LOOKING TO A VIRTUAL FUTURE
As VR goes mainstream, Laura Snoad examines how creatives can harness the medium to make meaningful experiences that captivate users
Laura Snoad gets the low-down on the latest virtual reality hardware and projects, and explores how creatives can best harness the medium
“ALWAYS ASK WHY A PIECE SHOULD BE IN VR, AND WHY IT COULDN’T BE JUST A TV SHOW OR AN APP. THINK ABOUT THE CONSUMER FIRST, AND DON’T BE SEDUCED BY THE TECHNOLOGY”
The final months of 2016 were a hive of activity in the world of VR. Following launches of the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in the spring, PlayStation VR unveiled its eponymous headset in October, Samsung Gear VR got an upgrade, and Google’s Daydream View hit the shelves. What’s more, in the final days of November, Microsoft announced that its HoloLens – an industry redefining self-contained wearable that intelligently reads the user’s environment and overlays it with 3D holograms – was finally available for developers, with a consumer launch expected some time in 2017. If 2016 was a watershed moment in terms of the tech, then 2017 is when we’ll see the creative potential fully erupt.
For creatives working in branding and advertising, the possibilities of VR are sure to get pulses racing. Not only do VR, AR and MR (mixed reality – the term Microsoft uses to describe its HoloLens environment) offer an unparalleled opportunity to provide customers with exciting rare or impossible experiences, or educate them about a product or service in a distraction-free 3D environment, but studies have shown that viewers’ feelings of engagement and empathy are much higher in immersive VR environments than when watching a standard 2D film campaign. On top of this, there’s huge PR potential because of the relative novelty of the form. But working in such new, unexplored territory requires quite the mental shift. Because of the viewer’s autonomy, the average approach to brand storytelling will wither and die in virtual reality. Plus, it’s expensive. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” points out Sol Rogers, founder of virtual reality agency REWIND. A VR experience, he argues, must offer something valuable that justifies the medium. “Always ask why a piece should be in VR, and why it couldn’t just be a TV show or an app. Think about the consumer first, and don’t be seduced by the technology.”
VR experiences can be roughly broken down into three categories: active, semi-active and passive. Active VR does what it says on the tin: the viewer can interact with the environment, whether they are solving puzzles, killing baddies, drawing or flying. A 360° video with hotspots where the user can choose to follow a specific character or unlock the next part of the experience is considered semiactive, while passive VR is used to describe 360° video where the viewer can turn their head to watch the action unfold at any compass point, but cannot influence what unfolds in front of them.
Knowing what you want to create, and who you want to create it for will have a massive impact on the platform you choose to design for. At the top of the chain, there’s room-scale real-time engine VR – all singing, all dancing VR platforms that work by hooking up a headset to a game engine, for example the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. It’s here that interactive, processinghungry experiences work best. The next layer down is mobile VR – that’s platforms such as Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Google Cardboard, which work by slotting a phone into a headset (or in Cardboard’s case, a cheap cardboard viewer) and using the phone to boot the experience, without the need for wires.
Interactive content can work here, but with much less power, and it’s mobile VR where 360° video is best used and produced. The bottom of the ladder – but not an area to be overlooked – is virtual reality outside of the headset, for example Facebook360 and YouTube360. Here, users can explore a 360° environment on their phones, tablets or desktops without owning a headset. “You can go upstream very easily, but downstream is very difficult,” states Rogers. “If you make a beautiful thing for HTC Vive, it’s a huge amount of pain to retool it for mobile platforms, and the same again to transform that into 360 video° – you will end up with several different workstreams,” he explains.