Lesson from #MWC16: Time for brands to get on board with VR

The Mobile World Congress is no longer just about smartphones. Virtual reality and 360-degree video are coming - and brands should get ready.

Brands aren't doing enough to prepare for the mass-commercialization of virtual reality and products that connect with Web-based devices, say PR pros who attended the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.

One of the buzziest moments of the annual event came when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg preceded his keynote speech with a surprise appearance at a virtual reality stunt staged on Monday by Samsung. The company had invited 400 members of the global media to strap on its Gear VR headsets and watch a short film shot on Samsung’s Gear 360 camera.

Once attendees took off their headsets, they saw the Facebook CEO on Samsung’s stage, where he declared VR will be "the most social platform" of the future.

"It’s still mostly used for games and entertainment, but that’s quickly evolving. One day you'll put on a headset and that will change the way you live, work, and communicate," he said.

It wasn’t just Samsung that made a VR play. Attendees say they were struck by how many companies introduced accessories that connect to devices for viewing of VR video and games.

HTC, for instance, gave a demonstration of its Vive headset, which enables users to paint in a virtual world. LG, meanwhile, disclosed plans for its first 360-degree VR camera and headset.

Adrian Rosenthal, head of digital and social media at MSLGroup in Germany, says VR was all anyone talked about at this year’s Congress.

"It was pretty much dominating conversations. Everyone wants to get into VR with devices, ideas and apps," he says. "And because so many big players from Facebook to telecommunications giants and mobile manufacturers are getting behind it, I think it will start catching on soon."

Rosenthal notes that competition could lower prices for headsets sooner than expected, and that fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless technology should open up possibilities for its application.

Rosenthal says PR providers have an opportunity to develop content creation for VR, noting gaming, home design, and tourism are categories likely to embrace the technology first in a big way.

"We will likely not be developing VR apps, but we will want to steer the creative process and inspire with ideas to use this technology and create a world in the VR devices," he explains. "VR will enable a totally different form of storytelling and a way to create shared and immersive experiences."

James Ash, London-based account director for technology at Ketchum, contends that "VR is going to provide brands with a whole new avenue and ability to tell their stories and engage with their target markets."

"There is obviously the standard consumer play for it, which is to engage customers by giving them a virtual reality to visualize products and experiences that take them on a journey rather than just an end point of a website," he says. "But from a marketing perspective, I think it also has uses for internal comms. I think if companies can roll it out internally first, they’ll find it a little easier to secure buy-in from upper echelons for a consumer perspective."

Other attendees say the rush to adopt VR may be premature. Kristine Newman, SVP of digital and mobile engagement at Cohn & Wolfe, says that until 5G networks are built out, she expects VR to be limited to small-scale or novelty applications.

However, she suggests clients experiment with 360-degree video, given YouTube has a platform for it and Facebook is developing 360-degree video-streaming technology. Newman adds that several 360-degree cameras are on the market.

Experimentation with 360-degree video could also prepare them to move into VR, she says. And while it’s unlikely people will connect their devices to VR goggles in certain situations – think waiting for the bus – they’ll still use their phone to watch video but will expect a more vivid experience.

"When consumers start to expect content has 360-degree views, that is when mobile is going to truly realize its inherent ability to distribute content in a very different way than a laptop or other digital screens," says Newman. "But marketers need to be testing what type of content resonates with their audiences."

So far, she thinks brands haven’t been doing enough 360-degree content.

"It is not easy to develop, and it may be that a brand is having trouble understanding how to communicate to the consumer in this format, which is completely understandable," she says. "But the fact is people are going to start communicating with other people this way so brands need to start to learn the language."

"You don’t want to be taking baby steps later when all of social media buzz is going abuzz about it now," Newman contends.

The influence of the Internet of Things
Rosenthal attended the event with his Procter & Gamble client Oral-B, which had a booth to promote its Genius electric toothbrush. It connects to an app on a smartphone via Bluetooth that helps users better track their brushing and improve their technique.  

P&G was one of many companies showcasing the interconnectivity of seemingly everyday non-tech items. They included automotive companies to the likes of Red Bull, which is working with AT&T on in-store smart refrigerators that would report back to Red Bull in real-time on cooler performance and specific sales activity.

"Two or three years ago, the show was all about smart phones, smart phones, smart phones," says Rosenthal. "It has diversified and become much more interesting."

Cécile Robin, VP at Text100 in Paris, says her experience at this year’s show made it clear "that the Internet of Things is beyond its phase as a newfangled novelty. Mobile devices, cars, even refrigerators, and dog collars are all connected to the Web."

The challenge for communicators, she says, will be "to ensure customers understand how they can get the most out of these connected devices, and being sure we bet on the products or applications that would really benefit and make a significant difference in the long term."

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