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Reality check

In typical UAE style, the Dubai World Trade Centre set a Guinness World Record for most participants riding in a virtual reality (VR) roller coaster in one hour. Driven by Samsung, the activity saw 461 participants using Samsung Gear headsets to experience a virtual roller coaster ride in a 4DX theatre at GITEX. While the record may have been set in 2016, VR in millennial memory probably harks back to Aerosmith’s 1993 video for their ballad ‘Amazing’. Actually, it goes much further back than that.

Speaking at GITEX, Paul Lee, global director for Deloitte Research TMT (Technology, Media & Telecommunications) at Deloitte, said that – among other trends – VR would gain popularity, but largely on the back of gaming.

However, he, added: “We’re looking at almost two to three million devices, which is not very many,” and more importantly, the tech means nothing if consumers aren’t using it. Further, he went as far as to say: “Goldman Sachs predicts [the] VR industry to reach $80 billion, but personally, I don’t think it will get to $80 billion.”

Audiences aren’t buying VR headsets as much as companies want them to, but brands still need to be brave and innovative. So what do you do when your audience doesn’t have what you want them to have? You give it to them.

A new reality

Everyone knows content is king and good content is immersive, engaging and meaningful. However, we’ve moved on from creating content to crafting experiences because, more and more, it isn’t about what audiences see – especially when there is so much to see – but how they feel – quite literally.

Sab Budahazy, CEO and founder, ARworks, suggests two approaches for brands using VR. If you have good VR content, make an app using that content with two views, he says: (1) the full-screen or single view, so it can be viewed without a VR glass and can be uploaded to social and digital platforms; and (2) for events, activations and in-store solutions, ensure you use a high-tech VR device, such as the Gear or HTC Vive, which provides an exclusive VR experience.

Look at Jumeirah’s Wild Wadi campaign, for instance. “Any theme park or water park offers different types of experiences; just because you’ve been there once doesn’t mean you’ve experienced it all,” says Loay Nour, director of marketing and PR, Jumeirah.

In the UAE’s mall-driven culture – for residents and tourists alike – a water park experience isn’t top of mind. “It’s moved away from their consideration set,” adds Nitu Surendran, account director, OMD UAE. So, when the people you want in your water park are spending all of their time in the mall, what do you do? You take the water park experience to them. Jumeirah created a 3×3 stand mall activation with promoters wearing lifeguard vests to add to the intrigue. Stand visitors experienced the rides in Wild Wadi through a VR experience and were then incentivized to purchase a ticket. The promoters also gave away DIY VR glasses so users could revisit the experience through an app.

But large-scale mall activations may not be up everyone’s alley – or budget – which is where lower-cost options such as the Google Cardboard come in. Listerine distributed packages with the Cardboard at Carrefour supermarkets and invited influencers through Taskspotting to experience a 360-degree video.

The usual suspects for VR are entertainment, hospitality and gaming brands, but it could even work with an FMCG brand that wants to show something consumers don’t already know, says Rasha Rteil, head of innovation at UM Labs – the agency responsible for the Listerine campaign.

However, Budahazy warns: “With FMCG brands, it’s a different story. It’s not about the product itself, but the brand promise of showing the emotional functions of the product in the most immersive way possible.”

Even the automotive industry presents a huge opportunity for the adoption of VR – Infiniti has already launched a VR test drive for the launch of its Q60. Noah Khan, regional head of digital and innovation, TBWA\RAAD – one of Infiniti’s agency partners – says the team is now working on “three projects for other clients, including some hybrid custom builds.”

Before VR was popularized in the region by bigger, global brands, FrieslandCampina used the Oculus Rift for Rainbow Milk in what was touted as the first VR campaign in the UAE, back in 2014. In fact, this was the first project for local VR shop GigaWorks – which has also worked with OMD for the Wild Wadi project and with the likes of Hug Digital for Ski Dubai and Dubai Design District.

