It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

Exploring the worlds of virtual and augmented reality

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

It’s that sinking feeling as you walk into the hotel lobby. The wonderful marble interior that was so impressive in the brochure looks rather dingy in real life, the infinity pond resembles a paddling pool and that wonderful veranda has been replaced by tired decking and a few battered umbrellas.

Holiday brochures may not always live up to the reality, but visitors to Thomas Cook’s new concept store at the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent now have a real opportunity to spy before they fly.

They can step into a virtual world and experience a 360 degree, stereoscopic tour of one of Thomas Cook’s SENDITO resorts, allowing them to check out the amenities, beach and even the in-flight experience.

For supporters of virtual reality, this is the future. Simply by donning an Oculus Rift headset, or its cheaper rival Google Cardboard, anyone can take a trip through the solar system, play a game of tennis with Wimbledon veteran Tim Henman or even watch a live operation from the environs of an operating theatre.

But for others, the Thomas Cook pilot in a new concept store is simply further evidence that virtual reality is some way from becoming mainstream and transformational. They view virtual reality as primarily a gamers’ device that is hard to explain, let alone adapt, into a wider marketplace.

‘I struggle to see how virtual reality is going to be a meaningful reality for people this year,’ says Katie Buckett, co-founder of OneFifty Consultancy. ‘At the moment, it’s just too niche. We need to start seeing people using it outside of gaming.

‘Gamers get excited about it but most consumers have never used it or have any idea what Google Cardboard is. Companies need to ask themselves What does that customer look like? How do they engage with technology? If that’s your right audience, then you’re not limiting them by using virtual reality.’

At its most basic, virtual reality allows users to be transported to any real or imagined world simply by connecting to a computer and strapping on a headset or a pair of data gloves.

Buckett suggests that those getting most excited about virtual reality are caught up with their ‘tech bubble’, having been to events where the technology is showcased. As with any new channel, they are eager to use it, but less conservative about what they use it for.

‘It’s one thing to say We want to use virtual reality,’ she says. ‘Meaningfully engaging with it is a whole other step. Companies need to see it more as a vehicle, not simply say I want do something with VR.’

Henry Stuart, co-founder of virtual reality studio Visualise, acknowledges that virtual reality is not yet ready to be commonplace. ‘We’ll see gradual uptake, from the gamers and early adopters, content creators will emerge in 2017 and so by the time it goes mainstream, that already takes us to 2018. We’re at the early adoption stage.’

Nick Morey, senior creative manager at Dynamo PR, which recently launched its own dedicated virtual reality division, agrees. ‘It’s a young media, there will be people doing it for the sake of it. That might muddy the waters a bit,’ he says.

But Morey believes there is an available audience keen to try out virtual reality initiatives.  He points to VRFocus, a specialist technology website whose unique user figures are between 130,000 and 140,000 each month, despite the fact that widely-talked about headsets like the Oculus Rift have yet to be released on the consumer market.

‘The trend is there, people are hungry for this information,’ he adds.

Some experts argue that it is not appetite that is slowing virtual reality’s progress, but rather the available technology. The consumer version of an Oculus Rift headset is likely to cost around $599 (£410), which doesn’t include tax or shipping, according to its inventor Palmer Luckey.

James Berg, digital planner and insight executive at agency Ketchum, believes virtual reality is about giving users experiences they would otherwise not have. Traditionally, brands might send key influencers or journalists to experience something on the consumer’s behalf.

Berg insists that virtual reality could be a smarter, more intimate and immersive approach. ‘Virtual reality is another place to communicate with consumers. The dream scenario is to be able to pay for consumers to experience your brand. With a [VR] headset, you can say Join me in that experience.’

Some experts believe that augmented reality, a less glamorous cousin of virtual reality, is more easily adaptable and scalable. Augmented reality, they point out, is available via an app, which consumers simply have to download.

The app, which works in the real world, rather than a virtual one, brings posters, magazines and other objects to life. Five years ago, Heinz was one of the pioneers of augmented reality, when it worked with Blippar to create labels on its tomato ketchup bottles that transformed into recipe books when viewed via the app.

And when American president Barack Obama campaigned for a second term in the White House, Blippar produced a We got ur back, Obama fundraising initiative that allowed supporters to volunteer, donate funds, listen to an exclusive song or even take selfies ‘high fiving’ Obama, simply by ‘blipping’ a $5 bill.

This worked well, says Buckett, because it played on the fact that Obama seems unreachable. ‘He’s not somebody who you get to interact with. It’s using technology as a vehicle, the campaign is not around the tech itself.’

Another augmented reality firm, Zappar, has worked with sectors as diverse as pharmaceuticals and architecture.  

