Virtual reality (VR) is here. It has a platform. And it’s starting to get very interesting.
When virtual reality is mentioned, it’s hard to avoid thoughts of dodgy graphics from early 90’s drug-fuelled sci-fi flicks such as The Lawnmower Man (starring Pierce Brosnan, no less).
Luckily it has moved on a little since then – VR is no longer a playground for rich eccentrics, and like it or not, there’s no need for the light up lycra jumpsuits.
TAKING IT TO THE MASSES
So what’s changed? Put simply, it’s now accessible, and it’s no surprise that Google are leading the charge to take it to the masses. YouTube recently developed the ability for 360° videos to be uploaded and viewed (both via a head-mounted viewer and without), working in tandem with their Chrome browser. Impressive, but that’s not all as they have been hot on the product side also. Their collaboration with GoPro on ‘Jump’, has spawned an affordable filming rig to give more people the power to create 360° video, and they have also recently won a Cannes Lion for their low-budget origami-style viewer known simply as ‘Google Cardboard’. This houses your mobile device – your phone slides into the viewer and plays stereoscopic videos. Add headphones and you’re in a fully immersive experience on the cheap. The latest release of these viewers (created by Google engineers David Coz and Damien Henry in their ‘Innovation Time Off’) has better compatibility across devices (so not just Android this time), making the immersive ‘virtual reality’ version of the 360° experience even more accessible. Cardboard is also open source – Google are challenging manufacturers to improve on their work.
The YouTube development is the major game changer – its one billion users will provide brands with the masses that the best content deserves. 360° on YT may not be perfect just yet – it can be laggy on slower connections and (as with any medium) it relies heavily on the quality of the content itself. The experience without the head mounted viewer is far less immersive, however the ability to rotate your view by moving your device is pretty thrilling when first viewed. YouTube quickly introduced the option to switch to stereoscopic view (only on Chrome and Android currently), so that Google Cardboard can come into play to make the content fully immersive.
For those with a bit more budget, or wanting to showcase 360° content at one-off events, there are more extravagant options. Samsung VR is a more comfortable (and more expensive) version of Google Cardboard (but will only currently house a Galaxy Note 4) and Oculus Rift is the Facebook-owned, PC-based head mounted display that showcases custom built apps – currently aimed more towards developers and gamers.
But one could argue that it’s not necessarily the technology itself – the real magic is in its application. There is some great platform-exclusive content out there that deserves a greater audience, such as Mountain Dew’s skate experience and Dos Equis’ masquerade ball, both available on Oculus Rift.
THE ULTIMATE EMPATHY MACHINE
So it’s the easily-accessible VR options that arguably represent the greatest potential for brands due to the huge audiences on offer. Millions are flocking to view this content, despite much of it being limited to cheap thrills such as sky dives, Formula One laps and fighter jets. The consumer demand for this innovative new experience is clear, but how long will this last?
Specialist VR director Chris Milk talks about the medium being the ultimate empathy machine in his TED talk earlier this year. Clouds over Sidra, his video for the United Nations, followed Sidra, a 12 year old refugee in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. It was shown via Samsung VR to attendees at the World Economic Forum, all powerful people with the ability to make a change. “When you’re sitting there in her room watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on, and because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You emphasise with her in a deeper way. I think we can change minds with this machine.” Put simply, Brands can harness this connection to provide their audiences with memorable, emotional experiences that leave a lasting impression.
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Firstly, it is important to understand the limitations of 360° video – not least the potential for disorientation, claustrophobia and motion sickness. Not ideal. But those aware of what causes these can not only avoid these, but can actually create a comforting environment where the user is placed directly in the scene. Elements that detract from the realism need to be canned unless they are crucial to the narrative. Touch (you can’t feel it), POV limbs in shot (clearly not yours), jump cuts (takes control away from you), poor video stitching (a reminder that it’s not real) and neglecting the audio experience (reduces the immersive feeling) can all shatter the illusion. The best experiences cast the user as an inactive observer, or as having occupied someone else’s body. If done well, then an understanding of the limitations can become an advantage, heightening the experience as the action takes place around the viewer without a need for them to get involved.
The other key consideration is core reason the video is being made. Many 360° videos being released seem to have been signed off because there’s a wish to be seen as cutting edge due to the use of this new technology rather than its relevance to the content or narrative. Many of these would arguably work better as a non-360° POV video (best showcased by the brilliant, Cannes winning La Sortie en Mer experience). The content has to be relevant to the medium. Where have you taken the viewer? What are they looking at? Why would they want to be there?
When these are taken into account, you have the foundations for a successful 360° experience and the benefits of the format can come to the fore. An expert use of sound, space and subtle guides to move the viewer through the story (while still giving them control over what they are looking at) combine to make the viewer feel like they are reacting naturally to the new environment.
The Converse Chuck 360° app (now available online) puts the user in the world of four artists who each tell a story about how they approach their creative work. Not only does it give access to someone’s world, you can hear their narration as though it is an inner monologue. By varying the volume of this narration, the viewer’s attention is directed where the action takes place, as they naturally move focus to where the sound level feels most comfortable.
This clever use of specially recorded binaural sound (also known as spatial sound or 3D audio) adds an additional layer of believability to the experience – reinforcing the sense of space and ensuring the viewer doesn’t miss out on key narrative elements.
THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
When executed successfully, the experience goes far beyond the initial wow factor of the technology itself, and can transport the viewer to the perfect place to tell your story. Brands are already transporting customers into a first-hand experience of their product or service via 360° – looking around a property, exploring a museum, viewing the interior of a new car, or getting the best seat in the house on a TV show – but it will be those that manage to tell the most powerful stories that will stand out from the rest. If the user’s experience is put first and the brand message becomes the reason to view the technology’s capabilities, then you have a unique combination: their undivided attention, an emotional connection and award-winning potential.
Get in touch if you want to discuss a 360° video project. We work with some of the best tech partners in the business to create immersive worlds in which to tell brand stories that form an emotional connection with the user.