Facebook, brands looking to cash in on virtual experiences

Facebook has set its sights on virtual reality becoming the future of computing, and it is likely there will be a place for brands.

Users can experience new worlds using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
Users can experience new worlds using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Facebook has set its sights on virtual reality becoming the future of computing with the $2 billion purchase of Oculus, the virtual reality headset manufacturer. And it is likely there will be a place for the social network’s precious benefactors: brands.

The Oculus Rift headset, currently a prototype and not yet on sale to the general public, creates an immersive experience for the user and has so far attracted great support from the gaming community.

"This is really a new communication platform," wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post on the social platform. "By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life."

Tech’s latest toy

Oculus Rift was designed specifically for video games, as a lighter weight and less clunky version of existing virtual reality tech on the market.

Since August 2012, about 10,000 people donated to Oculus on Kickstarter, raising $2.4 million

There has been backlash from many of the Kickstarter investors over the decision by Oculus to sell to Facebook.

An official launch date for the Oculus Rift has not been announced, but the new developer kit ships in July, priced at $350.

Sony plans to launch a virtual reality headset to rival Rift, which will work with the PS4.

Visit new worlds
Facebook wants to give users the opportunity to visit new worlds through virtual reality, such as experiencing courtside seats at the US Open while sitting on the sofa. 

For this reason, the opportunity for brands in virtual reality will be "massive," says Derek Fridman, group creative director at digital agency Huge. "We will be able to create branded experiences that will enable people to step into a new environment."

One brand that has already experimented with Oculus Rift is HBO, which created an immersive branded experience at SXSW to promote its hit series Game of Thrones.

People who tried on the headset were able to visit virtual places from the show, such as the kingdom Westeros. A feature of the headset creates a sense of weightlessness and vertigo, which users would have felt as they traveled up the show’s virtual elevator to The Wall.

However, Rift will not be limited to sports and entertainment. There is an opportunity for a range of brands from retailers to travel companies, as long as the experience is high quality.

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is a broadcast and entertainment play, says Ozzy Farman, SVP of innovation and technology at Weber Shandwick. He points out that Facebook is already moving toward this area with its efforts in video.

He agrees with Fridman that this technology presents an opportunity for brands. However the same communications rules apply for Oculus as with any other piece of tech, says Farman. 

"As a brand, the closer you get in proximity to an individual, the larger the potential for risk from an expectation perspective," he explains. "Whether online or in the real world, an experience you can orchestrate is going to leave a permanent mark on how that audience perceives your brand in the future." 

Fear of missing out
But not all corners are backing Facebook’s move. Some commentators suggest the acquisition is a case of "fear of missing out," as tech giants race to buy what they think will be the next big thing.

Bob Pearson, president of W2O Group, believes Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp make "perfect sense" for its mobile-first strategy. Oculus Rift, however, does not fit the bill, adds Pearson. 

"It falls into the hypothetical possibility that a more enriched experience will someday add stickiness to Facebook," he says. "This is where companies generally waste money. Facebook bought this brand too early. Purchasing a company such as this before market readiness means they could have just hired key people, figured out when the market will turn, and then made the purchase in a few years."

"Geeks will like this deal, but they don’t represent the 2.5 billion people online," Pearson further explains. "Facebook just joined a race that currently does not have a finish line."

There is certainly a groundswell of technologists, futurists, and brands hunting the next wave of technology that will transform lives like the Web, social media, and mobile have before it. But with Facebook involved in the chase alongside the other tech giants, it is likely brands will be brought along for the ride. 

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