Dr. Wendy Powell, senior member of the IEEE (a technical professional association) and reader in virtual reality at the University of Portsmouth, is one of the UK’s leading experts in virtual reality (VR). Dr. Powell spoke with eMarketer’s Karin von Abrams about which aspects of VR are relevant to advertisers and marketers.
eMarketer: How would you characterize the current state of virtual reality development and deployment?
Dr. Wendy Powell: There are really two technologies to consider here—augmented reality [AR] and virtual reality. AR is less developed. If you’re familiar with the Gartner Hype Cycle, AR is just past the hype phase. It’s not yet delivering “in the wild,” so to speak. By contrast, VR is already heading for steady growth. I’d say that within five to 10 years, both will reach full maturity.
eMarketer: Is the UK an advanced VR market?
Powell: About 20% of the world’s AR and VR companies are based in the UK. There’s certainly a lot of innovation here, and a number of big players. The games industry is a major focus, so there are UK-based firms like nDreams, for example, which is using VR in new ways and has created VR titles for Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, among other manufacturers.
“About 20% of the world’s AR and VR companies are based in the UK. There’s certainly a lot of innovation here, and a number of big players.”
On the marketing side, we have companies such as Virtual Umbrella—VR marketing specialists who are making themselves known across the industry. But we’re really just beginning to realize the full potential of VR, even in the UK.
eMarketer: What about other applications of VR?
Powell: VR is already being used in a number of areas beyond games. For example, Amazon has released an app for Google’s Tango platform that lets you measure the dimensions of the rooms in your home, and place furniture and other products into your space to see if they fit and look good. Clearly VR can be really useful in sectors such as home improvement. In schools, Google Classroom can incorporate VR to help students in several ways, such as historical visualization.
Health and medicine are other areas where VR is obviously having an impact, whether in training, diagnosis or treatment. And in museums, VR is being used to improve access to collections, and to help visitors understand more about what they’re seeing. People can see a damaged or fragmentary physical artifact, for example, and then experience through VR what the original object would have looked like.
“It’s easy to create content for VR, but creating good content that does a specific job takes much more investment.”
eMarketer: Today VR still seems novel, but presumably that will change if consumers increasingly see it in all these areas?
Powell: At the moment, only about 10% to 20% of people in the UK have actually experienced VR. But in advertising and marketing, it’s likely to become normal within a few years. Most people will take it for granted.
eMarketer: Isn’t the cost of devising and implementing VR a significant obstacle?
Powell: To an extent, yes. Especially with complex projects demanding very high production values. On the other hand—taking education as an example—Google designed the VR functionality in Google Classroom to be very easy to use and affordable.
Google Cardboard is not fully interactive VR, but it’s widely accessible. Also, prices for many kinds of VR are generally falling while VR technology itself is improving—the same pattern we’ve observed with PCs, portable music players, mobile phones and other digital devices.
Within a few years, the cost-benefit ratio for VR will prove to be very persuasive for schools, hospitals, museums and other potential users.
With respect to high-end executions, cost will remain a factor. For one thing, the number of outstanding VR professionals is still small. We do need to train more people to full expertise in VR. Secondly, it’s easy to create content for VR, but creating good content that does a specific job takes much more investment.
“The key is for marketers to understand how VR can actually supplement their brand. It needs to be more than just a gimmick.”
eMarketer: Have you seen any applications of VR in marketing that really impressed you?
Powell: There are some good examples. Jaguar Land Rover is using VR in their showrooms, to allow consumers to customize a car according to their preferences and then experience that version in a very immediate way. The Amazon app, too, is a great example. The key is for marketers to understand how VR can actually supplement their brand. It needs to be more than just a gimmick.
eMarketer: Travel seems a natural fit with VR. Are travel companies capitalizing on that?
Powell: There isn’t yet a real standout travel application of VR, but it’s starting to happen. Travel does lend itself to several VR enhancements, such as 360-degree videos. It’s not easy to get those right. I’ve seen some very bad 360-degree content. But someone who knows how to produce it properly can really deliver something special. Currently, apart from some nice demos, there’s not a lot out there.
Another crucial aspect—not just for travel VR applications—is the soundscape. Sound has been somewhat neglected in VR, partly because the visual aspect is more obvious. But it’s vitally important to get the sound right. With respect to sound, I’d say watch this space, because sound has such an enormous effect on our moods and perceptions and I expect VR developers to begin devoting more attention to it.
eMarketer: What’s the most important thing for marketers to be aware of, with respect to VR?
Powell: There are several points, I think. First, to get the right response from VR—in whatever context—the content has got to be right. If the user has a poor VR experience, that can severely damage perception of the brand or company responsible.
Research into VR and its effects must try to keep up with emerging innovations and applications. We’re on a learning curve. We should definitely make the most of our opportunities with VR, but also remain aware of potential negatives.
“We’re on a learning curve. We should definitely make the most of our opportunities with VR, but also remain aware of potential negatives.”
We know VR can lead to bad physical reactions, for instance. If an experience is badly designed it can make one feel nauseous or dizzy—or worse. Also, a VR headset brings a screen extremely close to our eyes, while our brain is perceiving objects much farther away. We don’t know whether this conjunction causes any long-term effects, or what [those effects] might be.
eMarketer: What do we know about how people respond to VR as a marketing tool?
Powell: We need to understand more about how people experience and respond to VR. We know VR can affect how we feel about ourselves, about other people, about the planet or about a product. But we know very little about how advertisers and marketers might influence people through VR in effective and appropriate ways.
Gradually, we’ll see deep learning and artificial intelligence combined with the disciplines of AR and VR. To a certain extent we already have that. Already some programmers are creating VR experiences that respond to the participant—by tracking eye movements during a VR session, for example, and altering the experience as a result of such inputs. These are emotion-led experiences, so emotional intelligence will become a factor—or should be a factor—in the design of VR programs.