How PR can make the VR opportunity real

Virtual reality may be the flavor of the week, but it has several hurdles to clear before it's a more common part of marketing campaigns.

Lowe's launched its Lowe's Vision VR project last month.
Lowe's launched its Lowe's Vision VR project last month.

Behind the wheel of a race car. Exploring a new city. In a new home with new furniture, flooring, and paint colors.

Marketers have used virtual reality to create computer-generated environments that bring their brand experiences to life—but experts say this is just the beginning.

Benjamin Durham, cofounder and chief immersive officer of Thrillbox, an Austin, Texas-based immersive media and cognitive computing platform, notes that organizations such as the Armed Forces have used VR for decades. And for the latecomer that is consumer marketing, the best is yet to come.

"It has only been in recent years that it has really progressed as a consumer-capable application," he says. "But the stuff that has impressed me the most from a consumer standpoint actually hasn’t been made public yet."

Many consumer-facing marketers—alongside digital agencies, video-production shops, and consultants—have only been quietly experimenting and testing VR behind-the-scenes for a few years. For instance, consumer packaged goods giant Unilever has built a library of virtual reality content for its brands, but has not launched any VR initiatives publicly, likely waiting for the hardware to reach critical mass.

Brands that have launched early VR activations, such as McDonald’s, Mountain Dew, and Lowe’s, are likely looking at ways to advance their strategies beyond just positioning themselves to customers, in particular millennials and gamers, as cutting edge and cool.

Durham notes that one high-profile client is considering creating a virtual world to evaluate consumers’ product preferences based on their interactions inside the environment. He says it could collect data "to target the user later during their web experience."

"The whole idea behind immersive media is for it not to be standalone," Durham explains. "It can be a constant stream of behavioral data that optimizes the rest of the marketing strategy."

The tip of the iceberg
Virtual reality is a fully immersive experience, not to be mistaken with augmented reality, which brings CG elements into the real world. (Think this summer’s mobile craze, Pokémon Go). It is also different from 360-degree video that limits consumers to a spectator, rather than a participant, role. (Think The Daily 360 on The New York Times’ website).

However, AR and 360-degree video are often entry points into virtual reality, notes Amanda Manna, head of narrative and partnerships for Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

The home-improvement retailer’s experimentation department has pioneered a number of AR, VR, and 360-degree applications. Holoroom, a tool that allows people to virtually step into dream kitchens or bathrooms using an Oculus Rift headset or Google Cardboard, started as AR.

Labs launched Lowe’s Vision last month to leverage Google’s depth-sensing technology, Tango. On Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, the first Tango-enabled smartphone, shoppers can use the Lowe’s Vision app to measure rooms in their (real-life) homes and drop in virtual products, such as flooring and fixtures, as well as paint colors and flooring. Users can also walk around the room with a VR headset.

Lowe’s is trying to reach younger consumers with the technology, but Manna says the AR and VR platforms can also help the brand solve a significant business problem.

"We have seen through our market research, as well anecdotally, an inability for people to really visualize what a completed improvement or project might look like," she explains. "The emotion that inability causes – whether it is indecisiveness or fear – actually stops people from starting a project in the first place."

Lowe’s is promoting Holoroom and Lowe’s Vision in stores—more than 300 locations are selling the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro during the holiday season—as well as via earned media handled in-house.

"PR has always been a huge part of how our Innovation Labs has marketed a lot of our work," says Manna. "We see it as a way to shape people’s view of Lowe’s as an innovative company. But we also see it as a big part of how we attract new partners who may not have thought of bringing innovations to Lowe’s in the first place."

Real-world problems
Tech PR pros say there is a significant communications challenge facing brands’ use of VR.

VR technology is receiving a lot of media attention and studies show consumer interest is high. Seventy-nine percent of U.S. millennials and 64% of baby boomers are interested in VR, according to data from Touchstone Research released early this year. However, sales of VR headsets haven’t gone mainstream. Some consumers have concerns about headset comfort and motion sickness.

There is the perception that VR is only for gamers and sports fanatics, and it doesn’t serve a useful purpose for the everyday consumer-brand interaction, says Angela Gamba, who joined WE communications as VP after working for more than a year at an early stage VR company.

"Most of the folks working in the VR space do come from the gaming industry or are developers or engineers; they aren’t thinking about it from a brand comms standpoint," she says. "There is a real opportunity for agencies to move the needle."

Gamba contends VR comms should focus less on the technology itself and more on the very visceral reaction people often have after trying it.

"That is a real challenge because you can’t see people’s eyes because of the headset or really show them the experience," she says. "We’re going to have to be creative about communicating how VR makes people feel."

PR agencies can also help brands understand the kinds of stories that work best with the technology, notes Henry Hwong, principal at Cunningham Collective.

"It is not a linear experience where everyone views the same things; an immersive experience assumes there is control by the viewers as to where they go," he explains. "So you not have to be more cognizant of that than in a more linear format such as film or TV."

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