Virtual Reality (VR) is the most powerful medium ever created. Its ability to invent new worlds, create novel experiences and induce deep empathy exposes and transports us to circumstances and places once unimaginable. Through the immersive lens of VR technology, we can explore and experience other countries and cultures, pilot spacecraft through the far reaches of the universe and even face and overcome our fears, phobias and biases. VR gives us mere humans superpowers, ultimately transforming us into the gods of new virtual worlds.
VR is the first true digital medium. No other form of media can make that claim. It’s also the first medium that is best experienced via mobile. Again, no other form of media can make that claim. Through VR, we are no longer constrained to the limited and decidedly interim step of viewing content in flat, unrealistic 2D. We (and our consciousness) now have the ability to experience the “world” the way we experience reality — in 3D. Virtual Reality is the visual language of the future.
For most people, the idea that VR could become a new mass media is something that only seems possible many, many years from now, if at all. This assumption makes sense when you consider that most of us are hardwired to think linearly. After all, it took decades for previous mediums like radio and TV to be adopted; it’s only natural that we would project similar timelines onto new and emerging mediums. But as recent history shows — and Ray Kurzweil's “Law of Accelerating Returns” so eloquently describes — technological advances are exponential. And Virtual Reality is no exception to this principle.
VR hardware, content and distribution are advancing and expanding at an exponential rate. For example, the HTC Vive — the most immersive VR hardware currently available — was released to consumers in April 2016. At that time, it required that the headset be tethered to a powerful PC via cables. By November 2016 — just seven months after its introduction — a wireless adaptor was already open for preorders. Expect to see similar improvements from multiple manufacturers that will rapidly increase the capabilities — while simultaneously decreasing the cost — of VR gear throughout 2017. Faster, smaller, wireless hardware coupled with ultra-fast 5G networks will further accelerate consumer adoption. This hardware explosion will in turn feed the growth of VR content.
From new social experiences to live sports to productivity, VR distribution platforms like STEAM, Oculus Rift and Google Daydream allow content creators to reach ever-expanding audiences quickly and cheaply. Not only will everyone from movie studios to production houses to everyday brands jump into the VR content business, but humankind’s greatest invention — Artificial Intelligence (AI) — will also play a massive role in creating content. AI will be a boon for on-demand content for VR, enabling us to create and serve up extremely personalized content based on user history, biofeedback and context. Worlds such as those created by the procedural renderings of No Man’s Sky will pale in comparison to what will come to life within the next 18 months.
From a marketing standpoint, VR creates tighter bonds and engagement for brands and causes, taking shared experiences to new levels of intimacy. But to truly get the most out of VR, brands and agencies must re-imagine their marketing approach with this extremely powerful experience. They must embrace this new medium with open arms while they simultaneously cozy up to its “alternate realities” companions: augmented reality and mixed reality. The days of thinking of upgrades and enhancements in small percentage increases are behind us. We are living in a new world where only a 10x improvement will come close to enabling success.
If you’re struggling to fathom this pace of progress, then here’s something you’ll have even more difficultly wrapping your mind around: the hyper-evolution of VR technology facilitated by the Law of Accelerating Returns will rapidly expand beyond today’s hardware platforms. Case in point: in late 2016 at MIT’s EmTech conference, University of Washington assistant professor Shyam Gollakota announced that he and a team of grad students had built Wi-Fi-enabled contacts. In the literal blink of an eye, we’ll soon be seeing direct retinal and artificial ocular lenses that will make virtual, augmented and mixed reality part of our everyday lives.
And that’s just the hardware. The groundbreaking technology introduced in 2016 is paving the way for a watershed year for VR content in 2017. Now that the latest instantiation of the ever-evolving hardware is available, we will see a content explosion for VR in 2017 that will upend the media landscape — and propel brands, marketers and humankind into new realms of possibilities.