Disrupted Reality – the story of virtual reality so far

How Virtual Reality is growing up

iDisrupted Commentary by VR staff reporter, Laura Cox

I’m standing under an ornate archway in the hallway of a magnificent, exotic hotel. A Virtual Reality Thomas Cookfamily are checking in at the huge reception desk in front of me, travel bags resting on the immaculate marble flooring. A satisfying clack of heels merges with soft, calming music in the background. The scene fades, and I’m looking out on a glittering turquoise pool, set against a cloudless sky. The next scene is a stunning hotel suite, complete with a huge king sized bed. The window is open wide, and the silk curtains dance in the gentle breeze. As I gaze around at the breathtaking architecture it really is easy to forget, just for a moment, that I’m actually in the middle of Shoreditch. Now if that doesn’t make you want to jet off to the Bahamas, nothing will.
My virtual holiday experience highlights just how important the vast technological changes of recent years have been for the world of retail, affecting shopping both on the internet and on the high street. The expansion of online purchasing has led to the decline of physical shopping sprees, 3D printing has given brands the opportunity to design and create products in minutes, and cognitive computing/AI offers hugely advanced databases and an enhanced customer experience. . . But what comes next? The retail sector may be transforming, but the aims of marketing ultimately remain the same – grab the customer’s interest, and keep it.
That’s where Virtual Reality comes in. You don’t need to have experienced it to understand its massive potential within the retail world, especially when it comes to offering a low-cost ‘try before you buy’ service. In fact, that’s exactly what global travel agents Thomas Cook did with the nifty little app that I sampled, using no more than a cardboard headset and an android phone. By designing similar apps, and/or offering in-store virtual set ups, marketers can open up whole worlds of possibility aimed at convincing a potential buyer to commit to a purchase.
It’s not at all difficult to see why businesses are keen to get stuck into virtual reality. Affordable, mobile and immersive, it offers so much more than flicking through stills in a plastic folder. If a customer wants to suss out potential holiday accommodation, or any venue at all for that matter, what better way to sell them the get-away of their dreams than to send them straight there, minus the air miles? That, simply put, is the power of Virtual Reality. It can transport you to different countries and even to different worlds, yet your feet never have to leave the ground. And it’s not just the travel industry who will profit from the integration of virtual experiences into the consumer market. Fashion magazines, estate agents, supermarkets, car manufacturers and even drinks companies have snapped up virtual technology.
But how can these companies use VR, the baby of the games industry, for marketing purposes? The Thomas Cook virtual experience clearly demonstrates the persuasive nature of immersive technology, and that was just a mobile app plus some cardboard. It’s amazingly simple. But anyone can sit in front of an app and appreciate the grandeur of an expensive hotel… What happens when you use customisation tools to tailor the experience to suit the customer? In short, you have an even more powerful tool. This realisation has led to a flood in VR patents. There are already 3,820 listed patents which include some element of the immersive technology.
So where did virtual reality come from, and where does it stand today? Virtual Reality, or VR, was a very real dream of the gaming industry, taking interactive gameplay to the next level with ultra responsive environments. By 2017, the predicted market worth of the UK games industry alone is over £100 billion. That’s a lot of cash to play with, and the result is high end virtual headsets with clear resolution and improved latency – in short, they’re pretty awesome. However, rewind to the 1990s and VR was comparable to a toddler that was pushed to run before it could walk. Virtual experiences first began as shoot-em-up games in arcades, with stuttering yet pioneering graphics from the company Virtuality. Using bulky pods fitted with headsets and huge plastic guns, users signed up for three minutes of vertigo for $3 – $5. By the mid-nineties the doomed combination of low quality experience and disproportionate price led to public disenchantment. Despite the huge hype, hopes for the potential of virtual technology (such as the alternate and incredibly strange world ‘Second Life’) seemed to fall flat.
In the last ten years however, investment in VR technology has rocketed. A whopping 281 million dollars has been raised by VR companies over the last year alone. Within the next five years, the combined forces of virtual reality and its cousin augmented reality (a combination of virtual data and real-life environments) will be worth around $150 billion. Despite arguments that VR headsets are too costly for public use, the bulk of this revenue won’t come from hardware sales – rather it will be generated by software purchases like the Thomas Cook app. It’s really no wonder that companies are looking to use the persuasive platform to entice their customers, and also their prospective business partners.
A number of tech giants are pumping funds into the development of high quality headsets. The biggest names at the moment are Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, however HTC and Sony are also buying into the hype. It was undoubtedly Oculus VR, named after the Latin word for ‘eye’, which revived the Virtual Reality hysteria. Developed by 23 year old inventor Palmer Luckey with funding from Kickstarter, the Oculus Rift caught Facebook’s all seeing eye. It became part of the Zuckerberg empire for $2 billion, causing VR skeptics everywhere to do a double take. The consumer version will be available to the public next year and comes with two wireless controllers – one for each hand. Although the Rift was developed by gamers for gamers, the first and second generation developers kits (DK I and II) have been used by companies like Stella Artois to create unforgettable virtual experiences for the public.
Possibly the Oculus Rift’s biggest competitor at the moment is Samsung Gear VR, which also uses Oculus software. Gear VR uses compatible Samsung Galaxy phones such as the Note 4 to offer a consumer friendly device that, unlike the present Oculus Rift set ups, is wireless. The perks of a movable headset are clear when applied to marketing, as companies can take the Gear VR into the outside world without having to set up a PC. As well as Samsung, mobile phone manufacturer HTC have teamed up with Valve, a digital distributor and development company, to create SteamVR. The developers kit, HTC Vive, was made available in spring this year. Sony have also leapt on the bandwagon, stirring huge anticipation with their answer to the VR hype: Project Morpheus. The project, named after the Greek god of dreams, was officially introduced at the Tokyo Game Show as ‘PlayStation VR’. The new name definitely isn’t as cool, but it’s very user friendly and clearly shows Sony’s plans to make VR mainstream. It boasts a 4k resolution screen, and it’s probably the most aesthetic headset, too. The PlayStation VR’s sleek appearance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better headset, but when it comes to marketing, it’s all about what looks good. Most people would choose to wear something straight out of Tron: Legacy over a black brick attached to a bit of elastic.
Whilst the big tech companies are where it’s at for resolution and quality, there’s no knocking the simple (but absolutely brilliant) cardboard headset. At Google’s 2014 I/O developer’s conference, the multinational technology giants gifted not high-end smartphones and chromebooks, but a flat piece of cardboard in plastic packaging. Once assembled, users can experience VR at a fraction of the price. You can get hold of a classic ‘I Am Cardboard’ set from Google for around $15. The device works with smartphones and Google-compatible apps such as Rollercoaster, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Costing next to nothing to produce and easy to distribute, cardboard headsets (complete with respective branding) are also a very clever marketing tool. It’s a genius way to offer VR to the masses and see what people want without the massive overheads. Think mass market research – and we all know how important that is for brands. Stella Artois offered both 2k (cardboard) and 4k (an advanced headset and five programmed fans) virtual experiences in Waterloo station this year. The ability to give a ‘lesser’ version of VR to the general public in large quantities really beats down the argument that virtual marketing is reserved only for B2B negotiations. It also attacks the suggestion that VR technology is just too pricey for mass public use. If you haven’t come across a cardboard setup already then you soon will, as Kellogg’s are gifting them as part of their Nutri-Grain cereal boxes. At the moment this is only available in New Zealand, but if successful it’s certain to become a global venture. That’s right – VR is already being used to sell breakfast.