Updated: How virtual reality could transform your business

Introduction

Note: Our virtual reality for business feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in November 2014.

With orders for the first batch of Oculus Rift headsets currently being processed, VR has finally moved out of the development phase to become a real and tangible technology that anyone can now get their hands on. For businesses this could mean a whole new channel to experiment with. From education to shopping, VR is exciting businesses with the possibilities.

Not since the golden age of VR in the 1980s has the technology generated so much anticipation amongst consumers and businesses alike. The early vision in the 1950s from VR pioneers Douglas Engelbart and later Ivan Sutherland, then Jaron Lanier has now become a reality.

Outside of the gaming sector where VR will show what it is capable of to a waiting public, VR as a business tool has also been rapidly developing. Since the early developer units were available from Oculus, many enterprises have been experimenting with these new virtual spaces. Jaguar created what it called its ‘Actual Reality’ VR experience with a custom headset and a hydraulic platform with six-degrees of movement to create a fully immersive experience for its new F-Type car.

Shopping has also experimented with virtual stores that you can move through albeit on a two-dimensional screen. Cheap access to a VR-like environment thanks to Google Cardboard makes for the perfect platform to offer a more interactive and tactile virtual shopping experience, as Trillenium is developing right now. We could all be experiencing what has been dubbed ‘V-commerce’ pretty soon.

HTC vive and controller

To gain an insight into how VR will influence the products and services businesses will develop using the technology, Techradar Pro spoke with a number of leading enterprises actively developing for the virtual environment. These included the following…

Dean Johnson, Head of Innovation, Brandwidth

The experience of 30 years in the design, tech and publishing industries has resulted in Dean’s broad skill-base, all brought into play at Brandwidth, with brand creation, development and application at the heart, working across digital storytelling, narrative and audience engagement.

Mark Curtis, Founder and CCO at Fjord

Mark’s first company was Curtis Hoy, which pioneered radio sales promotion from 1989. Highlights included introducing fixed frequency low-cost radios as a sampling driver for the Pepsi taste test, bringing drive-in movies to the UK for the first time ever (Diet Pepsi) and designing the first marketing use of virtual reality in 1993 (for a Unilever brand).

Albert (Bertie) Millis, Managing Director, Virtual Umbrella

Bertie manages the world’s first marketing agency specifically aimed at helping virtual reality companies develop and grow their businesses. The firm works with developers and production studios, helping to promote their services to the general public and large brands seeking to create experiences using virtual reality.

Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia

Chris Savage is the chief executive and co-founder of Wistia, a video marketing and analytics platform that helps businesses host, customise, and measure video content.

Amelia Kallman, Innovation Consultant, Engage Works

Engage Works is behind the Flux LDN Innovation Lounge (one of the TimeOut blog’s five hot venues to check out). It’s a global business that has just expanded to Dubai. VR is a key part of Engage’s offering and the company hosts headsets in its Innovation Lounge.

Alasdair Lennox, Executive Creative Director, FITCH

Over the last few years, Alasdair has led FITCH EMEA to win awards at Cannes Lions, LIAs, Eurobest, World Retail Awards Store Design of the Year and Retail Week Interior Awards: Design Team of the Year. He has judged at Cannes Lions, the Brandrepublic Digital Awards and D&AD New Blood.

Luke Ritchie, Executive Producer, Nexus Interactive Arts

Luke oversees the management, strategy and day-to-day running of Interactive Arts in London. In 2016 he guides the company’s involvement in Google’s Made w/Code initiative which has seen the development of many interactive web projects and the fantastic real-time installation, Holiday Trees, in front of the White House.

Joss Davidge, Director of the Unexpected, BEcause Brand Experience

With nearly 30 years of marketing experience on both the agency and client side, Joss believes that you have to be challenging creatively to grow business sales. He says that technology is reshaping our world, and only those businesses that can leverage these changes will be successful.

Which VR platform?

