How AR and VR Technology Are Shaking Up Advertising

November 4, 2016 Kyle Harper

Woman riding a bicycle wearing a VR headset

Nearly 60 years ago, in a small Pennsylvanian suburb forty minutes away from Philadelphia, my father was growing up without a television in his home.

Like many children in the 60s, he had to entertain himself with sports and hobbies, chores and schoolwork—activities that take on an odd sense of quaintness in this era of VR technology, smartphones, and internet. But where we enjoy on-demand (and indeed, constant) media stimulation, my dad used to tell me how in the summer he would bike down to his friend’s house to watch television off of a small black-and-white TV set. He told me how his friend’s family used to open their living room windows so the whole neighborhood could gather and watch, their home a surrogate theater for the length of a 20-minute evening special.

A living room with no TV

While I might not have been able to wrap my head around the idea of growing up screenless, I was able to connect with my dad over the experience of having a “friend down the street.” That one kid whose family always seems just one step ahead on gadget collecting and burgeoning technology. The sort of family you love to visit, but whose lifestyle always seems just a bit out of reach.

There is a similar relationship that happens for marketers when it comes to brand technology adoption. No matter how ahead of the curve you may be, there’s always another company that has a new toy or system that’s out of your team’s reach. Just one house too far away to make the bike ride.

But when it comes to one of marketing’s most talked about new media, the distance may not be quite so far as marketers believe: AR and VR technology may actually be viable content resources for your team within the next couple of years, if not tomorrow.

Future Tech, Today

Part of the struggle for brands looking at VR technology is the rapid pace at which the tools and terminology around the tech have developed. Back in just March of this year, the only big names in the VR space were Oculus and Vive, two bulky, wired, cost-prohibitive headsets that seemed inaccessible by all except the most dedicated of video game enthusiasts. But today, many of the largest names in tech have announced various bids into the VR space; from Google looking to upgrade from its mobile-friendly Cardboard product to full headsets, to Sony releasing headgear that works with its PS4 system, the field is becoming wider and more accessible each day. With each new announcement, it looks likely that virtual reality entertainment isn’t going to reach millions of people in 10 years—it’s currently projected to reach 70 million users in just four years.

Virtual reality is projected to reach 70 million users in just four years.

This only speaks to full virtual reality. That is, entertainment and experiences that require full immersion, often taking up the user’s entire field of vision and hearing. But this still leaves AR, or augmented reality, which only requires a means of overlaying information on a user’s everyday reality. Pokémon Go may be the best mainstream example of this sort of approach, where users only needed to download an app and set out into their real world to participate in the experience.

It’s all certainly exciting tech, but why should brands care about this as marketing technology during its early adoption phase?


Moments That Can’t Be Broken

Up to today, advertising has largely relied on the same, singular approach for getting people to buy: grab attention, incite interest, and tell the viewer where to go next. In theory, these short interchanges shouldn’t be too harmful—interaction time is short, people only have to pay attention if they’re interested, and in the best-case scenario you learn something useful. Win-win, right?

But as ad spaces have become more saturated, this previously innocuous format has become something less desirable. Instead of preceding shows or marking paths into and out of venues, ads have become an increasingly intrusive part of entertainment (on some networks, as one Redditor timed out, that ratio of ads to content has become precariously close to 1:1).

The result is overwhelming dissatisfaction with advertisements, particularly those that intrude on experiences or make users aware of the fact that their behavior has been targeted. If trends continue to hold in this way, then advertisers are going to find themselves in a tough spot with VR: dissatisfaction may continue to grow, while new entertainment spaces opening up are so experiential that just about any advertisement would come across as extremely intrusive.

VR is exciting because its inherently immersive nature may actually force advertisers to move away from intrusion, and instead move toward brand storytelling.

We’ve already seen a couple of examples of this even at this stage. One of the best cases for this might be Lionsgate’s recent campaign to promote the upcoming sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Lionsgate partnered with popular horror game Sisters to create an immersive, experiential lead-in that, mechanically, served as an ad: the experience was short and played before users could access the Sisters content that they were actually interested in. But the ad itself used VR marketing technology to create a likewise frightening experience, promoting the film but never pulling the viewer out of something that they wanted to see or feel.

AR continues to be an interesting middle ground where advertisements might still be able to intrude. Today, lighter experiences like Pokémon Go or National Geographic‘s series of 360 images for social media do an excellent job of creating a brand storytelling atmosphere while leaving conventional digital spaces where ads could possibly find a home. But as products like Microsoft’s HoloLens continue to grow in sophistication and popularity, marketers may see similar push back from augmented reality audiences as virtual reality audiences.

Future Proofing Your Content

AR and VR tech aren’t going anywhere—in fact, they’re poised to be in homes and businesses far sooner than one might expect. Lightweight AR and VR experiences, like Google Cardboard for instance, do give brands some easy ways to break into the field now if they so desire.

But the bigger picture for marketers to see is that this tech, as well as the pushback against traditional advertising, all display audiences’ universal desire to take part in increasingly immersive experiences. The questions this should drive are less about media and tech adoption and more about tone and approach: what can your brand do today to orient itself more readily toward immersion and story, rather than interruption and attention seeking?

Today, this technology may still feel like it’s down the street, adopted only by that one family with the one TV set for miles. But people are gathering in those living rooms and at their windows, peering in to see what the future holds for the stories they might experience at home. This desire exists today, regardless of where the technology is. In the same way, your brand should be telling its story, regardless of the platforms it uses to do so.

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