Listen long enough around brand circles these days and you’re likely to hear the word “experiences”, and hear it often. Like disruption and innovation before, experiences are by no means a new idea, but it’s a concept that’s at top of mind for many in marketing and technology today. There’s a sense that, while physical products and services will always be around in some form or another, the way to create a lasting relationship with a consumer is to give them a moment or feeling they won’t forget. We may not recall the brand of the camera that captured that remarkable family photo, but we definitely remember how that moment made us feel. We remember the experience.
There’s really no doubt then why so many brands are keeping an eye on virtual reality. When you merge experiences with the other word we hear all the time in marketing circles—authenticity—you’ve basically found 2 synonyms for the words that make up VR. Calvin Carter, CEO of Bottle Rocket, sees virtual reality as the future of brand communication because it provides the most human experience. While today’s technology is brilliant, there’s still plenty of room to grow, Carter says.
“Remember the first time you used a mouse? You thought, wow, isn’t this amazing?” Carter says. “I can use my hand, my actual hand, move this little thing around on the table, and it makes something happen on my computer.”
What sounds primitive to us now, Carter reminds us, was and still is a truly amazing technological achievement. The fact that we could take objects from the physical world to a digital one remains amazing. As the technology has improved, we’ve moved more than ever into an online world. We graduated from the PC to the iPhone and iPad, touch-based devices that bring us closer to the content we were engaging with. But as Carter points out, our technology may allow us to share things more quickly with people far away from us, but that benefit has come at a cost—we’re dealing with representations.
“With the computer, it was still a different type of interaction. If we needed something to have a button, we had to draw one or create one within the program we were working with,” Carter says. “But now, let me put you in an immersive world, in VR. Instead of having to draw or create something for interaction, now I can simply reach into this new reality and interact with items. I can pick up a photo, toss it, fling it, just the way I would with an actual photo in the real world. I can take the edges and stretch it using just my hands. If I want to alter the photo, I can just use my hand to brush over it. If I want to cut it, I can just grab a pair of scissors. VR allows us to interact with things the way that we are used to, in a way that we always have in the real world, in a way that we already know how.”
As Carter describes, the future of VR is a world where we have removed the abstractions, even ones that in a smartphone world we’d forgotten are indeed representations. A video of a memorable moment in one’s life, or of a moment of breaking news, or of a sports highlight is still, indeed, an abstraction. What VR has the capability to do that no other previous technology has done is to nearly eliminate the barrier. Enter again the key word: Instead of seeing how other people experienced something, you can come ever closer to experiencing it for yourself.
“It becomes more human and more natural and more intuitive,” Carter says, with a follow up that will no doubt make brand marketers perk up. “And so we start to express ourselves more emotionally, and we connect more to who we are when we’re doing these things.”
As VR technology continues to improve, so will the experiences. Because when it comes to barriers, VR does have its share. Creators are still figuring out how best to tell stories and provide that emotional connection through a medium and platform that is so different from those of the past. As for hardware, the current headsets remain a bit heavy and clunky, not to mention expensive for the average consumer. Following the pattern of previous game-changing technologies, VR headsets will indeed get lighter, cheaper, and easier to use as time goes on. Carter even sees a world not too far off into the distant future where there may be, literally, no barrier.
“Imagine where this could go in the future,” Carter says. “What if one day we can even interact with these virtual worlds or virtual realities without even having to use your eyes to look at, through, or into a device? What if there’s a different way. Possibly some sort of direct interaction with a person’s optical nerve. With the direction we are heading, although right now this may seem unlikely, I bet twenty years from now, we’ll have this sort of interaction figured out as well.”
That sci-fi like image might scare off some skeptics. Will we be creating experiences so real, with no barrier to entry, that we won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s “virtual” and what’s not? The social impacts of VR are worth keeping an eye on, but the technology is likely going to push forward unimpeded. It’s the natural next step in a succession line of technologies that are increasingly providing more human experiences.
“Almost everything in life is just an iteration on an existing direction or trend line,” Carter says. “VR is just a really big one.”
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