commerce shop.

The New York Times enhanced its print offerings with 360-degree reportages that can be viewed with Google Cardboard. The Guardian has also recently published a reportage of this kind, where the audience can find out how it feels to be in a 6×9 feet solitary confinement cell. All this creates an emotional kind of reporting, and is exceptionally well suited to storytelling.

2. VR and 360-degree videos overcome spatial distances

An attractive advantage of 360-degree videos and VR is that spatial distances can be overcome; even YouTube recently started to offer live-streaming in 360-degrees. This means that brands can take customers to almost any location, and allow them to take part in exclusive events that increase brand interest.

VR and 360-degree videos are particularly exciting for the tourist industry. In order to speak to young travellers and position themselves as an innovative hotel chain, Marriott in New York created a kind of telephone booth that transported visitors to a beach in Hawaii via Oculus Rift. The special thing about this was the additional support given by audio-visual sensations from external stimuli. The visitors sensed warmth and spray mist on the skin, and a salty breeze in the nose. With this, Marriott gave them the feeling of being in another place without leaving their physical location.

3. AR and VR intensify the product experience, and turn products and services into something that can be experienced 

Virtual reality makes it possible to intensify the product experience at the point of sale. For the launch of their new hiking boot, the outdoor supplier Merrell sent shop visitors on a virtual hike in the Dolomites. They had to run across a rickety  bridge, and feel their way around a cliff.  The connection of audio-visual with tactile stimuli makes the experience extremely immersive. These virtual experiences demonstrated the places to which the new hiking boot could take them. With this, Merrell focused on their roots, and spoke to exactly their core target group. Because they supplied an Oculus Rift, the company made the technology available to many visitors that were not (yet) ready to invest in VR glasses.

In 2014, Serviceplan used VR to stage a virtual test-drive together with BMW. With the help of Oculus Rift and a wind machine, ‘Eye Ride‘ achieved a realistic driving encounter that was an at-the-time unparalleled immersive experience.

It’s not just in-store where technology offers added value to potential customers, it can also offer it at home. With the Makeup Genius App from L’Oréal Paris, users could try out different make-up looks via AR. Through realistic product presentation, the customer’s uncertainly, which can occur before a sale, was taken away. This was particularly effective during sales.

IKEA is currently testing how customers in the future will be sent on virtual shopping tours through their stores. For this, IKEA had a free app developed for the HTC Vive VR system. With the app, one can freely move in the midst of a true to scale kitchen, choose different materials with the HTC Vive controller, open draws and even cook food. Additionally, the company plans a series of furnishing solutions that customers can virtually explore before buying. This way, interested parties can view products in detail without having to travel to the store.

Involvement, Immersion, Impact

Developments around the theme of VR create completely new ways of staging interactive brand experiences. Targeted approaches follow three stages. To generate involvement, it is necessary to have a concept and promise of experience that lead to the user’s active engagement with the brand; only then will they take the step towards this technology. Maximum immersion has to be focused with the implementation, so that the user also takes part into the emotional aspect of the brand experience, and this new kind of brand staging achieves optimal impact. The proof of efficiency?  The expression on the user’s face when they take the virtual ‘Eye Ride’ on a BMW motorbike, for example 😉

First published in German by

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