It was late June, just two months after the HTC Vive release, and one of our designers brought his in (along with a personal gaming machine to run it) to give us our first taste of VR. Because of the learning curve (more on that in a minute), he remained in the room to run the software along with my copywriter who was there to sarcastically roast the old guy behind the goggles. With about 50 square feet to “explore,” I messed around on “Tilt Brush” and “The Night Café”, both beginner applications, for about 20 minutes without a break. And that was plenty.
Was it amazing? No. Was it fun? Not really. Was I blown-away? Definitely not. Overall, the experience was much like I expected: the graphics were good, the system response was tight, and the hardware felt premium. The UI was surprisingly intuitive and didn’t take more than a few words of advice to get both programs started. The Vive uses two hand-held wireless controllers with haptic feedback to navigate environments and mimic everything from brushes and tools to guns. Don’t ask me any more technical details about them because I’d have to research it. Inside the programs, I experienced a quite blurry environment, almost as if the headset didn’t fit properly. Maybe it didn’t. But while it took away from the polish of the experience, it wasn’t all that distracting. “Tilt Brush” was really just a way to paint with light in a 3D environment. It was a nice introduction to how immersive an environment could be, allowing me to walk around and through my art. “The Night Café” put me inside the famous Van Gogh painting, encouraging me to walk around and see things from different angles, transport to other areas of the room and stand on the pool table (?) if desired. And honestly, just after a few minutes, I felt a little nauseous. Something I couldn’t share with my copywriter at the time.
Does it all sound sort of boring? Well, in a way, it was. After 15 minutes of each, what else would there be left to do? I suppose you could improve your art in “Tilt Brush” or find other rooms to explore in “The Night Café,” but for a guy with a family and about 15 minutes of free time a day, this is not how I would choose to spend it.
The revelation was this: I had no conscious idea of just how disconnected from reality I actually was until the moment I removed the goggles from my head. I don’t know when it happened, or how long I was “gone” but when my eyes readjusted to the light and I was “back” in front of my friends, it was then that I realized the power of this technology. For me, it isn’t the entertainment value or compelling content, it’s the total ability to disconnect from whatever your reality is. It was terrifying and exciting and disorienting all at once. I immediately felt the potential and wanted to experience more.
For most folks, it’s all going to feel quite foreign – like you’re inside someone else’s game, which begs a long list of moral and ethical questions. What could this mean for first-person shooter games? What will it mean for experiencing other relationships from friends to lovers? What about education, travel or training? I have no answers to these questions, only a newfound and incredible curiosity.
But I can tell you how it’s going to affect our industry.
How will brands fit into this technology? With the same methods they use to fit into other branded content, sponsorships and advertising. While the tactics won’t change, the difference will be an unprecedented level of immersion; a touchpoint that surprises and engages consumers like never before. The brands that “get it” will create entirely seamless worlds for users to experience, while generating value, authentic interaction and entertainment. The North Face has already been exploring this concept in valuable and interesting ways. And with each passing day, the implementations are only getting more exciting.
The time of linear, myopic storytelling will, in the best examples, be cast aside in favor of a completely comprehensive experience. One where the customer can truly leave behind one world for another, even if only for a few minutes. For the first time, we will have complete control over everything the consumer experiences within our content. Any emotional response will be a direct result of our actions, intentional or otherwise. No contextually terrible banner ads. No billboards next to an auto accident. No commercials immediately following a horrific news story. That’s a lot of trust, so we’d better not screw it up.
The brands that don’t take the time to understand the medium will fall short (like they often do) with forced messaging and a self-serving engagement. Remember when brands first made the transition from radio to television, often with disastrously underwhelming results? That shift is nothing compared to this. When any new medium comes into play, most of us advertising folk make the immediate mistake of treating it like the media we’re already comfortable with. For once, let’s try to avoid that mistake. This thing is a big deal.
Some clients will belong on this platform, while others will not. For the ones that do, we’ll craft bigger, better stories that are currently indescribable, immeasurable, and almost unimaginable. Yes, like anything, there will be a learning curve. Yes, there will be flops and failures along the way. But as I learned a few weeks ago, VR shouldn’t be a scary proposition, it’s one full of excitement and wonder.
There is no doubt to me that this is where future generations are headed – to environments with less stress, politics, and anger, to places of control, imagination and joy. VR where we will be able to define our own comfort zones and explore just about anything the human mind can create. If we can imagine it, we’ll be able to go there. No more trips to the Vatican, African expeditions or space missions for that matter, because for 99% of us, a fully immersive VR experience will do just fine. Then again, the Nile, Rome and Mars will still just smell more like your living room than the Nile, Rome or Mars.