Kapitel 03 / VIRTUAL REALITY & REALE GEFÜHLE
Virtual reality is the next big thing. How do we use this new promising media? And how can VR help us to create great adver- tising that allows people to engage with brands? Innovation expert Per Juul Poulsen takes us on a fascinating tour through a brand new world of unlimited possibilities.
AUTHOR // PER JUUL POULSEN,
INNOVATION DIRECTOR, SERVICEPLAN GROUP
“One of the many things that gives you the tip-top feeling that you’re on top of the world is the pleasure of being well dressed. Perfect taste is a criterion and, in hats, there’s nothing smarter than an Adam. From stern to stern, your Adam hat gives off that look of quality. You see quality in the carefully moulded shape and in the richness of the genuine all-fur felt and in the subtle colour shade. Next time you pass an Adam hat store or authorised dealer, drop in and try on an Adam. Once you see and wear an Adam hat, you’ll agree that today, as before, Adam is one of America’s outstanding hat values. Now, on with the programme!”
About a minute’s worth of text read out loud on national television. Live and with- out a single cut, the image on TV screens across America simply showed the announcer reading it out. This was the first live TV commercial and it didn’t cost Adam Hats a cent. But at least the announcer, Ray Forrest, got to keep the hat.
In 1941 TV was at the dawning of a new age. It was exciting and we completely mis-understood the power of the medium. TV ads, when used right, can create worlds. They turn fantasy into reality. They make every-thing seem so real, like we can almost reach out and touch it. And they become part of our dreams. But when we first started in TV, we tried to work with what we knew. We knew how radio worked and TV was broadcast the same way so we treated the images we sent through the air just like radio.
TV ads quickly learned to use the new format better. Advertisers started telling small stories using not only the sound, but also the image to convey their message. But the storytelling and image techniques had all been picked up from more than 40 years of film creation. Simply applying these lessons to a smaller screen was not actually that hard.
The internet has been around since the early 90s. But despite this, most online ad- vertising consists of banners, pop-ups and short advertising films. Where TV brought us moving images, the internet brought us some-thing new: context and interaction. Some contextual advertising has snuck in, in the shape of sponsored search results, location- based advertising and cookie-based solutions, but it is far from what it could be. We hu- mans are just not that good at thinking outside the box. Nature tried to help by giving us the ability to recognise patterns, which is why we try to make new ideas fit the old boxes.
So my question is: what happens when we encounter a completely new medium?
Let’s explore virtual reality as a case in point.
VR is currently on everyone’s lips, although in most cases it’s actually 360º videos they are talking about. This differentiation might not seem important – until you try it out yourself! 360º video is recorded with a special camera system. You can mount it on a tripod and make a fixed recording, or strap it to something (a car, a plane, a helmet or your selfie stick) and move it around. If you make a recording from a tripod, that is what you see when you later put on your headset and play the movie. You can look around, but you cannot move or interact with your surroundings.
If the camera is moving, so will you. Well, so will your point of view. Your body is still sitting in your office chair while your eyes are telling you that you are base jumping off a cliff with a parachute strapped to your back, somewhere in the south of France. Quite often this creates a certain discomfort, as your brain is trying to assimilate the weird contradictory signals to your body: your sense of balance, ruled by the cochlea in your inner ear and the visuals your eyes are receiving.
VR on the other hand is not recorded. It is built. A fully explorable, interactive world that you can move around in by, well, moving around. External sensors track your movement and translate it into the exact same movement in the virtual world. You are limited only by the imagination of the programmer and your own emo- tions. The programmer creates the framework and boundaries of the virtual world and the storytelling and interaction he or she wants to communicate. In the mean- time, your emotions limit you in a very basic way. When the edge of a virtual cliff materialises right in front of you, your reflexes take over and you step back to safety.
So how do we use this new medium? How do we leverage the new possibilities that it offers? How do we create great advertising that allows people to engage with brands?
What’s new about VR is a mix of two things: inter- action and complete immersion. We all know 3D from the big shiny stickers on our new and improved flat screen TVs at home. But whereas 3D on TVs is just an effect allowing us to perceive depth in the images shown on the screen, immersive 3D in VR allows us to break the fourth wall and become part of the story, being able to not only perceive depth but to utilise and explore it. This goes way beyond new angles or bonus material. It’s no longer the sole privilege of famous Hollywood stars to venture to Mars in sci-fi movies – we can go there our- selves now too.
We’re familiar with interaction from the internet, but what’s new here is that it’s all around you. No mouse clicking, no browser tabs, no desktop. Stop looking for a box to check – start exploring! Instead of following the plot, we get to create it ourselves. We can finally become Columbo and investigate the daring feats of a career criminal or switch sides and explore the cat burglar business for ourselves – without having to ex- plain anything to recently bereaved wives or the long arm of the law.