While VR experiences are gaining steam and everyone’s trying to create experiences, it’s worth remembering that these are still driven by content. “Any brand, any sector, any business, any field needs VR… VR only needs a story,” says Karim Saad, founder of Giga Works.

Jumeirah’s Nour describes a personal VR experience – or lack of one: it was basically a glorified 3D film, he says. How can you feel something if you’re given content in a tech format that doesn’t need you to use that tech? “The technology is there, but what content you put in it is really going to make a big difference,” he says.

A new currency

Content-driven experiences appear to be the new currency, but there’s no set way to measure their success. “I wouldn’t define special metrics for AR/VR campaigns,” says Budahazy. In most projects – as is the case with any communication activity – the objective defines the set of metrics.

“We are creating experiences that engage with our clients’ target audience to address multiple areas, including awareness, product knowledge and information, exercise product demonstrations, etc. Each one of these has a different set of measurements we agree on with our clients and track,” says Khan.

Similarly, it depends on the channel you’re using, but you’d typically look at traffic for mall activations and downloads, and time spent when using an app, says Rteil. Yet, Listerine’s mall activity with Google Cardboard led to a 26 percent increase in sales, among other digital metrics, such as 80 percent completed views of the total four million plus views.

Budahazy adds that, due to the unique features of AR and VR, one can look at certain other metrics, such as for how long certain parts of the VR environment were focused upon, what parts of the 3D AR model generated the most interaction, what colors were selected the most in the virtual showroom, and so on.

For Jumeirah, the objectives were ticket sales and footfall at Wild Wadi – which it over-achieved by 190 percent, resulting in a 15.6 percent increase in footfall in Q4 2015 versus the Q4 2014 and generating a revenue of AED327,940.

“It [VR] is a heavy cost, because it’s not something that’s completely used by everyone and it takes take time to build. So it does require quite a bit of investment,” says Surendran. This makes the ROI especially important; in Jumeirah’s case, this ROI came from a rather non-tangible area – the cascading of the tech and content into other areas.

“We got our sales team saying it was great because they were sick and tired of showing a brand video to clients on their iPad. Now, they can take their phone and use the Cardboard – especially for clients who are not based in Dubai,” adds Nour.

Saad concurs, listing the benefits: “Online user engagement;  the number of visitors when the experience is coupled with an onsite activation; and, the  conversion rate from visitor to buyer when there is a sale and purchase activity.”

However, Cheil MENA’s executive creative director, Omar Al Jabi, has a slightly different perspective. “It [VR] will have [brand] equity, but not a tactical or sales-related ROI,” he says. Since it’s still a novelty, people are simply keen to experience it and “our task is trying to offer them different experiences brought to you by a particular brand in order for you to have your first VR experience,” he adds.

A new social good

Is VR just one more means of encouraging materialism? “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy s**t we don’t need,” Tyler Durden famously quipped in Fight Club. With VR, advertising no longer holds the promise of a better you; it delivers on that promise…just not in the real world. But, as is the case with the best kind of advertising, every now and then, it surprises you.

As it turns out, one of the pioneers of present-day VR headsets, Oculus, is championing a movement called VR for Good. Currently, the program brings together filmmakers and non-profits and also encourages high school 360-filmmakers to use next-gen tech. “We want to match ten rising filmmakers with ten non-profits to tell their stories through VR. Selected filmmakers will have the opportunity to attend the Bootcamp and then create incredible 360 films and bring a variety of social missions to life. To help jumpstart the project, we’ll provide winners with opportunities to get resources, such as funding, tech, post production support and one-on-one mentorship with industry veterans,” says Oculus’ VR for Good website.

Taking this one step further – and this one’s quite a giant step – is the United Nations (UN) with a project that makes VR content accessible through the UNVR app, which is currently available for beta testing.

Keeping in mind the low adoption rates, the content is designed to be viewed through a high-end headset or the Cardboard, or just for 360 viewing through a regular smartphone.

There have been several other initiatives aimed at using VR for social good; most – if not all – centered around the idea of creating empathy, from treating PTSD to creating awareness about the dangers of texting when driving.

