Virtual reality is more than just a gaming fad with a chequered history

Ben Paterson, founder and managing director, Figure Digital
Ben Paterson, founder and managing director, Figure Digital

The jaw-dropping possibilities of Oculus Rift were demonstrated to devastating effect at this week's E3 gaming show with the release of a virtual reality version of the Aliens films, but the technology's capabilities goes well beyond gaming argues Figure Digital founder Ben Paterson.

Our current virtual reality (VR) renaissance is way more than the latest gamer’s fad, as many cynics still attempt to dismiss it.

I’d agree with Oculus’ chief scientist Michael Abrash, formerly of gaming giant Valve, who boldly claims "we're on the cusp of what I think is not The Next Big Platform, but rather simply The Final Platform – the platform to end all platforms – and the path here has been so improbable that I can only shake my head."

Oculus has cannily hired some of the greatest minds in the modern videogame industry, as Abrash sits alongside the company’s chief technology officer (CTO) John Carmack, the original rock-star American game coder (the guy that made Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Rage and loads more).

The regular criticism we hear about the value of virtual reality to brands and marketers is that it is only of interest to the games industry. It’s a nice and neat denunciation of virtual reality as a niche interest device for diehard Call Of Duty fans. It’s also absolutely false.

How do I know this? Why am I so confident that VR is going to fundamentally change the marketing industry in the next few years?

Every time that I’ve been in a client meeting over the last 12 months and have demonstrated an Oculus Rift to a VR virgin, the response has been unequivocally positive. People take the headset off with a huge grin across their face, as if they’ve just witnessed the future. Every. Single. Time.

If the Oculus Rift was simply a gaming device, then why are major VFX studios such as Framestore opening their own VR and immersive content studios? It is because there is already a huge, fast-growing business in Hollywood and in the theme-park industry for studios that are equipped to design, shoot, code and create immersive, filmic VR experiences.

Watch out for such experiences from the likes of Warner, Disney, Sony, LucasFilm and others at a multiplex near you, very soon.

The advertising industry now needs to lead the charge here, with brands being presented with an open goal opportunity to create the most engaging content ever made for these new platforms.

Virtual reality hardware tech has had a chequered history, for sure, as anybody that came of age in the late 1980s or 1990s will recall.

And I think that it is exactly these lingering memories of those early, heady promises of fully immersive worlds and sci-fi "metaverses" - back when we were being promised that VR in 2001 would essentially be like living in a Tinseltown movie, or that the best 3D VR videogames would boast game worlds (Zelda, or Mario or Tomb Raider) that would replace the actual, real world around us. That still causes the scepticism that surrounds the possibilities of current VR tech and content today.

What of the future for VR marketing? Right now, the action is in experiential, purely because of the limited availability of the hardware amongst the general public. In 2015, both Oculus VR and Sony (and, according to the latest tech blog rumours, Samsung) will be releasing highly polished consumer versions of their virtual reality headsets. 

Games developers, Hollywood studios and VR creatives and marketing agencies will be competing with one another to create the biggest, baddest and most mind-blowing VR experiences to date.

If you still believe that VR is little more than a flash in the pan for the marketing industry, then by Christmas 2015, I guarantee you will have changed your mind. Hell, we’re betting the farm on it.

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