We began our questioning of these eight experts on VR by asking about whether SMBs need to look at including virtual reality in their marketing plans this year, and how best to select a VR platform which is appropriate for any given business.

They all chipped in as and when they had a relevant point to make…

Techradar Pro: With a number of VR devices available or coming this year, should small business owners place VR in their marketing strategies?

Dean Johnson: “Yes, if it’s relevant. It’s a similar question they should have been applying to apps – ‘do you actually need an app, or could the same experience be better delivered by another platform or technology?’ They should ask themselves if VR enhances their existing product or service, if it brings their audience closer to their brand or if it presents an entirely new business opportunity or brand extension. If the answer is no to all the above, then there’s no real benefit to being an early adopter, unless you can put a PR spin on being so.”

Mark Curtis, Founder and Chief Client Officer at design and innovation firm, Fjord

Mark Curtis: “No – it’s too early. It’s a good investment for large businesses to begin to think what this means, but too early to invest the cash. Any marketing at this stage would be highly experimental.”

Bertie Millis: “For a number of small business owners, VR may still seem like an expensive path to travel down. However, this expense will set you aside from your competitors and give you a unique channel to communicate to your customers. As with all technology, VR will get less expensive as time goes on. Currently we are in the early adopter stage, and it costs to be an adopter.”

Chris Savage: “If early adopters are in your target audience, then you should be considering VR as a marketing channel. VR advocates are looking for compelling content, and because it is still early days, there is very little content competition at the moment.”

Luke Ritchie: “I think you have to. It’s absolutely fair to say that it’s still early and adoption is very limited. However even if VR was a huge failure (which seems unlikely) we’re going to have at least two to five years’ worth of VR hardware and content – so it must be part of the strategy. Also in my opinion small businesses have an opportunity to innovate at this early stage which will be harder later on. So while content is limited and adoption is low, there’s a genuine opportunity to stand out.”

HTC vive

Techradar Pro: With a range of VR platforms from Google Cardboard to Oculus, how should small businesses evaluate which platform they use across their operation?

Mark Curtis: “Try them. Observe where you think the market is heading. There’s no need to make heavy investment yet in most industries.”

Bertie Millis: “There are new VR headsets being released everyday, however the real idea to focus on is whether you want your virtual reality experience to be portable. For portability you’ll be looking at mobile VR platforms such as Google Cardboard or Merge VR. Since these experiences are powered by a smartphone, they tend to be a lower quality than their computer-based counterparts – however, this is juxtaposed by the fact you can pretty much take it anywhere. If you’re looking for a high quality experience, you’re better off using a computer-based experience such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.”

Amelia Kallman: “I think it’s important that your choice reflects your brand and offering, and also to keep in mind that devices are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and businesses will probably want to adopt several different VR brands for different reasons. But to me, the most sophisticated VR product I have experienced is the HTC Vive as it really does transport you into another world. At the Flux Innovation Lounges I curate in London and Dubai we like to be able to show off the capabilities of several brands giving people the opportunity to compare and realise their own preferences.”

Luke Ritchie: “It depends on the metrics of success. Certainly the higher-end platforms like the Oculus have a higher price tag and are aimed at gamers more specifically. Cardboard or Samsung Gear have already been released, utilise your mobile phone and are significantly cheaper – so it’s fair to say these will have quicker and wider adoption rates. Then we have YouTube360 and Facebook360 which already offer the 360 experience and stereoscopic versions (for VR) and are accessible by just about everyone.”

Joss Davidge, Director of the Unexpected, BEcause Brand Experience

Joss Davidge: “Choosing the right VR platform comes down to three simple questions: How are you planning on using it? What content will you show? And what audience are you looking to reach? Simply put, the VR viewing experience is enhanced by the amount you decide to invest. VR provides the opportunity for significant levels of interactivity, but with that of course comes additional costs.”

Standards and impact of VR

Techradar Pro: Is a lack of standards in an industry that is brand new an issue for the business use of VR platforms?

