Beware the virtual reality FOMO

When someone asks what your VR strategy is, they're reaching for your wallet, says the global director of interactive strategy at Wieden+Kennedy

Virtual reality. VR. Take your pick: It’s going to be either: (a) the biggest thing; or (b) the biggest thing ever. 

Everyone from Time to TechCrunch is hyping virtual reality, anointing the kings of an "industry-that-isn’t-yet" and predicting rosy futures for companies willing to make the magic leap into VR.

Since "VR" is about as tightly defined as "digital" is, there are two realities to keep in mind:

First, virtual reality is an experience that hacks your senses into believing you are an empowered agent within a virtual space, and enables your interactions to affect that virtual space. It is not "360-degree video presented in a VR headset" (H/T @justincoyne)

Second, mute the cottage industry of hustlers emerging to monetize brands’ VR FOMO. Brands have specific business objectives to achieve and limited budgets to achieve them. VR will play a role, but expect a few hype-clouded years of learning the new rules and new tools.

To save you some time and false positives, here’s some stuff we’ve learned about VR so far.

VR is not a scale or reach play for brands. Remember the first time you saw someone walking down the sidewalk toward you, screaming into the air, then realized they were using a Bluetooth headset? Now blind them to all environmental stimulus and see how they do in traffic. People who can’t see where they are going while interacting with an alternate reality need a confined space for their safety and ours.

Cutting your connection to the real world as a "precondition to play" means consumer-facing VR will be place-based, movement-constrained and limited by the number of folks that can put on the headset at a given location. People will buy headsets, but don’t be surprised if every original equipment manufacturer views this as its chance to become the Apple of VR (owning the hardware, software and app ecosystem).

No one wants to become someone else’s VR hardware "dumb pipe," so they’ll compete for developers and mindshare and madness will ensue. Competing standards and the challenge of porting premium experiences from device to device will force brands to "custom-create" (that’s code for spend a lot of money for) standalone VR experiences by hardware manufacturer.

To get scale, the short-term compromise for brands will be things like YouTube360, but that’s mostly stitched 360-video (where interaction consists mostly of looking around), not true VR.

The caveat here is that VR adoption will penetrate certain communities faster — gamers, we’re all looking at you — so there’s a chance one could achieve  so-called scale within a particular audience. But even in these verticals, I’d take any breathless predictions about adoption rates and triple their time scales.

In the near term, VR is PR. Until mass adoption and standard consolidation, VR will be a niche context/experiential play, with brand mileage coming from innovation and media coverage of said innovation. Some great stuff will happen when creative people figure out what makes this medium unique and powerful — and force it to do new tricks — but expect a few years of cardboard-thin agency case studies proclaiming success before we start to get the real thing.

VR content is really different. The trades make a lot of noise about entertainment companies and studios building content for the VR space, but I’d argue that’s BS. They’ll have to unlearn linear storytelling and narrative control first. My money is on open world game developers becoming the new studios. Brands will have to cowboy-up to play: we can’t save shekels by trying to reuse VR footage to make a TV spot or vice-versa. You wouldn’t make radio lifting the audio off your TV spots, or run your TV spot on Snapchat. A new wave of production partners will arise, a new generation of content creators will emerge and new networks will be built.

Trust no one: Let your own vomit guide you. It is early in the VR space, and that means innovation cycles come fast: new compression codecs + stitching tech + cloud rendering + multi-core enhanced device/display throughput + etc. = what was cutting edge last quarter (or last month) is old news today. "Expertise" has an expiration date.

On a recent client effort, W+K was advised by our partners about a frame-rate ceiling above which "people would vomit." A creative director visiting the render house saw footage at a frame rate in the "blow chunks" range, and called to announce "he hadn’t hurled". The new higher speed render went in, no vomit came out and conventional wisdom changed.

Our team agrees that this development window (six months ago!) was "the Dark Ages of VR" compared to where we are now. Seriously, people? Buckle up.

The next person who asks, "what’s your VR strategy," punch them in the throat, because they are reaching for your wallet. VR will be transformative, but no one knows exactly how, and brand VR-FOMO will be expensive.

Be choosy about the opportunities, pragmatic about your goals and find the best guides you can.

And most of all, jack in and get ready for the unexpected, mind-blowing, titanium-winning brand applications of VR that will open our eyes — and hearts — to the possibilities and provocations of an entirely new medium. This is going to be fun.

Renny Gleeson is global director of interactive strategy at Wieden+Kennedy.

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