Dos and don’ts of VR campaigns from Framestore creative technologist, Karl Woolley

It’s just over two years since Palmer Luckey got Oculus Rift funded on Kickstarter, a milestone that brought virtual reality (VR) back under the spotlight and into the 21st century. Since then, we’ve been testing, building, producing, screaming, laughing and innovating our way through VR. It’s been a valuable learning curve that’s highlighted some fundamental dos and don’ts.

Don’t make people sick. This might seem an obvious no-no, but even with our Oculus sea legs, we often come across demos and concepts that make us feel uneasy. Apart from the dry cleaning bills, an uncomfortable VR experience is not only bad for the user and VR’s overall reputation, but also for the brand that commissions the project.  

The epic release of Avatar in 2009 restored faith in 3D cinema. But subsequent less well-executed releases gave 3D films a bad rep, with many commenting they felt queasy. Then, in 2013, Gravity came along and heralded another 3D renaissance. Alfonso Cuaron’s use of long shots and immense depth-of-field lent itself brilliantly to an immersive, natural 3D experience. If VR can learn a lesson from the rise, fall and rise again of 3D films, it’s this: don’t do the obvious.

There’s a common tendency with 3D and VR – fields that offer deep immersion – to develop creative ideas that on paper seem mind-blowing, but in reality (or virtual reality) don’t play out as intended.

We’ve seen many VR ideas relying too heavily on motion; things like speeding around Silverstone at 200mph from your living room, or taking a hot air balloon from your bedroom. Despite the aforementioned hurdle of motion sickness, vertigo is another potential pitfall.

If people want to rocket around F1 racetracks or float in hot air balloons, they can do it for real. VR is best saved for experiences that are so out-of-this-world, they’re magic. Or for creating an immense emotional connection and response that money (almost) can’t buy.

Imagine being in your living room, putting on a VR headset, choosing your favourite track… and watching your hero perform it, live, right there in jaw-dropping 3D visuals and sound. You may think: “why not in a stadium?”. We thought that too. But think about the bonuses of a private gig in your living room: no getting bashed in the mosh pit, no sticky floor and no pungent sweaty crowds.

The magic ingredient is presence. Arguably, a private VR performance is less exhilarating than a gig. But the intensity of presence that comes from such a VR experience creates a new level of exhilaration and believability.  

Sticky floors aside, it’s shrewd to engage all senses. Sometimes we forget it’s virtual reality, not visual reality. Although visuals are crucial, it’s only by incorporating the rest of our senses that we get close to a new reality.

Binaural sound is a great extra trick on the brain that dramatically enhances that sense of presence. Combined with feeling the wind in your hair whilst flying bird-like on a motion control rig – that’s total immersion.

As always with a cool new piece of tech, brands often feel compelled to adopt it immediately. Kinect, Leap Motion, projection mapping… I could go on. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this happen. But resist jumping on the bandwagon. Think about whether VR is what people expect from your brand. And does a brand have the right to own this space, or would it feel unnatural?

Although Samsung’s new Oculus-based Gear VR will massively improve consumer reach, accessibility is still an issue. Due to the nature of head-mounted displays, only one person at a time can experience your amazing VR campaign. We’ve worked on linking headsets so people can simultaneously enjoy the same VR experience, but it doesn’t work for all creatives.

This means strategy and engagement have to be prioritised. There’s no point investing in VR if it’s not going to engage enough to be organically amplified over social media, in the same way that HBO’s Game of Thrones VR experience (pictured) did. Nine-figure media impressions generated by a five-day VR experience at SXSW. That’s justifiable bang for your buck.

We’ve come a long way since plucky Palmer Luckey’s original vision. But let’s not pretend we’ve already got it licked. VR’s potential as an awesome marketing tool is only just being realised. And if we stick to these fundamental dos and don’ts, exciting – and incredibly creative – times lay ahead. 

Karl Woolley is creative technologist at Oscar-winning production company Framestore where he takes “zeitgeist-busting hardware and software” and offers it to clients as a marketing solution. 

The Drum will soon premiere its lastest film which captures industry creatives trying Oculus Rift for the first time and delves into its potential uses for marketers.  

 

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