Mark Curtis: “Yes, for sure and will be for a while. It did not hold back smartphones though, and we still have at least two (some would say three) competing standards. We have some distance to go before it becomes a serious issue, and winners will emerge.”

Bertie Millis: “Within the VR industry, rules are being established as we go on. In many ways, VR is self-regulating. Unlike a normal game or film, creating the wrong sort of experience in VR can make users feel ill. Developers now understand what causes this and will aim to avoid it. If you make your users ill, nobody will use your experience or game.”

Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia

Chris Savage: “The phones and computers that power all of the VR headsets are evolutions of what we are already using. They also all need compelling content to get consumers to use them. For this reason, the VR platforms are backwards compatible with current video technologies. For example, Oculus was able to get the Netflix app for the Oculus Gear working in about a week. That’s pretty amazing because you can now watch every Netflix show and movie in an Oculus in 3D on a giant screen!”

Amelia Kallman: “I’d say it is not an issue, it is an opportunity. Like the early stages of any enterprise, boundaries will be pushed and tested, some things will fail and others will prosper, but this period of mass research and development around VR can only benefit end-users. Regulators will catch up eventually and start designing rules around how we have fun, communicate and do business using VR, so I say get in there and be a part of developing history in real-time.”

Luke Ritchie: “Absolutely. Any kind of standards will take time. However, for me, now is the exciting part. The hardware has allowed us to create content – now though the content will drive the hardware. So we’re all working on defining how to tell stories in this new platform and this work will shape how the hardware develops and the patterns of success will set certain standards in this area.”

Joss Davidge: “The likes of Oculus, Samsung, Sony and other big names are all developing their own VR products, the majority of which are not compatible with one another. This is of course problematic. However, on the flipside, the competitive nature of the VR industry is also yielding big benefits, especially when it comes to the pricing of hardware.”

Techradar Pro: Can you point to a business sector other than gaming where you think VR will have the most profound impact?

Dean Johnson: “VR will be huge for education. I know we all had high hopes for apps in this sector but that didn’t quite go to plan because publishers weren’t willing (or able) to deliver a consistently high standard with the money available. VR is different. Production costs can be lower for short VR film pieces, dropping the audience into incredible environments and learning from the inside. Devices are also cheaper when the audience can literally use a piece of cardboard!”

Mark Curtis: “Health, travel and media. All of these have clear use cases already for VR. These range from virtual/distant medical procedures, to holiday trip trials (or full-on experiences) to three-dimensional journalism. Probably no-one has yet imagined the major winner. Back in 1995, very few predicted social at the dawn of the web – remember ‘content is king’? Turned out that connectivity was the rather powerful queen that sat alongside.”

Chris Savage: “VR will have a profound effect on industries that are selling high priced items that usually need to be seen in person to be purchased. VR helps people feel present and evaluate a space or experience in a way that was only possible in person before. One of the industries which will see this happen very quickly will be real estate.”

Amelia Kallman: “In retail you can imagine you can have all designer fashions available at your fingertips, so you can instantly compare a £300 leather jacket by Stella McCartney to one by Burberry, try it on your avatar, see it in 360 degrees and make instant purchases, all while ‘shopping’ with your friend who lives in China. The music industry can sell tickets for concerts, so if you feel like seeing Prince tonight, and he’s playing Berlin, you’ll be able to purchase a ticket and stay at home in bed while feeling like you are really there at a live Prince show.

“The collaboration aspect will be applicable across industries, and might be the biggest game changing innovation we can expect in the near future. Within law enforcement it can be used to recreate crime scenes, auto industries can give people virtual test drives… the possibilities are endless.”

Alasdair Lennox, Executive Creative Director, FITCH

Alasdair Lennox: “Consider home decoration: it’s one thing to see a shade of colour on the paint tin, or even on someone else’s wall, but what if you could walk around a kitchen furnished with every last item on your shopping list, and switch colour schemes until you found the one you liked best? I call it the ‘penny drop moment’ – the instant of understanding a concept completely, and buying into the idea as a result.”

