VR: fad or the future?

VRIt’s the 2016 industry watchword, but can VR deliver more than just a niche experience? Travis Johnson discusses the challenges facing VR in breaking through from fad to marketing future.

Every year at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona there seems to be one technology that dominates the exhibition halls. Last year it was the connected car, and the year before it was the possibilities of NFC.

This year, every few hundred metres you’d see a bunch of people sitting with crazy contraptions strapped to their heads, with arms and legs flailing, whilst smiling and, occasionally, gasping.

Every one of the major electronics manufacturers were showcasing their virtual reality viewers and headsets with many also launching 360° content capturing devices.

It’s quite a sight to see – hundreds of executives in their pin-striped suits waiting half an hour to experience the tech.

Either it’s a telling sign of immense expectation or perhaps just an entertaining escape from the endless stands of new gadgets.

If we go back just two years, Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift for some $2bn confused many: A monolithic social company buying into a relatively new and niche subsection of the industry.

They justified it by their belief that it would be the ‘next big thing’ in the computer industry after mobile phones had become globally ubiquitous.

Obviously, $600 for Oculus is a sizeable barrier for most consumers, as is purchasing a Playstation 4 or Microsoft’s HoloLens at a hefty $3,000.

But Google’s “Cardboard” VR could be the game-changer. It’s a fraction of the price (at around $15) and while it doesn’t quite give you the same depth of experience, it’s a good entrée into what the future could bring.Google Cardboard VR - open

Indeed The New York Times distributed 1.3 million Cardboard units for free to readers and established a whole channel for VR content on its site.

And Samsung is bundling its VR headset for free with the purchase of an S7 (in the USA at least).Samsung Galaxy S7 Gear VR

So, at the moment it’s a bit chicken-and-egg when it comes to broadening penetration – advertisers and media publishers need consumer adoption to deliver reach and justify investment in the content; and we need the content availability to encourage consumers to buy a viewer.

But whilst mass consumer adoption may take some time, by enabling real-time, hands free, voice controlled, image/video capture and scanning capabilities there were some ingenious uses of VR technology for industry applications:

  • Peer to peer communications where someone, perhaps a doctor or engineer, is fully immersed in a scenario somewhere across the world and they’re able to relay instructions to their colleague on the ground.Not only does this open up sharing of expertise to remote areas or across long distances, older or disabled people will still be able to contribute their expertise in physical situations long after their body is incapable of completing the actions.
  • In the insurance category, Zurich experienced a 40-60% increase in inspector productivity that delivered lower risk with higher compliance.
  • Duke energy used VR to remotely assist engineers, which delivered 20-50% faster task completion and reduced downtime and error rate.


However, regardless of the commercial potential in both the consumer and enterprise spaces, the technology has one key barrier to overcome: human sensory overload.

After only a short experience, most participants said they felt nauseous, so regardless of all other barriers, that’s the first one for device-makers to overcome.

But do I agree with Facebook that it will be the next big thing? Yes.

Whilst early days, we’re seeing promising signs among our clients in real estate, auto and hotel/tourism to map out their strategies to create immersive VR brand experiences as part of their overall marketing activities.

Travis Johnson is the global head of mobile at IPG Mediabrands, based in New York.


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