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Virtually There
Andrew Murchie

The last two decades have seen a huge paradigm shift in our personal and business life; gone is the limited access to information, gone are any limitations to instant communication, computer processing power now generates vivid lifelike imagery with ease. Our access to the new world of global information, entertainment and always-on communication is always just a screen away. Just a screen away. Just a screen in the way.

Is this about to change?

Trying out the latest generation of virtual reality tech recently was reminiscent of accessing the internet for the first time. It felt revolutionary, a step in a new direction, one where the screen is gone (unless it’s a virtual screen within the virtual environment); we’re no longer passive viewers, we’re in the virtual world. We’re inside the screen.

Virtual reality, in technological terms, has had a challenging history, most famously the 1990’s experiments in gaming arcades from Virtuality. These “cutting-edge” machines presented low polygon interactive 3D environments to play in, but head tracking limitations and a general unresponsiveness delivered an unsatisfying experience. Not a virtual world you would want to return to.

Changed days indeed. The current proliferation of VR style devices following the huge surge of interest that the category-defining (and Facebook owned) Occulus Rift has inspired is astounding. From Google’s Cardboard, effectively a DIY cardboard VR box with which you can strap your smartphone to your face, through to FEELREAL Inc’s proposed VR Mask which adds a sensory 4D experience of smell, wind, heat and water mist to your entry into suitably enabled virtual worlds, the devices in this market have been appearing at an incredible rate. Tech titans are already battling for a bigger chunk of the market, another sign that VR is for real. Each, of course, has different goals and methods. Samsung Gear is geared toward building on the brand's electronic empire, Sony's sleek Playstation VR headset is gunning to establish gaming supremacy, and HTC's Vive is a dark horse candidate for best overall experience.

As with any technology, no matter how thrilling, its future direction is not entirely clear. Will this purely be a niche gaming peripheral, or will it become a ubiquitous device for work and for play? The downside of the immersive nature of the device is the disconnect from reality; the sealed-in nature of a headset and headphones limits awareness of your physical surroundings and can be unsettling. Perhaps Microsoft’s awe-inspiring HoloLens Augmented Reality technology, overlaying 3D “holographic” items into your real-world would present a less extreme step into a virtual environment. Time will tell.

In either case playing with all this amazing technology may delight the senses and thrill the brain with previously unimagined stimuli, but back in our business reality the question this inspires is how can we as an agency, or our brand partners become involved in the new paradigm of this immersive virtuality? Second Life, which many of us felt had had its day, already with a history of real world brand involvement, has released a beta Occulus Rift Viewer, possibly reviving its fortunes and making this a possible brand entry point. Redbull, regularly associated with cutting edge tech has announced they will be enhancing their Red Bull broadcast TV channel with VR elements, so similar routes to market could be found for appropriate brand led content.  And fashion label Dior has gone the whole hog and created their own branded headset to give viewers a look backstage at fashion shows. Surely it’s only time before we glide down a virtual Amazon aisle.

The virtual gates are open, new world frontiers are being explored right now. All you need to ask yourself is what type of virtual world would we invite our consumers into? 

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