Future of VR

Techradar Pro: What is your advice to businesses that are looking at VR technology and how they might be able to leverage its potential?

Mark Curtis: “Try it first. Don’t set up a department to look at it – that’s overcomplicated. Run your experiments in an existing digital unit.”

Bertie Millis: “The potential for VR is enormous. My advice is be brave, try ideas that seem wild. If you’re choosing VR at this early stage, you will be helping to shape the path of virtual reality in the future.”

Chris Savage: “Start simple. Get a Theta S and start recording the moments that you think would be compelling to your customers if they were there with you in person. We’ve tried using 360-video to capture internal meetings, and it has been extremely compelling.

Amelia Kallman, Innovation Consultant, Engage Works

Amelia Kallman: “One thing all early adopters can capitalise on now is the excitement factor. Everyone I talk to is excited about VR, but not everyone has tried it or has been exposed to the potential. Being able to offer clients an experience unlike any they have had before will make an impact at the least. VR is memorable, it is unique, and it is the kind of experience you talk about and recall at the end of a day to friends, colleagues and family. It is a great, cost effective way to make an impact, but again, it is only as powerful as the content it plays, so it is worth investing in really great content creation.”

Alasdair Lennox: “My best advice is to put your customers and your business first, and then see how tech can augment the service you already give. It would be an expensive mistake to invest in headsets, app development and so on, only to realise that your customers don’t feel quite as excited about VR as you do, and fail to embrace it.”

Microsoft HoloLens

Luke Ritchie: “It absolutely depends on the business. I’m a content maker that utilises new technologies to tell stories. Most of this work falls into advertising. Right now that’s an industry that can’t pass on the potential of VR. I’d suggest that people try to get as much access to headsets and content as possible and then see for themselves whether there’s an opportunity within their business to do things better with VR. Certainly also consider AR while making this decision as products like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Magic Leap offer the same level of interactivity but augment which is potentially more useful to a wider range of businesses where total immersion isn’t suitable.”

Techradar Pro: How do you see VR developing over the next few years as a business tool?

Dean Johnson: “Early adopters already know what VR is but the majority haven’t even experienced it yet. Don’t just create VR for the sake of it or you’ll find your marketing budget could have been better spent elsewhere. Good audio is every bit as important as quality visuals in VR. Don’t neglect the voiceover and where possible create spatial audio. Be clever with content and most importantly, be brief.”

Mark Curtis: “The big tipping point is when users realise there is a fourth dimension of content and interactivity all around them. A fourth dimension is a very powerful development that will change the relationship businesses project between the physical and digital worlds. It promises infinite experiences. The winning businesses will figure out the compelling and relevant ones, because humans do not have infinite time. Yet.”

Alasdair Lennox: “For specific industries, there is huge scope for very specialist VR or AR applications – for 3D and material design, for instance, and for remote education. I believe that the greatest strength of these devices across industries is the immediacy that it enables. If you have a vision to communicate, VR can bring it to life for your audience in moments, and in a way that is engaging beyond anything we’ve experienced before. The way that businesses apply that unique quality will be what makes or breaks VR in the next few years.”

Joss Davidge: “VR is set to develop hugely – we’re only just beginning to see what the technology is capable of. With CGI VR providing the opportunity for brands to offer up an infinite number of previously impossible experiences, there is huge untapped potential. VR is going to completely change the way in which we experience products and ideas, and learn about the world around us, providing a brand new way to educate, train, inform and engage. Both big brands and small businesses need to tap into this potential.”

Oculus Rift

Conclusion

For businesses then, VR is firmly in the gold rush stage of its development. With the hardware only just becoming available to the general consumer, VR is in its infancy, but for businesses the potential is perhaps more promising than any other technology seen over the last few decades. If you’re a business owner and VR is appropriate to your services and products, hold on tight because it’s going to be an amazing ride.

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