For something often hailed as a disruptive, game-changing innovation – or buzzwords to that effect – virtual reality (VR) has a surprisingly long history. The concept has existed in some form or another for over half a century, and since then, several abortive attempts to bring it to fruition have been made: from the Sensorama to Nintendo’s legendarily bad Virtual Boy.
Today, however, the promise of VR has been partially realised. We aren’t yet living parallel lives in computer simulations – thankfully – but it’s not just for training pilots and astronauts anymore: it’s become a viable tool for communication and storytelling. As inexpensive, smartphone-based solutions such as Google Cardboard complement the high-end, full-feature offering of Sulon Q or Oculus Rift, VR grows in popularity every day: a recent Deloitte survey predicts that, by 2020, the global market may be worth around $30 billion.
As a video agency, we can speak to this from experience. We’re a video production company that offers pretty much everything – live-action, animation, event filming, explainers, HD, Ultra HD, TV ads, training guides – but the most common requests we’ve received lately are for 360 video and virtual reality projects. Marketers know how effective the form can be for prospect engagement – even if they don’t yet know what it is, or how to get it right.
If you’re one of these marketers, well, here’s what it is – and how to get it right!
What is VR?
VR hasn’t always had the best reputation. In The Matrix, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In The Lawnmower Man, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In Tron, it was the means by which an evil cybernetic machine god rose to power. In Neuromancer, it was the means by which…well, you know. Sci-fi writers love to beat a dead sandworm.
Anyway, the reality is less terrifying.
At its simplest, VR allows the user to experience three-dimensional images – sometimes with a headset, but not always. These headsets use a visual feed that can come from a smartphone, a computer, or from within the device itself, but they all employ special lenses to create an interactive 3D experience from a varying number of 2D images. At present, the emphasis is on visual simulation and motion tracking – though headphones are often recommended, and limited progress has been made with other senses. The basic mechanics involve manipulating a viewer’s perspective of computer generated images or pre-recorded video content. It’s less about AI than it is about creating a convincing illusion.
All of which is to say that evil cybernetic machine gods are very unlikely – for now.
VR and 360 video
Before moving on, it’s necessary to clear up the difference between VR and 360 video. VR typically takes place in a digital environment, visible from all angles, in which the user can manipulate objects and – occasionally – move around in. 360 video is always live-action, and while the goal is still to immerse the reader in their virtual surroundings, the user experience is not fully interactive, and is largely dictated by the director’s camera movements.
Throughout this post, we will use ‘VR’ to refer to both formats: for one thing, everyone else does, from Netflix to The New York Times; for another, the only people who really care about the distinction are video nerds like us and tech bloggers.
How can marketers use VR?
A 2015 study found that 81% of consumers would tell their friends about their VR experience, and that 79% would seek out additional experiences. It’s particularly appealing to younger demographics, and this enthusiasm is translating into wider uptake: the HTC Vive sold 25,000-35,000 units in its first month on sale, and worldwide VR hardware sales are expected to exceed 9.6 million devices – and $2 billion in profits – by the end of 2016.
The addressable market is getting bigger and bigger, but as a new medium, knowing how to actually address it can be difficult.
VR can be used for aesthetic purposes, it can be used for narrative purposes, it can be used for all manner of different things – but it’s primarily an experiential medium, so the overarching goal is always immersion. If you can move your head, your eyes, and, for the higher-end stuff like the HTC Vive, your body around and maintain a realistic field of vision in a realistic environment, then it’s working. If it stutters, if it suffers from poor image quality, or if anything else obnoxiously reminds you that you’re in a simulation, it’s not working as intended.
VR can never be natural, exactly, but it can be naturalistic. As a marketer, you want to create a seamless, memorable, low-latency experience – something that feels real, even though it isn’t. You also want to make sure it’s an experience that’s worth having. A tour of your premises probably won’t qualify unless you have amazing, Googlesque offices with beanbag forts, slides, and candy floss stands – or if there’s clear utility to it and appetite for it.
A VR project is more time-consuming, more expensive, and generally just more than a standard video project, so before signing any contract, ask yourself two questions:
- Can the user conveniently experience this in the flesh?
- Would it be interesting if they could?
Consider the case of Charity: Water, a company which used headsets to simulate the experience of an Ethiopian girl struggling to secure basic necessities for her family. At one benefit, it raised over $2.4 million. Some viewers reportedly took off their headsets with tears in their eyes. VR can be used to stoke empathy, provoke emotional responses, and compel them to take action.
The only limits are your ambition and your budget.
VR in real life
There are as many scenarios as you can conceive. With VR, you can provide experiences too costly or impractical for real life to a growing customer base: you can immerse them in your world without bringing them to your specific location.
As you can see from this long – and non-exhaustive – list, what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you do it.
VR can be used for:
- International education
- Online shopping
- Financial services
- Space travel
- Fine arts
- Crime scene investigation
- Cage fights
Making the virtual, reality
Your average VR project requires a lot of complicated equipment, a number of complicated steps, and a co-ordinated, heroic team effort.
In the distant future – and we’re talking ‘silver jumpsuits, flying cars, robot butlers’ distant – you may well be able to make self-shot 360 VR films on your smartphone in seconds. For the moment, however, this is what it involves.
Securing a 360 camera rig (for 360 VR)
As with VR headsets, there are inexpensive models with fewer features, and more sophisticated, costly, full-feature models for serious enthusiasts. The Samsung Gear 360 is one of many options at the entry end of the scale: consisting of two cameras with a 180-degree view – essentially, a couple of hemispheres joined by an equator. It retails at around £350.
