Virtual Reality Marketing in the Age of COVID

The concept of virtual reality is nothing new. 

From the panoramic 360-degree paintings of the nineteenth century to early stereoscopes and viewmasters, the concept of making viewers feel like they’re a part of a manufactured or altered reality is certainly not a recent phenomenon. In the form of science fiction, the idea of “a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch” dates back as far as the 1930s with the publication of Stanley Weinbaum’s “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” and fictional exploration of virtual reality continued to advance in the form of Star Trek’s holodecks and The Matrix’s manufactured human reality, among many others.

While the widespread public availability of actual VR technology didn’t really take off until around 2016, it may come as a surprise to many that the technology for creating virtual experiences for human eyes and brains has been in active development since as early as the mid-1950s. In fact, the first head-mounted VR display came in 1960, with the Telesphere Mask, and it didn’t look that much different from the goggles that you’ll find people wearing today as they dodge and swipe at invisible attackers like futuristic lunatics.

Lately, of course, the technology behind VR and AR seems to have been progressing exponentially, as have the applications for which it can be put to use. 

In the last 3 or 4 years, VR has been used for everything from gaming to entertainment to virtual shopping to virtual tourism and beyond. With the technology advancing so quickly, virtual reality seemed poised at the end of 2019 to explode into the public consciousness and become as ubiquitous as smart phones. 

Then came a certain novel coronavirus.

With the advent of COVID-19, the real world suddenly became a much less accessible (not to mention more dangerous) place, and virtual reality has suddenly become a much more attractive, and effective, marketing device for businesses big and small encompassing a wide array of industries. 

The question, then, is should you be embracing VR for your marketing efforts, and if so, how?

But before we get too far into the weeds, what exactly is virtual reality? The concept is generally broken down these days into three related terms: 

  • Virtual reality (VR): This is the term we’re most familiar with, and though, as mentioned, the concept has been around forever, the actual term “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until 1987. Virtual reality is the generalized term for any type of experience that somehow places the user “in” another world or reality. It may be used in reference to entirely digital worlds, or worlds that incorporate a mix of real and virtual components.
  • Augmented reality (AR): This is a term for basically inserting content “into” a screen or projection of the real world by way of, for instance, the camera on your phone. If you’ve ever seen Pokémon Go players wandering aimlessly through your neighborhood staring intently into their screens, or used filters in Instagram or Snapchat, you’ve seen AR in action.
  • Mixed reality: Mixed reality is a combination of AR and VR in which real content and digital content coexist, and the virtual and real things interact with each other. Instead of just placing text or graphics into reality (as in AR), in MR the user is able to interact with and manipulate the inserted virtual items within the real world setting.

VR and the COVID-19 world

So you can see how, in a world where it’s suddenly unwise to actually go anywhere or interact with others, VR technologies might take on a greatly enhanced utility. Many industries are beginning to use it to give users a taste of “reality,” while also keeping everyone safe from the virus. Here are a few examples:

Real estate

All that sheltering in place has no doubt convinced many that the home they’re sheltering in is no longer enough for the needs of their quarantined family. They’d like to find someplace new, but how do they do that while still observing social distancing?

Companies like Chinese startup Beike are digitizing homes and harnessing VR to offer prospective buyers with virtual 3D tours while maintaining the ultimate in social distancing. The platform even allows customers to complete transactions and sign contracts completely online.

Retail

A wide variety of retail entities are making liberal use of AR to help consumers virtually “sample” their products in order to help them know what they’re getting before they buy. 

Furniture vendors like Wayfair and Ikea offer the capability, through their websites or apps, to place a piece of furniture virtually in your own home to see how it will fit with your existing decor.

The same technology is coming to the rescue of prospective buyers of everything from clothing to eyeglasses to makeup, giving shoppers a virtual fitting room in which to “try on” a variety of products before pulling out their credit cards and pulling the trigger on their socially distanced purchases.

Live events

With social distancing, not only did we have to abandon our favorite restaurants, nightclubs, and neighborhood bars, we were also locked out of the theatres, stadiums, and event centers. Television and Netflix and Zoom are all well and good, but they pale in comparison with actually being there in person.

Virtual reality has been slowly encroaching on the world of sports for a few years now, but with the advent of COVID, the time is ripe for bringing the live sports experience to the public in a VR environment that recreates the in-stadium experience. 

In fact, not only does VR make it possible for you to personally cheer on your favorite team, you can even invite friends and family to enjoy the same game along with you in the same virtual stadium.

Live theatre is also no stranger to VR performance experimentation, and it just makes sense that, as the current challenges continue, more opportunities to experience live entertainment will arise. 

VR can even recreate a virtual movie theater experience if you miss watching those latest blockbusters on the big screen.

Tourism

And, of course, with travel restrictions and ever-changing COVID hotspots to consider, tourism has become somewhat of a quaint, forgotten curio hiding quietly near the back of the shelves of reality.

From virtual museum tours to ancient ruins to vast, scenic mountainous vistas, VR is custom made for safely experiencing the wonders of world tourism in all its 360-degree glory without ever leaving your couch. 

What’s more, savvy tourism and travel companies are using VR experiences to keep customers aware of their offerings, and thinking about how they’ll spend their unused vacation dollars once the pandemic passes. 

Cost and benefits

Of course the cost of implementing VR or AR marketing applications can vary widely depending upon exactly the experience you’re hoping to create. 

Applications like virtual tours can be as simple as developing a mobile app that can be viewed via Google Cardboard. More complex, interactive experiences will require more sophisticated hardware and development. In general, the cost of VR app development can range from $40,000 to $200,000.

The benefits of embracing VR, however, (especially in this touchless reality we’re currently experiencing) can be well worth the cost. Just a few important VR benefits include:

  • Greatly increased brand recognition and user engagement
  • A significant emotional effect on customers
  • Increased coverage by media enamored of the unusual experience created by VR
  • Viral marketing started by the early adopters
  • Positioning of your brand as an advanced, technology-oriented company

Any way you slice it, VR is here to stay, and its applications are only going to grow over time. If there was ever a time to explore its benefits, that time is now.

ABOUT SHAMA HYDER

She is the founder & CEO of Zen Media. She has been named the “Zen Master of Marketing” by Entrepreneur Magazine and the “Millennial Master of the Universe” by FastCompany.com. Forbes, Businessweek, and Inc have all recognized her as one of the Top 30 under 30 entrepreneurs in the field of marketing. Shama has built a global audience and is known for helping brands succeed in the digital age. She is a bestselling author, an international keynote speaker, and has been named one of LinkedIn’s Top 10 Voices in Marketing for four years in a row.

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