VR news, insights, rants and rambles

VR Marketing—Part 2: What is VR and what is not

By Paulo Tromp
August 09, 2016

So you’re excited about the possibilities virtual reality offers for marketing your brand, but you’re unsure how to get started and, perhaps, a little intimidated? That’s perfectly understandable. Like many buzzwords bandied around by self-proclaimed gurus, virtual reality is widely misunderstood.

Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place. A good first step is to clear up exactly what virtual reality is and, just as important, what it isn’t.

When you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll know more about the subject than most of your contemporaries, not to mention many “experts”. You’ll never have to worry about anyone pulling the virtual wool over your eyes.

Speaking of covering your eyes with something, it’s what most people think of when they hear—or use—the term virtual reality: a game or video that you need a headset to play or watch.

That’s part of the picture but, as with a lot of tech these days, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, you do need a special headset to consume VR content, but not all content designed for these headsets is strictly VR.

Confused? Don’t worry, it’s actually quite simple. Let’s start with what virtual reality really is and then move on to some of the other content people wrongly lump in with VR.

What’s real VR?

Have you ever compared the different perspective from your left and right eye? Close one eye and hold up your index finger fairly close to your nose. Now alternately open and close each eye. As you can see, the finger will appear to move left and right. Because we have two eyes set a fixed distance apart, the visual information that each eye receives—and sends to the brain—varies slightly. Disparities between these two images are processed in the brain's visual cortex to produce depth perception.

Virtual reality utilizes this phenomenon by artificially presenting a different image to each eye. This technique, called stereoscopy, helps create the illusion of three dimensional depth. Now, pair this with the ability to look in every direction—and even move around—and you will experience the thrilling feeling of being fully immersed into another world.

This alternate reality can look like the real world—think of a racing car game or flight simulator. Virtual reality can also transport you to other realms altogether, to distant planets, back into our prehistoric past or forward in time to experience an imagined future.

Depending on the skill—and budget—of their creators, and the power of the headsets and other equipment they’re designed to run on, these digitally-rendered virtual worlds can appear amazingly realistic.

But even relatively simple, low budget VR content designed to run on cheap headsets like Google Cardboard can be extremely effective, thanks to the immersive nature of this amazing medium.

Whatever the budget or complexity of the experience, genuine virtual reality lets you explore and even interact with these simulated environments to at least some degree. If you’re simply looking on as a passive observer, it’s a good hint that this isn’t really virtual reality, but another form of content altogether, starting with...

360 degree video

This is probably the thing people most often mistake for virtual reality. That’s not surprising because many of the companies using it, whether for entertainment or branding, are labeling it VR.

360 degree videos and photographs use special cameras and software to capture and “stitch together” an entire scene in all directions at once.

The results can be pretty amazing, like the New York Times’ clever NYTVR series and GoPro’s ski, motoring, and surfing videos. But this is really just a new form of film-making, albeit a compelling one.

While 360 videos and photographs feel immersive, users can’t move or explore the scenes. The experience is limited to what the cameras and microphones have captured. Don’t get me wrong, this can be extremely powerful and there are some exciting branding use cases (we’ll get to those in a future article) but this is not virtual reality.

Nor should the next thing be confused with virtual reality...

Augmented Reality

As its name suggests, augmented reality (AR), also known as mixed reality, uses technology to overlay the user’s view of the real world with computer-generated items and information.

The best known example of AR at the moment is the wildly popular multi-player game, Pokémon Go. It uses the GPS in players’ smartphones to superimpose the game-play onto a map of their actual surroundings. When they encounter Pokémon, it’s against the backdrop of the real world as seen through the cameras of their phones.

 Pokémon Go is a pretty basic version of AR. Microsoft’s HoloLens is a far more sophisticated use of the technology and employs head-mounted “smartglasses” and advanced sensors to view and manipulate virtual objects against a real world setting. This video is a fascinating glimpse into the possibilities of the technology.

As you can imagine, the potential for branding and marketing is enormous. I’ll go into this in more detail in a future article, but for now you only have to look how brands, big and small, are rushing to cash in on the Pokémon Go phenomenon to realize just how powerful a tool augmented reality can be for marketing.

And the same goes for virtual reality and 360 degree videos. Each has its unique advantages and disadvantages for branding, and I’m looking forward to sharing those with you.

Coming up next...

Part 3: Headsets.

About Paulo Tromp

Paulo Tromp is CEO and Creative Director of VRMADA, a virtual reality agency dedicated to creating beautiful, memorable experiences enabling brands to connect with their audiences in new and unique ways. Some of his clients include BMW, JCB, L'Oréal, MTV, Philip Morris International, Telefónica, Toyota, and Vodafone.