A recent communication trend study released by Hotwire PR, indicates virtual reality (VR) could begin playing a more significant role in the coming year as companies use it to bridge the pervasiveness of increasing amounts of data with the desire by customers to experience a brand before buying. While the study identified several other trends – for instance, how advertising will be forced to change with the popularity of ad blocking and how Millennials can no longer be treated as a single demographic – its point of view on VR was the most interesting.
For the uninitiated, VR didn’t recently come to fruition with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift or the popularity of role playing games. Jaron Lanier, considered one of the earlier pioneers of VR, gained notoriety in the 80s and 90s by introducing the first VR gloves and goggles. But the company he had co-founded to commercialize VR products eventually went bankrupt. The patents for the products Lanier helped develop were eventually bought by Sun Microsystems, and Sun was eventually bought by Oracle. Lanier now works for Microsoft. Who knows what Oracle has done with his patents today?
Since then, VR has continued to have fits and starts. More recently, 3D TV was supposed to give us a more immersive experience. How many people watch 3D TV. But the Hotwire study points out that the hardware issues that have stood in the way of greater mass adoption of VR seem to be rapidly working themselves out. Entertainment and gaming are what will evidently drive the pervasiveness of the hardware.
But as the study points out, there will be more to VR than play. The travel industry is already experimenting with ways to use it to provide travelers with a virtual look at a destination, a hotel or even a mode of transport. Earlier this year, Marriott experimented with a 4D experience that allowed travelers to be able to see, hear and even feel what it would be like to be in various destinations.
The non-profit industry is another potential VR adopter. With prospective donors suffering from “donation request fatigue,” non-profits are being forced to find more ways to move people to give. According to the Hotwire report, Amnesty International used VR to give people a more realistic experience of the crisis situation in Syria. The result was not only an increase in donations, but also an uptick in online chatter about the experience and the crisis.
What’s evidently driving all of this is not an increased fascination with VR, but the fact that companies are finally seeing the potential for VR to bridge the daily onslaught of data with the desire to experience a brand before committing to it. In other words, developing emotional connections in the absence of physical presence.
There’s a slippery slope here, though, because just as social media has been targeted as being as much a bane as a boon for society, VR is bound to be at the receiving end of an even greater potential backlash. After all, it is removing the end user even further from the physical present than a text, post or shared photo ever will. Communicators and content creators who contemplate using VR will need to keep this in mind and not treat it as one more communication tool to tick off a list of others that have come before.
For the public relations industry, this also means getting even more comfortable with the idea that emotional connections are driven by providing consumers with immersive experiences. The more immersive the better. Any type of service or product demo is essentially an immersive experience and an opportunity to bond with a prospective customer.
What VR can deliver are experiences that are even more immersive and reveal aspects of a company, service or product in ways that have never before been available. In an age when consumers are also demanding even greater transparency to go with their immersion, this can only be a good thing for everyone involved.