Why Brands Should Take Virtual Reality Seriously

The first encounter I had with the Oculus Rift was at a company exploring how to combine it with the XBox Kinect. I’d always thought virtual reality was cool, but that it was a bit of a toy, something to pass a few minutes, not a serious way of delivering digital content to the masses. But, one of the demos I saw that day totally changed my view on how important virtual reality is going to be in the future.

The first demo was using an XBox Kinect to allow you to control an in game avatar by simply moving around, while the Oculus headset provided the view into a 360° virtual world, it was crude, but awesome, very engaging.

The second was demoing some work by Infinite Realities showing a collection of 3D models of people captured using a high res photogrammetry rig. It really was incredible! I was astounded that I could perceive the distance between the tip of the nose and the top lip of one of the models. I’d never had such a high fidelity, immerse and realistic computing experience.

Virtual reality has always held a certain mystique, promising much, yet unfortunately never quite delivering. The thought of stepping into a world, indistinguishable from the one around you, and interacting with it as though it were real is a hugely exciting prospect.

Yet for the past thirty years it’s never really managed to gain traction in the mass market. Held back by a panoply of issues, from the limited supply of cumbersome and expensive hardware, to poor quality graphics and LCD screens. The situation was further exacerbated by high latencies which had a habit of causing nausea and a distinct lack of content, it’s little surprise that it never really took off.

Fast forward thirty years and things look very different. We’re seeing a convergence of several technologies that are not only making a true virtual reality experience possible, but are making the equipment needed accessible, en masse.

The mobile industry has been a huge driving force behind the miniaturisation and ever improving performances of CPUs, GPUs, accelerometers and more. Screens are now capable of delivering pixel densities so high that the human eye can barley perceive the individual pixels, even when magnified, and the graphics now possible on consumer devices, predominantly driven by the games industry, are beginning to approach photo realistic quality.

Companies like Oculus VR spotted this, and are capitalising on this coalescence of technology to build consumer friendly devices, at volume, and at a price point that most folk with a bit of disposable income will be able to afford. Facebook clearly thought this company was going somewhere when it purchased them for $2 billion back in March 2014. Sony have also shown significant interest in the area creating Project Morpheus, designed to work with the PS4.

Reports on the quality of the experiences these devices are delivering are full of plaudits. But while these dedicated devices are great, and will no doubt deliver the premium experience, they still require the purchase of an fairly costly headset, a machine to drive the experience and a bunch of cables connecting them.

This is why I think the mobile side of virtual reality is so exciting. Mobile drove the development of some of the key technologies that are making these devices possible. So there’s already millions of devices out there packing all of this technology into one neat unit. These devices, can deliver high quality graphics, detect motion through three axes, power themselves via their high capacity batteries and even offer camera pass through using the inbuilt, high res, camera.

Using a common-or-garden smart phone, coupled with a Google Cardboard, Zeiss VR One or a Samsung Gear VR, or any of the other devices on the market, and people can experience a reasonable quality virtual reality experience for the first time in their own home.

Sure they still need to go out and purchase one of these contraptions, but they start at £15 not £300 odd. The barrier between the mass market getting the equipment needed to experience decent quality virtual reality is getting lower and lower, making it possible for an increasing number of people to try it out, fall in love with it and really kickstart demand for the more expensive and more refined devices. Add in the fact that gamers will be buying Oculus and Project Morpheus headsets and this equipment is going to be available to, or in the possession of, a lot of people very soon.

Whilst this all sounds great, this is still a young, immature technology. There are challenges still to be solved. Body tracking and movement is still a problem area, oddly enough people don’t like not having hands. At present it’s a very solitary experience, that’s incredibly boring for any spectators. Try watching your mate coo and ahh for half an hour on your Google Cardboard and you’ll see what I mean. High latency can cause nausea and people still feel very self conscious using a headset in front of other people. In time, these issues will get resolved, and hopefully it’s not enough to put people off giving it a go. However, the biggest impediment to virtual reality succeeding is a lack of content.

As with most digital mediums, content is king, and this is a real weak point for virtual reality at the moment. That said, this too is improving. Google has just released Google Cardboard SDK showing renewed interest in this space by Google. Samsung’s Gear VR is using the Oculus SDK, and work is underway to create a totally web based virtual reality experiences built on WebGL.

SDK’s and tooling are progressing and companies like Jaunt and Fibrum are already creating interesting experiences that are starting to explore the possibilities. Further progress is being made by the games companies working on titles like Vanguard V, Alien Isolation and Elite Dangerous. Google has even create a dedicated area in the Play store for virtual reality apps.

This is a young, but massively exciting space, that brands need to be looking at exploring now. Volvo, Ted Baker and John Lewis are already leading the way, trying to figure out what virtual reality can do for them and their customers. All of these efforts have generated interest in the press, which is great for the brands, but more importantly it’s helped them better understand what’s possible with the technology and how to apply it in the future.

We know there are challenges still to solve, but acting now, and getting stuck in is the best way to figure out how to deal with them. If I was leading a brands innovation team, this is a technology I’d be getting in front of my devs right now.

If you’ve created some cool virtual reality experiences or have seen something that totally blew you away, I’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch.

Written on January 12, 2015

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