virtual reality

While it’s safe to say that the technological development of virtual reality (VR) is accelerating, one has to wonder when, or if, it will really take off. On the one hand, hardware has finally become affordable: the latest Samsung Gear VR headset is retailing for around £75, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift is available for £370 – less than the cost of an iPhone.

Headset sales are also on the rise: a recent study found that 6% of the British population currently owns some form of virtual reality headwear. This might not sound like a lot, but at the equivalent time, after widespread release, tablets had only achieved a 3% market penetration. Today tablets are so ubiquitous, we take them for granted. According to Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers, the challenge isn’t the hardware as such but “the slow growth in content that appeals to a mass audience.” He might very well be right.

When it comes to virtual reality content, many of us are still thinking about worlds populated by three-dimensional models. If we play video games, we can’t help but see virtual reality as an outgrowth of first-person shooter games like Doom and Halo. And with budgets in the tens of millions, the example of expensive, top tier gaming titles does not give much hope for large-scale content creation.

But the fact is, outside of gaming, it is video that will drive virtual reality adoption. It is not that hard to imagine that VR might soon do to video what video did to photography.

Photos are still effective for engaging people on social media and other digital channels, but it’s videos that most grab people’s attention and prepare customers to invest in a product or experience. Digital marketing expert James McQuivey estimates that a single minute of video content is the equivalent of 1.8 million words. It has even been shown that 4x as many consumers prefer watching a video about a product to reading about the same item. In the near future, as VR becomes more commonplace, standard video formats won’t be enough. Customers will crave more immersion and will naturally be drawn to brands that offer it.

In March this year, Facebook launched its first dedicated virtual reality application, Facebook 360, serving as a hub for all 360 video and photo content that is posted to the platform. At the time of the release, the social network claimed that it was already home to over one million videos and 25 million photos in a 360 format. The figure is likely to increase rapidly going forward, as Facebook’s iOS and Android apps can now capture 360-degree photos without the help of a third-party application or an extra device.

Much like 360, virtual reality will find a place in advertising for high-ticket products and experiences. The travel industry, for example, is challenged with selling pricey experiences to customers who can’t sample what they’re about to buy. Formats such as virtual reality will let holidaymakers experience vacation destinations before they even make the booking. Simply put, the more people are going to spend on a service or item, the more they will want to experience it beforehand.

We predict a lower entry price point for VR eventually. The “ability to touch, feel and try products” is cited by 80% of global consumers as the number one reason for shopping in brick-and-mortar outlets. As virtual reality continues to evolve, e-commerce retailers will be able to leverage these formats to reach hesitant audiences in a digital space, creating a virtual store for shoppers to explore online.

Use of virtual reality for social is still in its infancy, but one thing is certain: savvy advertisers will want to track innovations that make 360 video more immersive and interactive. As social platforms increasingly begin to pursue their own hardware, such as Oculus and Snapchat’s Spectacles, we will see the birth of new formats and types of experiences. This will ultimately create more advertising opportunities for brands.