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Most VR content is built on game engines like Unity. VR creators are placing all their chips on the premium engines such as Unity and Unreal, and that’s because they look to these platforms as their best bet for delivering high-octane experiences. There are, however, big drawbacks to publishing “triple A” immersive content. One is distribution, which is a question of all the friction that comes with being isolated to walled gardens. That is, to play the game or jump into the experience, you’ll need to register, download, install, and have access to a VR headset. The other, which stems from the problem of distribution, is “how are you going to market it?”
Those responsible for marketing typically take the default position of sticking to the same tools and methods as the traditional industries they are supposed to transcend. Those would be 2D videos and 2D illustrations, which I hope you can agree is like taking a knife to a gun fight. These are old generation marketing tools being hopelessly applied to an emerging tech that is, by definition, offering next-generation experiences that 2D media assets can’t hope measure up to.
“It’s been a real challenge giving people a sense of the experience interactive documentary since we started creating these kinds of works in 2009. It’s become even more challenging now that our experience is in VR headsets,” Loc Dao, the chief digital officer at the National Film Board of Canada, told me. “Conveying our work crafted in a new medium using new tools is hard enough. The safest place we find is sharing the story and emotion for now.”
The novelty problem
What’s missing in this equation are methods and channels that suit the new medium — meaning they’re inherently novel in approach, which actually has an impact on pulling in audiences. Otherwise the net effect will invariably be, like the 2D assets, a feeble approach in trying to convey an experience that is simply too condense and too rich for anything available in the marketer’s old toolkit to be able to handle.
“It is difficult to convey what it is like to experience something in virtual reality without physically putting someone into a headset. This poses an obvious challenge for anyone marketing a VR film, game, or experience.” René Pinnell, the CEO and founder at Kaleidoscope, told me. “This is one of the reasons I’m so excited about the growing location-based entertainment sector. If there is a robust network of VR arcades and VR cinemas, this will give audiences an easy way to try out experiences before buying them or before buying any hardware.”
Location-based VR arcades, cinemas, and massively-scaled theme parks like the one opening in China next month will no doubt play a vital role because they fill the otherwise insurmountable void for a large chunk of mainstream audiences who, at least for the moment, remain indifferent to the prospect of going through the effort of ‘gearing up’. If nothing else, the brick and mortar approach can and will begin the process of normalizing immersive technology on the level of basic daily habituation.
The advantages of WebVR
Of course you’ll be hard pressed to find an example of a Unity-based VR game or experience promoting itself with the help of WebVR, but you can already find several examples of the movie industry leveraging it, like in the case of the Dunkirk WebVR game. It’s not that marketers for Unity-based premium content aren’t aware of WebVR. It’s that they’re still not emphasizing it as a critical component of their core marketing strategy, and it’s starting to seriously get to me.
Part of the problem might be perception. Unity-based creators will look at WebVR as duplicating their efforts, or worse, they might think with an either-or mentality that dismisses it altogether. It doesn’t occur to them that WebVR, unburdened as it is from problems like distribution or marketing, is likely the most effective way to promote their friction-laden experience to the mainstream by way of WebVR-based trailers and teaser content.
It all comes down to “progressive enhancement” strategy used by WebVR and the magic window mode that allows for any smartphone or desktop user to immediately get an immersive taste of the mind-blowing experience that marketers are desperate to convey, and without any of that fickle friction that is otherwise standing in the way. No VR headset required. You just need the URL.
“A big part of why WebVR is so important is that it makes VR accessible to a much wider range of audiences, meeting them where they already are — in the web browser where much of their content consumption is already done.” Sean White, the SVP of Emerging Technology at Mozilla (the original pioneers behind WebVR) told me. “Free of the friction of app stores, permissions and downloads. And while app stores offer a one discovery mechanism for content, they don’t come close to matching the web’s unbounded and diverse potential points of engagement with users and content platforms they are already using.”
The responsive design in progressive enhancement allows anyone to load up a WebVR experience with any device and, more importantly, it allows developers to tailor the content so that the depth of immersion escalates as the user inches closer and closer to adding a VR headset into the mix. It doesn’t make any sense for marketers to forgo the chance to offer an immersive taste of the full potential experience in a way that 2D videos and images can never hope to. WebVR shouldn’t ever be looked at as just a standalone VR framework, but indispensable to the entire industry.
“As native developers understand these benefits, WebVR will become an important part of a strong content strategy.” White told me.
Fighting with one arm tied behind your back isn’t going to cut it for winning people over. Marketers have to take the red pill and rely less and less on the old school tactics they think have a positive effect, and instead dedicate as much of their resources and frame of mind to positioning new channels like LBEs and WebVR at the center of the promotional mix. It might not be as comfortable, but that’s the point. It’s all new territory. All of it – and that means marketing, too.
Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is the founder at Virtuleap, a sandbox for creative developers to showcase their VR concepts to the world and the startup behind the Gaze-At-Ratio ad metric.
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