“‘Illusion!’ he told himself. Clever optical devices, not reality... To his eyes the ground was mossy verdure; to his touch it was merely a thin hotel carpet.”
So says Dan, a character in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 short story, “Pygmalion's Spectacles.” Even though Dan knows what he sees through the pair of goggles is fake, he’s convinced that the “dreamlike world” is better than reality itself.
Fast forward 83 years and we’re almost living out Weinbaum’s sci-fi tale. Virtual reality (VR) is bigger now than ever before, and it’s expected to grow even further: by 2020, worldwide VR software and hardware sales are estimated to exceed $40.4 billion.
If you haven’t caught up with all the hype, read on to learn more about the tech and how some marketers are using VR to their advantage.
How It Works
There’s a lot more to virtual reality tech than just putting on some goggles and looking around. Unlike augmented reality, which enhances the real world around you, VR is designed to immerse you in another environment entirely by tricking your brain’s spatial perception.
When you look at a real-world object, each eye actually sees a slightly different image, as demonstrated in the diagram above. Your brain merges both views of the object into one three-dimensional image. This ability, known as stereopsis, allows people to judge distance and see where objects are in relation to the space around them.
VR mimics the stereoscopic effect by creating the illusion of 3D space from 2D images. Inside a VR headset, 2D video and graphics appear on a display screen located in the back of the device. Built-in lenses slightly alter the display for each eye, which tricks the brain into thinking you’re looking at a 3D object.
Similar to AR gadgets, the headsets track your movements using components like gyroscopes and accelerometers. The “environment” you see on-screen moves along as you look in different directions.
Depending on the VR device, there might be extra components that take your immersion even further. Some headsets work in conjunction with handheld controllers that match what’s happening on-screen with your physical hand gestures.
Room-scale tracking is another way of making VR more realistic. Using small motion sensors placed around a room, a VR headset can track a person’s physical movement within a space. For instance, if you’re playing a game, you can walk around in real-time to control a character instead of using a joystick, keys, or buttons to move them around.
Sophistication varies among VR devices on the market. While they offer better graphics, high-end headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift need to be connected to a supported—and often equally expensive—computer or console to run software.
More budget-friendly devices, such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear, pair with compatible smartphones. When placed inside a headset, the phones double as the screen and computer. Users can download specific apps to view VR content and games.
VR in the Marketing Space
Although mainstream adoption of VR hasn’t quite been achieved just yet, marketers around the world are starting to leverage the tech as part of their promotional strategies.
For those who don’t suffer from migraines, it might be hard to imagine why migraines are much more than really bad headaches. That’s why in 2016, Excedrin launched their migraine simulator campaign to bring attention to migraine sufferers’ pain.
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In their promotional video series, Excedrin invited real people to share their migraine experiences, which a developer then used to create a mixed reality simulator. While it doesn’t fully capture the extent of a migraine (it can’t cause physical pain, for one), the migraine experience mimics common disorienting optical symptoms, like flashing lights and blurred vision.
The interviewees invited family and friends to try it out. As the videos show, those who put on the headsets got a better understanding of what their loved ones go through during a migraine attack.
If you have a VR headset of your own, you can check out Excedrin’s 360° video series on YouTube and see how migraines affect different real-world situations, like working an emergency scene or cooking meals at a restaurant.
American fast food giant McDonald’s is testing out its own version of VR marketing. Called Happy Goggles, this VR project is the perfect example of repurposing done right. The Happy Meal box, an already iconic marketing material, goes beyond packaging and morphs into an interactive gadget instead of taking its usual journey right to the trash.
Following the printed instructions, kids take apart and reassemble their Happy Meal boxes into a simple headset. After sliding in a compatible smartphone, kids can play a VR video game, which parents set up via a downloadable app.
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With Happy Goggles, McDonald’s hopes to enhance children’s experiences with their brand by offering virtual entertainment in addition to the usual plastic toys found in kids meals. Right now, Happy Goggles are only available in Sweden, but if the idea picks up steam, maybe you’ll soon see a pair at a restaurant near you.
Not everyone is keen to take on home improvement projects. The amount of time and energy involved, let alone the cost, hold a lot of people back. But what if people could get a preview of their dream home without putting in the work? That’s where the experimental Lowe’s Holoroom comes into play.
With the help of a store associate and software on a tablet, a Lowe’s customer can design a virtual room using items found in the Lowe’s catalog. They can play with elements like flooring, paint, cabinetry, and countertops, changing colors and moving around furniture to create their perfect room.
Once they’re finished the initial design on the tablet, it’s time for the customer to “step” into the Holoroom. Using an Oculus Rift headset, customers can explore the room they made, complete with 3D renderings of all the furniture and appliances they picked out. If they’d like, they can then download the room as a video tour and share with friends and family.
Unfortunately, the Lowe’s Holoroom isn’t widely available just yet. Several test versions of the program have been launched since 2014, but consumers have yet to experience the Holoroom in all Lowe’s stores. If you really want to try out the Holoroom, you can check out its latest iteration, Holoroom How To, at three stores in Massachusetts, Ontario, and Quebec.
There’s an ongoing argument among virtual reality critics and fans over what it will take for VR tech to become a staple in mainstream technology. Some say that VR hardware needs to be more accessible to the average consumer. Others believe that there needs to be more compelling content for people to want to buy into VR entertainment.
One thing’s for certain, though: as technology rapidly improves and more people get on board, expect to see VR-based marketing really take off in the near future.