‘The technology has been around for 60 years,’ explains chief executive Caspar Thykier. ‘It was an interesting solution desperately searching for a problem to solve.’

He remarks that now augmented reality, while still on a journey into the mainstream, works far better when it is thought about as a ‘possible solution among many’, rather than as something that simply ‘ticks the innovation box for marketing uses’.

Thykier stands by three pillars of augmented reality: content, context and call-to-action.  Content is part of the value exchange between customer and company, in which the end user is offered something that ‘has to be surprising and delightful’.

Context refers to the more practical aspects of the technology – does a particular audience have access to a smartphone or Wifi? Do they have a free hand at the point of access to scan the Zapcode and do they have the time to engage with the content they unlock?

And the call-to-action should be just that – something that persuades or provokes the user into an immediate response – in Zappar’s case, scanning the Zapcode to gain access to hidden content.

‘You need to think beyond the labs and the theory,’ says Thykier. ‘We have genuine good examples of augmented reality working. And when it has gone wrong, we can usually pinpoint where it has. I would stand by those three pillars.’

It is also more applicable into everyday situations. For example, Samsung has been using augmented reality since 2012, when it launched a simulator app, allowing customers to test how its televisions would fit into their rooms.

And Zappar recently ran a campaign which took students on a virtual tour of the solar system, teaching them about taking measurements and reporting information, all through scanning a workbook asking users to ‘zap the planet then record your findings’.

But Thykier does not believe that there needs to be a competition between augmented and virtual reality technologies, as they both ‘meet different contextual needs’.

Virtual reality, for example, is likely to be far more of use in the home, whereas augmented reality is targeted far more at brands’ physical touch points, such as posters or brochures.

Morey and Berg believe that, with the right push into the mainstream, virtual reality could become much less of a novelty in the future, comparing it to the progression  of television.

‘It will be like getting TVs HD ready,’ says Morey. ‘It will be a natural progression.’

Influencers will be incredibly important in taking this step into the zeitgeist.  Stuart describes his experiences testing the Oculus as ‘magical’, saying that the ‘mind boggles as to its potential’, and even points out that the chief executive of Oculus, Brendan Iribe, calls virtual reality enthusiasts ‘the converted’.

Stuart recommends that virtual reality producers target what he calls ‘sneezers’, influencers who can inspire behavioural change. ‘It will become mainstream when people start talking about it,’ he says. ‘Put it in the hands of journalists, send a headset out. It will take physical activation – you have to try it to understand it.’ ‘

Twitter was on the sidelines but then Stephen Fry came along. It will need strong ambassadors to make it happen,’ agrees Morey.

When virtual reality is used correctly, there is undoubtedly a business case for it, even at this early stage. Building on the success of its Bluewater concept store, Thomas Cook launched Try before you fly immersive films, in association with Visualise, which allowed potential holidaymakers  to ‘test out’ experiences and sights in five locations, including New York, Greece and Cyprus.

Visitors to flagship stores in the UK, Germany and Belgium were invited to don Google Cardboard headsets and try out potential holiday destinations. Within three months, the initiative had generated £12,000 worth of flights and hotel bookings in the UK and Germany and a 40 per cent return on investment.

Marriott Hotels has been an early adopter of virtual reality, launching its Teleporter programme in 2014 that takes guests around the world via a ‘fully immersive 4D sensory experience’, from a tour of London to a honeymoon trip to Hawaii.

This was followed by VRoom Service, a portable VR kit that guests can use in their rooms to watch 360-degree travel videos, known as VR Postcards.

‘It allowed our guests to immerse themselves in other travellers’ real experiences travelling to destinations around the world, serving as a fantastic storytelling tool,’ explains Michael Dail, Marriott Hotels’ vice president of global brand marketing.

‘It was about making an emotional connection to our next generation traveller, sparking new ways of thinking and inspiring them.

‘We were able to deliver an unprecedented virtual reality experience to guests in-room, giving them something that most travellers would not have experienced otherwise. By offering virtual reality to our guests in two properties during the VRoom Service program, we made it as simple as room service.’

But Dail agrees with Buckett that virtual reality should ultimately align with your brand. Marriott aspires to ‘push the boundaries, lead innovation and drive change in the travel industry’.

‘By introducing new technology, like virtual reality, we’re able to spark conversations around the future of travel, which is very important to us,’ he adds.

‘We’ve received some very positive data, particularly from our New York programme. More than half of the New York participants said that VR Postcards is something they’d like to see more of at other Marriott Hotels.’

Virtual reality has also made its way into schools. Last November, Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather Group UK, renowned for his online TEDTalks, gave a 20-minute talk at a school in East London which Visualise livestreamed to 10,000 students in 100 schools via Google Cardboard headsets.

