A train barrels down, rattling the small theatre. Women scream, men shout, and children fall to the ground in fear. Then, silently the train disappears, and only a small silver screen is left. Film, when seen through the eyes of those unfamiliar with the tricks of photography, was a frightening affair. The train audiences saw move ever closer in French theatre in 1896, the now-famous The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, was lifelike and so real that it caused a panic. Or so the urban legend goes.
Complete and total immersion to new or old eyes is no longer a thing of urban legend. Virtual reality has advanced in some key ways in only a few short years. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, the then up-and-coming virtual reality hardware and software company, for a staggering $2 billion. Four years on and they’ve poured millions more into Oculus Rift and their proprietary social VR platform Spaces.
With your friends at your side, wield swords, take selfies, then settle down, and play a game of cards in a more intimate, computer-generated setting. Post your fantastical adventures on Facebook for everyone to see. Meet your friends to watch a movie without ever leaving your home. This is the version of social virtual reality Facebook and a number of other notable tech companies are pushing for.
VR in the Marketplace
VR is more than simply feasible, it’s commercially viable. Sony posted record numbers for their VR system aimed at gamers. They sold two million units in one year alone, which beat out estimates from all sides.
Big companies are betting on VR coming out on the winning side. Google’s developed their virtually free Google Cardboard VR headset. HTC’s developed a VR headset with heavier, hard-hitting specs to appeal to gamers looking for an elevated user experience. Samsung has offered up its own hardware too—hardware compatible with their extraordinarily popular smartphones.
Statista projects that the VR market will grow to $40 billion in two years’ time. That’s quite a lot of cash for such a new market. Consumers are eating up their chance to escape to new worlds and developers are delighted to create them.
Outside of gaming, outside of escapism, outside of entertainment, there is yet another use for virtual reality. VR can allow us to tell real stories. In fact, The New York Times is already using VR to tell emotionally harrowing stories. Stories of Syrian refugees, of music, of culture, are given to viewers in 3D. The empathy evoked from VR is incredible, beyond what any other medium has attempted.
Chris Milk, CEO of Within VR, states VR’s potential to evoke real emotion and empathy plainly: “Virtual reality is the ‘ultimate empathy machine.’ These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Furniture materializes on your phone. You point your smartphone camera at an empty spot in your living room, et voila, a brand-new Ikea chair appears on your screen. Maybe it doesn’t fit well with the space. Maybe there’s no space for it there at all. You move around, looking for the perfect place to wedge in some new piece. Thanks to Ikea’s AR, or augmented reality, app, you can plan placing your furniture before ever heading over to a nearby warehouse.
VR as Content Marketing
Apps like the ones Ikea have developed are a new form of content marketing. Ikea created an app that both serves a functional piece of software and as a piece of promotion. Sephora, the makeup retailer, allows users to try on superimposed looks. North Face lets customers don a VR headset and visit trails, mountain ridges, and other outdoorsy locales in store.
Marketers are storytellers. As technology evolves, so does storytelling. VR is a novel way to tell a story, promote a product, sell a brand. Engaging with customers with this new technology will play a larger and larger role as virtual reality becomes more and more embedded in our everyday lives.
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