Innovation

10 things brands should know about virtual reality

If your brand is thinking of making a foray into virtual reality, here are some things to consider.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

From car makers to hotel chains, brands are turning their attention to virtual reality (VR) as a new avenue to reach potential customers and build relationships.

The move to the mainstream has begun.

"There's a fine line there," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau, "Businesses may be tempted to think of VR as a short term solution for whatever problem they want to solve, or whatever business process they want to enhance with VR, but the fact is that they're going to be starting from scratch just like everybody else."

There's a lot of interest across a variety of different markets — consumer, entertainment, business — and a lot of movement on the part of hardware and software makers to create the tech that will stick.

Here are 10 things brands should know about virtual reality before jumping in.

1. VR isn't new, but it's also not mature

Virtual reality occupies a bit of an odd space. It's definitely not a new technology — cinematographer Mort Heilig and later, University of Utah professor Ivan Sutherland worked on early head mounted displays in the 60s.

In the last 30 years, VR's seen multiple waves where it was heralded as the next big thing. At the same time, VR isn't mature, despite how long it's been around.

"I think that's kind of an interesting conundrum that we have today in the industry," Blau said.

Technological capability has advanced to a point where making good head mounted displays is achievable at a relatively low cost. And that goes for making software, too, he said. But, that doesn't mean that there's not plenty to unkink. So, don't assume virtual reality is brand new, but also don't assume that the industry and the technology is settled.

"It's at the bleeding edge, and when you're at the bleeding edge sometimes it's a little bit bleeding more than edge," said Ikrima Elhassan, co-founder of virtual reality creative development studio Kite & Lightning.

2. VR won't work for everyone

Beyond having good hardware and software, there are physiological constraints with which makers of virtual reality have to contend. A poorly-built app can induce motion sickness. In fact, a well-built app can induce motion sickness. Everyone's threshold is different.

Even Blau, who's been in the industry for years and generally knows how to avoid the feeling still runs into demos that can make him dizzy.

3. You can't just treat virtual reality like traditional creative

From time to time, Kite and Lightning gets approached with a request that goes something like this: "Hey, we've got this film and we want to turn it into VR. Can you convert it?" Or, they'll come in wanting to approach VR like a web or TV commercial.

"That doesn't work," Elhassan said. "We have to go through a process of explaining to them that what looks good on TV is very different than what is good in a videogame or what's good in VR."

For Elhassan and Kite and Lightning's other co-founder Cory Strassburger, they can better guide the brand through the process if given something like a creative brief — what the brand wants to accomplish, details about the messaging, details about what they're trying to do, and then they'll construct a way to tell that story. It's a process that's not too far removed from a traditional setting — Kite and Lightning will produce treatments and the like — but it differs. Elhassan said that by coming in at the very beginning stage, they can figure out what the best VR experience is going to be and how to best go about making that happen, especially since there are still the technical, creative, and hardware restraints of an early-days technology.

4. Don't be afraid of virtual reality

Blau said one of the chief things he'd like people to know is that they shouldn't be afraid of virtual reality. They should give it a shot.

Oculus Rift might be difficult to get a hold of, but if you're looking to dip into VR a bit, there are tons of cheaper options, like Google Cardboard. DODOcase, for example, sells a $24 cardboard viewer users can drop any smartphone into.

"While it may be a challenge, and when they have to wait for some good apps to come around, there's not a reason someone couldn't take their Android smartphone, pop it into one of these cardboard devices and experience VR right in their living room," Blau said.

5. Don't get caught in the hype

Blau said that it's not uncommon for people to use virtual reality for the first time and become smitten. The important thing to remember is that, like with anything new, the excitement will wear off eventually.

"You're going to be like 'Oh my gosh, I didn't realize it was this good,' ... you're going to have all kinds of ideas, you're going to brainstorm with yourself, you're going to talk to other people, you're going to get very excited because you're going to get it," Blau said. "You're going to instantly understand what it's all about after you put on that demo."

Creativity is great, but where hype gets dangerous is when it makes those involved lose sight of goals like building a good product or service for customers.

"You should look at it for what it is and try to get rid of that hype bias, and think about what it could do for you, and then be realistic about it when you do that," he said.

6. Consider the application for your business

There are a few ways to keep the hype in check. When a client calls Blau and tells him something along the lines of "my boss just gave me an Oculus Rift and told me to figure out what to do with it," he asks a series of questions. Who are you as a business? Why did you get it in the first place?

"The place where you start is, you think about your business and how you help your customers succeed everyday, and you think about if there's a piece of that product that you make or the service that you give, that there would be a benefit from having it in a virtual world," he said.

7. Educate yourself

Another tactic is to experiment and get exposure to VR. Try different headsets. Get a feel for what exists, investigate, make sure you're going through the proper product development, Blau said.

Otherwise, it's easy to get into trouble with misguided expectations of everything from what makes for a good VR experience, to how it actually works.

Plus, it'll also make it easier to work with whatever agency or studio is actually handling the creation of the VR experience, Elhassan said.

"It helps our clients that have gone through that have much better understanding in terms of what they want to do and also realistic expectations of what is possible today," he said.

8. Use some imagination

Chris Stapleton, founder of firm Simiosys said virtual reality — as well as the whole spectrum of mixed reality — is something that people tend to view as an "or." There's the real world or the virtual world. But that discounts the importance of imagination.

"It's all about what impact you have on the imagination. That's where most people fail and not get the gravity and the potential of the technology," he said.

So, what does that mean for solutions — now? That's the question brands will face.

9. Get past gimmicks

And that ties into another point Stapleton made.

"When they jump to a solution and add it as a gag and gimmick, they're really using yesterday's solutions," he said. Marketing will have to change from "How do I market and brand by bludgeoning the customer with my name, which was the 20th century version of marketing, to what's happening now — what's more important than a product is a product experience."

Stapleton identified an important question: What impact do I have with the physical and the virtual to be able to have a lasting impact so it becomes a part of their lives?

10. Find a partner with experience in virtual reality

Elhassan recommended finding a partner with experience in virtual reality.

"We've definitely heard of and had clients who went to a traditional media house or a traditional studio, and they had never done VR before. When they first attempted it, it was a very bloody experience," he said.

There are still myriad problems and unexpected challenges in VR that just don't exist in more traditional media, he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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