Three years ago, video marketing on Virtual Reality platforms was somewhat of a bauble. Despite innovative approaches to 360-degree filmmaking creating some great campaigns like Oxfam’s Evelyn’s Story and Vice’s ‘Beyond the Frame’ (covered by us at the time), the average household’s only real access to the platform was either through clunky, ineffectual desktop ports or through makeshift smartphone headsets like Google Cardboard. Though modern spec headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive were available in 2016, tailored immersive content was scarcely produced for these devices outside video games industry showcases. Without consumers’ widespread access to high-spec viewing devices and with few media players supporting the technology, the industry was stalled until the format could become more audience accessible.
It wasn’t until Facebook began to seek returns on their 2-billion-dollar investment in Oculus that the video format began to develop. Facebook became the first major social media to support 360 video early in 2015, launching with the now famous Star Wars: Force Awakens 360 trailer allowing viewers to race across the surface of the fantasy planet Jakku. The trailer was phenomenally successful, seeing millions of views on the platform in its first week and sparking widespread coverage of the new platform. Since this first foray Facebook has continually placed itself at the forefront of immersive video hosting, with 2017 even seeing 360 video live streaming being included in the Facebook camera feature. Facebook’s pursuit of widespread accessibility to immersive content paired with the release of the Playstation VR headset in the summer of 2016 led the way for immersive virtual reality to become a household experience.
As with the evolution of household Virtual Reality capabilities, the format has developed from novelty one-off marketing materials into video makers using the medium’s unique properties to enhance a wide range of content. In 2016 The New York Times launched a campaign wherein the newspaper gave away a million Google Cardboard viewing devices to allow readers to view their first VR video project, ‘The Displaced’. The short film was described as ‘the first critical, serious piece of journalism using virtual reality’ placing the viewer in the middle of the refugee crisis, later winning the Entertainment Grand Prix award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The theory behind Times’ unexpected backing of the technology was that they expected that ‘VR journalism will have the same bright future as photography did 119 years ago’, stating an intention to further the potential of the format over the coming years. Since ‘The Displaced’, New York Times have produced and distributed a whole host of VR video content through their specialised NYT VR app, regularly providing content on a wide range of journalistic subjects for Google Cardboard, Smartphone 360 viewing, and higher spec VR headsets.
Also screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival was the VR trailer for Middleton and Spinney’s Notes On Blindness, supported by Samsung Gear and smartphone devices. The interactive video surrounds the audio notes of writer and theologian John Hull as he steadily becomes blind, supplemented by his 1990 autobiography Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. The VR trailer depicts sounds described by Hull’s audio notes as pinpoints of light in a black setting, steadily creating a soundscaped visual setting in efforts to recreate the purely auditory word Hull inhabited. One of Notes’ producers, innovative videogame tool designers AudioGaming, described the project as using ‘new forms of storytelling, gameplay mechanics and VR to explore John’s cognitive and emotional experience of blindness’. The trailer, designed to ‘complement the story world’ of the feature film, was designed to involve audiences in the public discourse of blindness and allow them ‘to understand and ‘feel’ their way into that discussion’.
These kinds of fresh developments in VR video marketing have not been limited to online platforms alone. The US DIY superstore Lowe’s recently implemented an in-store instructional scheme called the ‘Holoroom How To’, wherein customers looking to learn how to do a variety of common home DIY task can perform them in a virtual environment using a HTC Vive device and handset. The project is already boasting some impressive numbers, with Lowe’s claiming customers who use the Holoroom had a 36% better recall than those who watched a traditional 2D video on YouTube. The project was expanded in the autumn of 2017 to provide in depth training to Lowe’s employees, showing more complicated, exclusive VR content to give employees hands-on experience in the new DIY tasks. Lowe’s currently leads the way in retail for pioneering use of augmented reality technology, having recently launched an app that guides customers around their stores via a camera feature and closely followed by their new app ‘Measured’, a tool that measures and visualises Lowe’s products into the customer’s home via a smartphone camera.
Though the general increased accessibility of immersive VR technology for the general public is an excellent opportunity for video marketers, pioneering campaigns like these show that VR is no longer enough of a novelty for advertisers to rely on alone. Whereas Facebook’s 360 Star Wars promotion was headline news in 2015, similar content does not garner a second thought in today’s digital environment. As the potential for VR’s reach has become abundantly clear in the last two years, every marketer worth their salt is not only looking at how to get involved, but how to stay one step ahead of the competition. This year will see innovative uses of VR both as a narrative tool for content marketing and as an experimental medium to respond entirely new and exciting concepts. It is clear that at all levels video content will have to be creative, tech-savvy, and brave to get ahead in 2018.