At the more expensive end of the scale, there’s the 8K, waterproof, six-camera GoPro Omni. When you absolutely, positively have to film everything in the room – at the highest possible resolution, and with minimal stretching – accept no substitutes. This rig retails at around £3,500.
Picking the perspective
There are two kinds of VR filming: monoscopic and stereoscopic. Monoscopic filming involves splicing images together so that both eyes see the same 360 picture. Stereoscopic maps two cameras to each field of view, simulating human eyesight and depth perception to a greater extent. It’s far trickier than monoscopic filming, and far more expensive – so it’s probably not necessary for your virtual office tour. You can convert a monoscopic video to stereoscopic, but you can’t do the reverse.
If you want movement in your video, you’ll need additional equipment such as drones and dollies.
Coordinating the crew
Again, immersion is king. When your film crew looks like a film crew, it tends to break suspension of disbelief. The director has two choices: find some way for them to blend in – on the set of the most recent Star Wars movie, which used 360 cameras, they had staff wearing costumes – or hide them behind a newspaper or something.
Within a certain distance of every camera rig is a ‘danger zone’ of around 1.5 metres. If you film anything within this area, you better call Kenny Loggins – because you’re in the danger zone. If a face is filmed over the stitchline – the break between the images – it’s apt to look monstrous and grotesque.
The VR director endeavours to immerse their target audience in a specific environment, and that environment is probably not the end of a David Cronenberg movie. It’s vital to make sure all stitchlines are as far away from focal points as possible, and that the danger zone is clear of any people or objects that might get distorted.
Organising the final edit
It’s commonly believed (albeit mostly by editors) that productions are found in the editing room. This is especially true of 360 VR productions. Merging the aforementioned ‘stitch lines’ can take a week at the very least, and the more cameras in use, the more complicated it becomes.
It’s also necessary to edit out the tripod. You can do this skilfully by superimposing a reference photo over the offending area, or crudely and clumsily by superimposing your company logo – or some other convenient graphical distraction.
A 360 VR production still involves every step of a normal production process – arranging schedules, scripting, securing permits, co-ordinating creative talent, hiring extras, etc. etc. – but now it has to be done alongside all this other stuff.
Preparing your VR project brief:
Here are the questions you should ask when you brief your virtual reality agency:
- Who is the target audience?
- What do you want them to do once they have watched the video?
- How will they be watching the video? Headset? Screen? Mobile?
- What’s your budget?
- Do you want to factor the crew into your video or do you want to blend it?
- What’s your timescale?
Virtual fatalities: classic VR mistakes
VR is more complex than traditional live-action filming or animation, and there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong – more ‘frustrating and logistically difficult’ wrong than ‘evil cybernetic machine god’ wrong, but wrong enough to be annoying. Here are a few classic mistakes.
We’ll say it again (this time with feeling): VR is complicated. With six cameras, however many crew members, however many more extras, myriad stitching issues, and more to contend with, the likelihood of everything happening in the smallest possible amount of time is negligible.
Assume that absolutely everything will go wrong, and leave enough room to account for it.
Spending too much – or too little.
Your VR project doesn’t have to eat up your entire marketing budget, but you shouldn’t cut financial corners. Whenever something exciting and new gains serious popularity, there is always some chancer or other offering it at a bargain-basement price – but with ultra-low rates invariably comes ultra-low quality.
Don’t pay through the nose if you don’t have to: VR can be done well at a reasonable price. It just can’t be done well for pennies and pocket lint.
Disregarding your audience’s requirements.
The user base is larger than ever and growing, but statistically speaking, most people don’t have headsets.
If your experience is something you intend to offer at your office, or at specific events, this won’t be as much of a problem. If you’re working from the assumption that your viewer will have an Oculus Rift, you may be disappointed.
For home VR, the best thing you can do is make sure your VR experience is available on as many platforms and in as many forms as possible: from Google Cardboard to YouTube to Sulon Q.
Getting the voice over and sound design wrong.
VR and sound design have an uneasy relationship.
For one thing, cameras tend to focus on visuals at the expense of audio quality: you can hire special recorders for 360-degree sound, but this will be an additional expense. For another, static video voiceover and 360-degree voiceover are very different animals – if the actor is talking about something on the left, the user needs to be directed to the left by the narration.
Account for both of these possibilities in your budget and your schedule.
Ordinarily, it’s okay for clients to be on-location during the production of a video. But VR filming isn’t ordinary. Again, these cameras are supposed to record everything, so if you’re in the background making phone calls, staring at the camera, or making that wacky face, it’ll get picked up.
No producer wants to hide you in a bush. Don’t make them hide you in a bush.
Working with the wrong team.
Again, VR requires co-ordination and serious effort: the slightest error during filming can cause untold chaos later on down the line. The idea is to create an immersive experience that is at once clearly removed from reality, and as indistinguishable from reality as possible.
But the thing about reality is that it’s made up of little details. Our brains are hardwired to tell when something’s a little…off or out of sync. Remember: Nintendo’s early, brave, but ultimately botched attempt at VR had people literally throwing up.
Not making your prospects violently ill is the golden rule of marketing, and VR gives you plenty of opportunity to break it. If you want to win hearts, minds, stomachs, and oesophagi, hire a professional production team.
Want to commission your first VR project? Unsure if VR is right for you? Our MD Jamie Field is happy to discuss your requirements – get in touch.