‘It will take a couple of years for the technology to catch up,’ says Stuart. ‘But it has the capability to change the music industry, sports and even conferencing.’

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Morey notes that virtual reality could be used in the military – in the US it has been used to help rehabilitate war veterans, and is being looked into as a means of training soldiers in the first place through simulations.  

Jaguar Land Rover uses it to produce virtual test drives of its cars and even has its own Virtual Reality Centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire, which allows engineers to design and test new cars, without building a single physical prototype.

‘It’s great for practical demonstrations of a product,’ explains Stuart. Unlike photos, which can be easily enhanced, virtual reality is ‘incredibly honest’.

It could be used to teach surgery, to view houses on the market and media design company Matmi is currently working with Alton Towers to produce its new  VR rollercoaster, combining the physical flying experience of its previous ride Air with ‘the breathtaking emotional journey of travelling through space’.

‘It’s arguably safer than physical rides,’ says Morey. Perhaps more unexpectedly, it is likely that the charity sector will also benefit hugely from the advent of virtual reality. ‘It will be easier to create content that will change people’s minds,’ says Berg.

He refers to the film Clouds Over Sidra, created for the United Nations by virtual reality company VRSE, which shows viewers around the Zaatari refugee camp, home to 130,000 Syrians fleeing violence and war.

The video tells the story of Sidra, a 12-year-old girl who has been living in the camp for more than a year. The UN commissioned the video, using virtual reality for the first time to ‘generate greater empathy and new perspectives on people living in conditions of great vulnerability’, according to the VRSE website.

‘Virtual reality allows you to see what it’s actually like in these camps,’ says Ketchum’s Berg. He compares the video to those shown on TV on Red Nose Day, when the public are shown the harsh conditions of people across the world to encourage them to give what they can to improve them.

‘Imagine how it would feel to see that in virtual reality. It would make people much more empathetic. People who work in communications want to make a positive impact on the world. VR provides huge opportunities for changing perceptions.’

Visualise is currently working with international aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières on a similar initiative using virtual reality, capturing documentary footage designed to show the charity’s donors the impact their money can have. ‘As a tool to understand and empathise, there is nothing stronger,’ says Stuart.

‘People are going to pick up on it. It’s intense and emotional and people will connect with it a lot more. People are used to ignoring stuff but with virtual reality, you’re immersed and you have a completely captive audience.’

Berg concurs. ‘When you’re looking at a video on your mobile phone, you’re still aware of what’s going on around you. Virtual reality takes up your whole vision. You can immerse people within the content.’

Still, there are other barriers to the mainstream, without price and accessibility. Jeff Coghlan, founder of Matmi, notes that there are only certain niches where it works, due to its problems causing motion sickness or headaches.

And one size does not fit all, either. Google Cardboard is the cheapest option, but the headsets are not meant for long-time use. They are, after all, made of cardboard. Brands need to understand what content they publish there.

‘It needs snackable, YouTube-like content,’ says Buckett. Morey notes, however, that we’re in the early stages, and as with other gaming technologies (such as the Nintendo 3DS, which likewise made gamers feel unwell when first released), such problems with comfort and wellness are likely to be ironed out in the future.

The question does remain, however, whether the hype around virtual reality will turn out to be a tech bubble waiting to burst.

Stuart doesn’t think so. ‘It will be in most houses in 2018. It’s going to be closely tied in with augmented reality. Augmented reality has more practical everyday uses. It’s going to be huge.’ He estimates that the combination of both realities will be worth $80 billion by 2020.

‘It does get people excited,’ acknowledges Buckett. ‘I can see why, the potential is enormous but for the man of the street, the question is When does everyone catch up? These things need to be accessible.’

Thykier agrees. ‘99 per cent of people don’t know what augmented reality is yet. How do you get this to as many people as possible? It captures imagination. It’s a magical moment [when you show AR to someone for the first time] – we refer it to it here as the ‘Zappar rush’. Every time I present it to someone new, I enjoy it as much as I did the first time. It’s about maintaining that level of interest.’

It will take time. ‘The technology is ready, but are we?’ asks Coghlan. ‘The evolution has to be right for both of them.’

He cites the example of ex-online fashion retailers Boo.com, launched in 1999. The company liquidated in 2000 as commentators suggested that no one would ever want to buy clothes on the Internet. The online fashion industry in the UK is currently worth more than £10 billion.

‘We need to endure and adapt,’ Coghlan goes on. ‘But someone needs to bring out an amazing app. The experience has to be right. There has to be a purpose for the user.’

But he’s nonetheless optimistic that uptake of virtual reality will not be the same ‘flop’ he sees in the wearables market.

‘It will happen,’ he assures.