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Virtual & Augmented Reality for Marketers –Top 3 Things You Need to Know Today

If you’ve sat through a brainstorm or ideation session over the last 12 months, you’ve undoubtedly heard the following phrase: “Well, what about Virtual or Augmented Reality?” Thanks to major advances in technology and a tech-savvy generation of consumers glued to their smartphones, VR & AR are growing trends ready to (super)impose themselves in our everyday lives. 

While both VR and AR are extraordinary technologies with many similarities, their specific use-cases for brands and marketers differ significantly. Both fields feature a variety of pros and cons, and here is the latest information you need to know.

1) AR Goes Mainstream

More and more, AR – the lesser-known relative of VR built on the premise of using technology to superimpose computer-generated images over the user’s view of the real world – manifests itself in many different ways. Look no further than Snapchat’s lenses to see a prime example of AR prominently used by the masses on a daily basis. By superimposing a lens onto a given user’s face, Snapchat is simultaneously augmenting reality and creating a wildly popular mainstream version of AR. With the rapid growth of Snapchat as a whole (the platform eclipsed Twitter in daily active users in early 2016), more and more brands and marketers are turning to the up-and-coming social media giant to dip their toes in the otherwise-untouched AR world.

Even more, Pokémon Go is a prominent example of AR in the real world. The app-based AR experience allows users to travel around their city capturing Pokémon creatures that are wandering the streets in an augmented reality experience that has broken a host of records and set the AR world on fire.

“Your general public, for the most part, doesn’t know what AR is, but they’ve come in contact with it or have used it themselves without even knowing it,” said Brady Hurt, the Head of Digital at Obsidian. “Now with apps like Pokemon Go, AR user behavior is becoming ubiquitous and more people are aware of AR as a result.”

In a little over a month, Pokémon Go was downloaded to 5.6% of all Android devices in the United States, and has since surpassed Twitter in daily active users. Even more, 84% of Americans between the ages of 18-65 say they have heard of Pokémon Go, while 15% say they actively play the game. Whether the loyal cult of Pokémon Go players know it or not, they’re experiencing the purest form of AR every time they capture a Weedle or Zubat at their bus stop or train station.

While Pokemon Go has made it look easy, many brands and marketers have struggled convincing consumers to download an app for an AR experience. But that challenge may not exist for much longer.

“The biggest handicap AR has had in its history, in my opinion, is that it hasn’t been compatible with mobile browsers,” Hurt said. “AR, in its current form for mobile, only works through app-based experiences, which can be a huge barrier to entry for users. As you have to make the app compelling and useful enough for a person to take the time to download it. Not to mention, the average person has 25-30 non-native apps on their phone, of which they predominantly use 3-5 the most. The others are usually opened once and then never really again. So in my eyes, the technology just isn’t there for a mobile browser-based experience for AR that will open it up to exponential levels yet, but it’s coming.”

2) VR Suffers Ongoing Challenges

While AR is booming thanks to newcomers like Snapchat, Pokémon Go and MSQRD, VR has suffered a number of challenges over its 50+ year existence.

“A lot of people forget – or want to forget – the clunky VR experience they had in the 90s,” Hurt said.

Unlike AR which integrates seamlessly within the everyday lives of its users, VR at its core is an isolating and solitary experience. Sure, experiencing a new world while strapped into the Samsung Gear VR or the HTC Vive is exhilarating, but the experience lacks a connected component that’s vital in a world powered by social connectivity and sharing. VR by its very nature misses out on a large need of its targeted consumer – the need for connectivity and shared experiences.

For brands and marketers, the high cost and equipment needed for VR has left many hesitant to dive in. Creating a realistic VR experience that’s actually worth experiencing will easily soar north of six figures for production, VFX and editing alone. In addition to production costs, you’ll be met with hardware costs from Oculus, Samsung Gear and the HTC Vive that range from $500 - $1,000 per device depending on the quality of the desired headset.

Furthermore, Google recently killed off its VR headset project, which was set to be a more robust, direct competitor to Oculus and the HTC Vive, in an effort to focus more resources on a hybrid approach that will offer features more in line with AR systems than existing VR headsets. Though no release date has been set yet, this new system will not require a smartphone or a computer and remains an important part of Google’s future in VR/AR.

3) The Future is Still Bright  

While both VR and AR come with their fair share of challenges, both fields present enormous opportunities for brands and marketers when used properly.

In looking at the future of AR, Hurt envisions a reality where in-store shopping can be made seamless through technology.

“Imagine a scenario where you’re walking through a major retailer,” Hurt explained. “Let’s say you’ve got a few other errands to run that day and you’d rather not carry around all the items you’re going to buy there. In the very near future, you’ll be able to use your smartphone in-store with AR to more quickly access products, their reviews, discover new or complementary products, and then purchase said products in-aisle and have it scheduled for delivery to your house later that day at a time of your choosing by way of existing services like Instacart or Amazon Prime Now. Like this, I see the future of AR in its utility and functional applications to help people’s everyday lives more efficient.”

VR’s future, on the other hand, lies in entertainment. For the sake of simplicity, VR can be broken up into three categories: gaming, sports/music and branded content. Gaming is a natural point of entry for prospective VR users given the ability of video games to transport the user to an entirely new world. Though gaming VR efforts to date have largely failed due to poor user experiences and high equipment costs, Sony is released the PlayStation VR console in October of 2016. This new console significantly impacts the VR gaming landscape with more than 50 games built and designed by a variety of leaders in the VR world like Ubisoft, EA and Arkham VR, and provides a fully immersive experience where the end user is an active participant rather than a passive observer.

When it comes to sports and music, VR solves the pinnacle problem that team owners and concert promoters have dealt with from the onset of both industries: space limitations. VR creates an unlimited amount of front-row or court-side seats for the hottest tickets in town. VR leaders like Milk VR and NextVR have already made huge leaps in technology by offering insider looks at various concerts and sporting events, like an exclusive backstage look at Lady Antebellum or the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors’ ring ceremony before the tipoff of the 2015-16 NBA season. VR allows consumers to shed the high-cost of attending live events, while giving them the best seat in the house, in the comfort of their house.

Finally, VR offers brands and marketers the opportunity to educate and entice their audience, while providing an entertaining and unforgettable user experience. Take, for example, Volvo’s “Volvo Reality” program, which gave prospective buyers the opportunity to test drive the all-new Volvo XC90 from their living room. Alternatively, the New York Times lets its subscribers dive into in-depth articles - like a recent feature on the unknown world of our former 9th planet, Pluto - with a library of VR content, available daily through their 360 video app.

For brands and marketers, opportunities to experiment with VR/AR manifest themselves in a number of ways from partnerships with existing AR platforms like Snapchat, Pokémon Go or MSQRD to building and developing VR kits consisting of a consumer’s smartphone and a Google Cardboard headset. And, when budget permits, grander experiences can be created through the use of cutting-edge technology like the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. The possibilities are endless and with the proper financial backing, brands and marketers can make Virtual and Augmented Reality an actual reality for their consumers.