Why marketers weighing AR versus VR are asking the wrong question

Instead, they should be pondering how quickly they can get ready for mixed reality.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Brands weighing the benefits of augmented reality versus virtual reality are missing the bigger picture: soon, these differences won’t matter.

What will is whether brands understand how to combine the virtual and real worlds to the utility, benefit, and entertainment of their stakeholders.

A quick refresher: AR is an app that layers digital information or content on top of the real world, making it a popular platform for brands. Because it is app-based, AR has potential for massive adoption on mobile devices, as evidenced by the phenomenon that was Pokémon Go. VR, meanwhile, offers a more immersive experience, yet headset sales haven’t exactly caught fire due to high price tags and other issues. Some users have also complained of eye strain and motion sickness from goggles, as they block out view of the outside world.

Experts contend VR and AR are just pit stops on the way to a bigger goal: "mixed reality," in which the real and virtual worlds intertwine more organically to create a familiar, intuitive experience for the user. Technology companies including Microsoft are pushing this as a new category. In January 2015, the software giant introduced its holographic computer HoloLens, billing it as "the leader in mixed reality technology."

The platform has mostly been employed on an enterprise level -- auto designers use it to visualize 3D designs on top of production vehicles -- last year, luxury French cognac house Rémy Martin became one of the first brands to use HoloLens for a consumer play.

At Rémy Martin events and stores, visitors can strap on a HoloLens to see and interact with a three-dimensional table in the physical space with narration and virtual typography of how cognac vines grow.

"We don’t see VR and AR as separate or competing technologies," explains Greg Sullivan, director of comms at Microsoft, contending that brands should think of both technologies as part of the same continuum.

"In that continuum, you are mixing meaningful elements of the real world, like your movements or walls and floors around you, but also meaningful elements of the digital world in 3D with depth and volume," he explains. "Making computing and interacting with the digital world more familiar and on the terms we interact with the rest of the world is what mixing of these realities is all about."

It’s not just Microsoft's HoloLens trying to reposition VR and AR towards this new definition of mixed reality, but also Magic Leap, which Wired magazine has billed as the world’s most secretive company. The company began shipping its goggles, which are semitransparent, in August.

Some experts say the marcomms industry isn’t ready for what’s to come.

Manny Ruiz is trying to fill a void in education in the mixed reality space, years after cofounding the annual Hispanicize event for marcomms professionals. The new entity he has cofounded, Mixed Reality Ventrues, is staging its first Mixed Reality Marketing Summit in New York in November.

He notes that the goggles are less bulky and awkward than they once were, and technology has caught up with users’ expectations, "but the industry is not ready."

"The agencies, people, and brands who will be the first movers on this will have a huge competitive advantage," contends Ruiz. "The only thing that is holding it back is that the technology is at the software-development stage. However, once people can be creators of their own content, it is going to transform how brands engage and communicate."

He sees automotive, fashion, retail, entertainment, tourism, and realty as the sectors best poised to harness mixed reality.

While there’s bound to be a learning curve, Jason Yim, CEO and executive creative director at mixed reality agency Trigger, predicts that most consumers will eventually interact with mixed reality to make purchasing decisions.

"In a short time, we will look back and wonder how we made a purchase decision from a 2D photograph or why we couldn't digitally interact with every object or environment within reach," he says. "Every brand will use mixed reality."   

The brands that are already creating virtual experiences tied to physical objects, even without the use of goggles. Working with Trigger, the Lego House museum in Billund, Denmark – essentially an experience center for Lego – created Fish Designer. It invites visitors to build a sea creature from Lego bricks, scan their creation into digital form, and see their design come to life in a digital aquarium with other user-generated fish. Visitors can also take home their digital creations on an RFID visitor wristband.

"A successful mixed reality experience balances input and impact across both realms," says Yim.

The possibilities are exciting for brands. However, Cortney Harding, head of VR/AR, creative and strategy at Friends with Holograms, cautions marketers from getting caught up in the hype and trying to stay ahead of the curve, rather than using the technologies to solve a business or comms problem. She says the firm, whose clients have included ad agencies as well as Accenture, and Verizon, has been approached by brands who want to do AR, when a platform like video would work just as well for what they’re trying to accomplish.

"People shouldn’t be starting with the technology, but an idea where then mixed reality becomes a compelling platform to bring that idea to life," she advises.

However, Jennifer Guerra, strategy consultant at Lightspeed PR, says the PR industry should start thinking about and planning for how mixed reality will change how it creates content and tells stories.

This could include working with HR on employee-onboarding programs; IR on quarterly earnings calls; and marketing on new consumer experiences.

"The comms arms of companies need to take this opportunity, and run with it and push envelopes because it is going to cause a shift in who is involved in corporate comms," says Guerra. "It is going to create an opportunity for inserting creativity into some things like earnings reports which have typically been pretty dry."

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