In the occasionally disreputable world of advertising, social good is the savior, giving birth to the notion of CSR – a space where brands, too, can jump onto the VR for Good bandwagon. Although not a CSR activity per se, Samsung does make use of VR for a good cause. As an extension of its internal corporate initiative “Launching People” – the idea that technology doesn’t mean much without people and hence is an enabler in people reaching their maximum potential – Samsung launched the global “Be Fearless” campaign, with the Gear VR at its core, in collaboration with Cheil Worldwide. Conceptualized at its Seoul HQ, the campaign aimed to help people cope with two main fears: public speaking and the fear of heights. “The idea is that fear is an illusion. Perhaps, if we can let you experience [that fear] in VR, it will break that particular barrier,” explains Cheil MENA’s Jabi.

With this in mind, a four-week course was created to overcome each fear. Participants had to achieve a certain score to get to the next level, following which they would be ready for the transition from virtual to real. The evaluation was based on several scientific and medically proven criteria, such as heart rate (measured with the Samsung Gear S smartwatch), eye movement and self-assessment of anxiety levels.

The campaign received nearly 7,500 applicants, of which 27 were selected. The course took place in Dubai, Germany and Russia, with the real-life finale held in Dubai with participants either zip-lining at Burj Khalifa or making a speech in a theater in front of an audience, which included participants from around the world. For Jabi, the results aren’t reflected in the numbers but in his personal experience of watching a participant go from not being able to approach the window in his 48th floor office to zip-lining thrice.

Using VR for such purposes is backed by research from Yonsei University Gangnam Severance Hospital in South Korea, which boasts a nearly 90 percent success rate in reducing participants’ anxiety about public speaking and heights through VR training programs. The “Be Fearless” campaign helped 87.5 percent of the group who are afraid of heights to reduce their anxiety level by 23.6 percent; 88.1 percent of those who fear public speaking managed to reduce their anxiety levels by 18.7 percent.

A new dimension

“The ultimate objective of these two technologies [AR and VR] would be for them to be combined as one – when you look at a certain room and some objects are real and others are virtual but they are seamlessly rendered,” says Jabi.

It sounds like the second episode, “Playtest”, of Black Mirror’s third season – but it isn’t that far from reality. In fact, the episode’s writer Charlie Brooker admits in an interview with Rolling Stone that he was thinking of the Microsoft HoloLens when he wrote the episode.

Microsoft’s silence on the AR and VR fronts until now is a smokescreen of sorts, as the company announced standalone VR headsets as late as this October. Behind this curtain lies the HoloLens, a product seamlessly integrating the real and the virtual. Using HoloLens technology, Microsoft and NASA have created a software called OnSight that allows scientists to work virtually on Mars using HoloLens and data from the Curiosity rover. It’s even open to the public, who can now take a virtual Mars tour with a holographic Buzz Aldrin as their guide.

Back in the advertising and marketing world, Microsoft has already partnered with businesses – many of them automotive – including Volvo, Audi, Volkswagen and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA).

Another name to watch out for in the mixed reality space is Magic Leap – often referred to as a super-secretive start-up and perhaps rightly so, given that the company has received a whopping $1.4 billion in funding till now – a number even more significant since it hasn’t even released a beta version of its product, as Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired points out in his article Hyper Vision. But the product does deliver, as is clear from Kelly’s description of his experience with the prototype. “I saw human-sized robots walk through the actual walls of the room. I could shoot them with power blasts from a prop gun I really held in my hands. I watched miniature humans wrestle each other on a real tabletop, almost like a Star Wars holographic chess game. These tiny people were obviously not real, despite their photographic realism, but they were really present – in a way that didn’t seem to reside in my eyes alone; I almost felt their presence,” he writes. “Seeing, it turns out, is not believing.”

While Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens are both quite literally leaping through technological boundaries – real and virtual – the thing with alternate realities – especially those projected by technology – is that, in the words of Aerosmith, “You have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk.”

 

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