What’s your reality – plain, augmented, virtual, or mixed? Our Digital Director Andy Hawkes talks through alternate realities and what they’re good for…
It sometimes feels like plain old reality is getting a bit passé, with a myriad of new technologies promising to open up new worlds of possibilities, but what does it all mean and how does it all work here in the real world?
There’s been an off-again on-again media obsession with Virtual Reality (VR) for over 25 years now, with movies like The Lawnmower Man introducing many people to the concept for the first time way back in 1992 and the more recent Ready Player One bringing the idea of a VR world up to date (albeit with a distinctly nostalgic retro vibe).
VR is an inherently experiential and immersive medium – with a headset completely taking over your senses of sight and hearing, you can be transported out of the everyday and into a totally new world.
The technology press has been telling us that “this is the year of Virtual Reality” for years now, but it has never quite landed.
We’re certainly not seeing a VR headset in every home, let alone one for every person, and the experience of VR is still not as slick as 25 years of hype have led us to expect, despite huge sums being invested by some of the worlds biggest technology companies.
Facebook, for example, has invested strongly in the VR space through the acquisition of Oculus, while Google have taken great strides in making VR more accessible with products like Google Cardboard and Daydream VR using your smartphone rather than dedicated VR hardware.
The most promising mainstream VR adoption to date has been in video games – an industry that eclipses Hollywood in terms of revenues (with the video game industry earning $30.4 billion* in 2016 in the United States compared to $11.6 billion in total box office revenue for movies in the same period), and it is perhaps this that will help to usher VR headsets into more homes over the next few years.
Brands have been increasingly exploring the use of VR for events and promotions over the last few years, with everything from VR theme parks to branded experiences popping up everywhere from shopping malls to public spaces and train stations.
Where there is sufficient budget, a curated, branded VR experience can deliver a lot of awareness, engagement and publicity, and even when budgets are smaller it is possible to deliver engaging VR experiences using platforms like Google Cardboard along with more self-contained content such as 360° video.
Where VR subsumes at least one of your senses, Augmented Reality (AR) is a more subtle approach to merging the real world with the digital.
AR takes many forms, from seemingly simple things like Snapchat and Instagram adding sunglasses and cutesy animal ears to your photos and social media posts, to handy apps that help you to visualise just how that Ikea sofa will fit in your living room, what clothes would look like on your body shape, or which spectacles suit your face.
The most compelling reason to opt for AR over VR at this point in time is the potential audience – AR can be deployed across iOS and Android smartphones fairly easily, and as such it has a far greater potential reach than VR.
Probably the most talked about AR application in recent years is Pokemon Go, the phenomenon that saw kids and adults alike walking around, smartphone in hand, trying to capture digital monsters while (often unintentionally) exploring points of interest in the real world.
As a branded experience, Pokemon Go was beyond huge, and despite dropping from the larger public consciousness after the initial stratospheric hype it still maintains an active user base, with perhaps the next big spike in activity waiting in the wings with the impending arrival of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.
Augmented reality requires a mobile app, so it can be expensive to get started and maintain it if you don’t already have an app platform, and requires careful consideration in order to ensure that the functionality and/or content you deliver is likely to gain (and ideally retain) a significant number of users.
If VR is the current epitome of experiential immersion and AR represents the more practical route to mass-market adoption, then Mixed Reality (MR) is perhaps the logical evolution of both technologies, providing what we are promised will be a seamless integration of digital content with the real world around us.
Mixed reality aims to be a “best of both worlds” technology, bringing the potential for a pervasive digital overlay into the real world without entirely shutting the user away inside a headset, and with it the opportunity for platforms, experiences, and services that have previously been the realm of science fiction.
Entertainment will inevitably take a front seat in driving adoption, and this seems to be the focus for Magic Leap whereas Microsoft have taken a more balanced approach, touting industrial applications along with office productivity and entertainment, perhaps taking a leaf out of Google’s book following their re-invention of that first and most publicly failed poster child for Mixed Reality, Google Glass.
Show me the money
The big question mark around all of these technologies is return on investment (ROI).
Whilst we frequently see huge projected figures for the potential market size of augmented, virtual, and mixed reality, with ten-fold increases predicted within the next five years, any such prognostications should be tempered with a little healthy scepticism.
If the hardware can be improved in quality and reduced in price to a point where the average consumer doesn’t have to justify an additional expense running into hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds to take part, then the possibilities for Mixed Reality could be endless.
As well as viewing your potential new sofa in situ before you tuck into some meatballs and subject yourself to the labyrinth at your nearest IKEA, you might be able to follow along with animated assembly instructions that automatically recognise the bits and bolts for your new GRÖNLID.
You could pop in to the kitchen to cook a gourmet dinner with real-time instructions from your favourite TV chef, before finally retiring to the sofa to play a video game that sees your own miniature army do battle around the elegantly selected books arranged on your mid-century coffee table.
In the meantime, whilst mixed reality is still in an embryonic state, the cost of a full-on VR experience can be high and ROI can be hard to justify without a multi-million dollar movie marketing budget behind you.
It is possible, however, to create useful tools and engaging, compelling AR and VR experiences as a unique way to bring new products and services to life, like Indicia did for energy market challengers Engie with their connected future home experience.
So why not get in touch with Indicia to discuss how we can help to improve your brand reality?