Is virtual reality the next big opportunity for content marketing?

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Would you call a 360 video virtual reality (VR)?

While not everyone agrees on how to define VR, many think that the technology is fast reaching a tipping point. How will it transform content marketing and take customer experiences to a new level? Get ready to be immersed.

An experience that was once out of reach for most consumers has now inched a little closer to our screens – popping up in retail stores, theatres and homes.

What is VR and what stage of its development are we at now? What’s in it for audiences, and how can businesses benefit?

In this blog, I sum up some of the key insights from the recent Digital Matters conference in Singapore, where industry watchers debated the technology in a panel moderated by AsiaVR Association co-founder Don Anderson.

The take-off point for virtual reality is on the horizon

This year is shaping up to be a watershed moment for VR.

Oculus VR, which Facebook acquired two years ago, shipped its first Oculus Rift headsets (US$599) to consumers earlier this year. Around the same time, smartphone maker HTC also launched the consumer edition of it Vive VR headset (US$799).

HTC’s China regional president of VR, Alvin Wang Graylin, said: “We’re at the point where it’s about to ramp because products are getting to a price point that can get into homes.”

“Content is also about to flood in,” he added. On Vive’s store, for instance, the number of titles has grown from about 80 to 700 in the last five months. This figure is expected to surpass 1000 by year-end.

The last few years have seen exponential growth in VR, from the tools needed to create such immersive content to how accessible it has become for cost-conscious consumers.

Although the product is still a little pricey – making it more attractive to enthusiasts – anyone who hankers after an initial taste of VR can easily get their hands on a Google Cardboard (US$15).

Budding VR filmmakers, too, no longer need to shell out thousands of dollars for a spherical camera. These days, a few-hundred-dollar investment is all you need to produce a 360-degree video.

This, however, brings me to my next question – one that the panellists had trouble agreeing on as well. Is 360-degree video really VR?

Defining a disruptive technology

VR production company TaKanto Virtual Reality’s managing director, Ariel Talbi, acknowledged the differing opinions within the industry, but felt it was too early to start categorising.

“360 videos are the gateway to VR. It’s in the best interest of the entire VR community to embrace them,” he said, predicting that once users are hooked on the concept of being immersed in a 360-degree environment, they will start searching for “real VR” experiences.

So what then is true VR?

YouTube’s global VR evangelist, Scott Broock, said the life-life experiences offered by VR make it “fundamentally different from other pieces of media”. Sensation and interactivity with environment are two key components of VR content, he added.

Describing it as working on a different level than how people are consuming content now, he explained: “It’s getting into your lizard brain. You have peripheral motion all the time, everywhere; the sounds come at you as if they were in the real world.

“You’re bypassing a bunch of learned behaviour. Your senses will react before your forebrain is processing what’s going on. That’s a stimulation most of us don’t have. The key takeaway is that (VR) has the power to reach people deeply.”

From a content creation perspective, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific’s senior producer, production and development, Bryan Seah, suggested that it is possible to view VR in two ways: super VR, which is what companies such as Oculus and HTC are offering; and VR in the middle tier, which consumers can experience by plugging their smartphones into Samsung Gear VR headsets, for instance.

“On the (Discovery VR) app, the majority of content has been in that middle tier. We think there’s a great chunk of viewers who want this experience,” he said.

Since its launch in August 2015, the Discovery VR app has garnered more than 1.4 million downloads. Well-loved shows such as MythBusters and episodes from Shark Week are all available on the app.

For HTC’s Graylin, however, 360-degree videos must be seen as distinct from good, interactive VR content.

An example of the latter is Iron Man director Jon Favreau’s lastest foray into VR  through Gnomes & Goblins, which was recently released as a preview.

“It brings you into that immersive environment, and it gives you presence because you can interact with environment. Most 360 videos are something you sit there and watch; the camera stays there. In this case you can actually walk around. You can open the doors, shake the trees and things fall down. Little gnomes come out and you want to talk to them,” Graylin said.

What businesses need to know about virtual reality

Graylin admitted that most of the VR applications today are still entertainment focused, which is why people are hesitant to splurge on high-end VR devices.

“It’s about what applications are out there,” he said. “If you’re a doctor… this tool gives you the ability to go to any surgery table and observe the best doctors in the world. Or it can let you practise cutting into a virtual cadaver and become a better doctor in a week whereas it would usually take you a year to learn.

“Or if I were a student and I could teleport to the best universities in the world and listen to the best professors, I can tell you that every parent and child will pay (for this experience),” he surmised.

TaKanto’s Talbi believes that some types of businesses are clearly more prime to leverage VR. Last year, his company partnered with Flight Centre to introduce virtual walk-throughs of selected holiday destinations using headsets in the travel agency’s Singapore stores.

“We got them attention and media coverage, so there was already an ROI. It was a win-win. However, the strategy is not only to look at it as a one-time marketing tool but also a business tool,” he said, adding that training travel consultants in the use of VR could also help them sell better. To measure ROI, sales can easily be compared between packages that have a VR component and those without.

Clearly, we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to uncovering the massive potential of this groundbreaking technology.

Building the virtual reality ecosystem

While all the developments so far have been positive, it is content that will boost the uptake of VR devices, said Discovery’s Seah. “People are not going to pay a thousand dollars for a headset and have nothing to watch.”

With this in mind, the role of the content creator is certainly an important one. This journey, however, may take a while.

Sharing his experience of visiting VR producers in Southeast Asia, Seah called the current landscape the “wild wild east”. “They are slapping on a couple of GoPros and trying it out. There’s a lot of workshop feeling to it.”

Aside from having to be equipped with the knowledge of what shots will work well in VR versus traditional media, a paradigm shift is also needed.

Seah said: “When you look behind (the camera), you can see the crew having a cigarette. They’re not really wrapping their heads around the fact that this is (about) spherical, 360 (content). I think that’s the starting point.

“When filming VR, the camera is the person itself. It’s the presence. It’s absolutely hyper POV (point of view). The camera represents every single viewer. A lot of filmmakers are still grappling with that as they try and move from 2D to VR.”

From content creation and device development to distribution platforms, the faster the pieces of the puzzle can come together, the sooner VR can take flight in this region. Meanwhile, brands and marketers must start looking at their business to see how this technology can be tapped to deliver never-before experiences because it’s definitely here to stay.

The author of the article is Gracia Chiang, senior content editor and sub-editor, King Content, Asia