To be able to dive into a three-dimensional digital world and explore it means we have to merge all the knowledge collected with digital tools over the last 50 years with all we have learned about the physical world in our own personal lifetime. The creators of virtual worlds have to know how to leverage all of this into one experience. Deciding in each instance if they want to lose, keep or enhance any one of these factors and only then can they add the overall storytelling or experience. A good VR experience merges the known physical, known digital and the magical into one. Does the user know how to use a hammer? Do they know how to click a button? Can I teach them how to per- form open-heart surgery on an alien in a weightless environment?
To come up with and engineer an interactive world is no mean feat and there is still a lot to explore. The tools we know from the digital world can only help us to a certain extent in VR. If you can’t see your hands, it’s hard to use a touch-based solution. If you have no mouse, then how do we know what you want to do? Most solutions today make do with virtual controllers that mimic the physical ones which come with the headset. But many ways of interacting have to be reinvented. Social sciences, psycholo- gy and live data analysis will find many new ways to improve VR in the near future.
Live data analysis opens up new worlds. Specifically, for the people who create the interactions. Never before have we been able to track the specific actions and reactions to our content from physical users with such digital precision. A VR system tracks the orientation and movement of the user’s head and hands with submillimetre accuracy more than 60 times every second. This allows us to learn how reactions look and how we best provoke them. We can even hard code our own IF/THEN conditions into the experience. This creates interaction at a completely different level than the ‘waiting for interaction’ options we have on the internet. If the banner ad isn’t clicked, what is it
worth? In VR, we can allow the users to explore the ground for as long as they want, but IF they look to the sky for more than a second, THEN we let our giant lizard ap- pear wearing a helmet with our logo. Maybe this will in- creasingly become our input.
All of this is a reality and here already. At Serviceplan we have had headsets in our offices from both the two lead- ing contenders for the virtual reality market, HTC and Oculus, since last June. We have been testing out the limits, both technical and emotional. We have been experimenting in cooperation with different partners and productions. We have been helping both employees and clients to under- stand the possibilities, opportunities and dangers in both 360º video and true virtual reality. Today, anyone can order a VR headset online and start exploring new worlds.
However, before you place your order and get going, keep in mind that at the time of going to print, on top of your €700 VR headset you will need a €2000 computer to take care of the processing of all the data. You will also need at least 2 x 2 metres of free floor space in your home to be able to move around in the virtual worlds. The amount of floor space needed could be tweaked with clever unidirectional walkways that, no matter which direction you go, always keep you centred. The price of the headsets
is forecast to level out at the magic price of $100 as soon as 2018. Who knows, maybe we’ll all have a fully functional VR experience on our mobile phones by 2020. Then again, do we need real mobile phones if we can have virtual ones?
VR will offer us numerous incredible and truly awesome possibilities. What exactly they will be is incredibly hard to predict. No one would have bet money on Facebook 20 years ago. Uber and Airbnb have taken strong business models to the max. And Blockbuster surely didn’t see Netflix coming. VR opens up for a whole new generation of disruption. Do we need plane tickets if we can meet in VR? Why buy a new TV if you can just load a new one into your headset? When the headsets become small and cheap enough to wear all the time, why bother with designer furniture at all? Or colours on the wall? VR is going to revolutionise what we do and what we are.
Smartphones completely changed the way we interact with the world and we can hardly remember what life was like before them. And just as the smartphone started out as an accessory and developed into a platform for our entire life, so will VR headsets. But contrary to smartphones, the VR headset is not limited to a small square. Its reach has no bounds. And we’re talking about a timeline of just a few years here.
At first, additional content will be the best way to ease into virtual reality. Advertis- ing will open up new markets with experiences supporting other products. Create a great blockbuster movie and use the 3D material from the green screen post-production to offer people the experience of the main cast. Offer low-orbit space travel to private customers for a high price, while allowing every-body else to get a taste of it through on-board cameras. Write a bestseller, then offer readers the chance to share the world you created on a crowd-supported VR website. VR and advertising will be a great way of selling dreams and dropping people right in the middle of their fantasies, instead of just showing them on a screen.
At the same time, original VR content will grow stronger. It is mostly gaming con- tent or small disconnected experiences that are on the market today. But content cre- ators will keep improving on how to utilise the full power of this new medium. Stringing the experiences together or bundling them in bigger ‘platform’ worlds, allowing you to sample smaller parts, are temporary solutions. So far we still need our 2D interface com- puters and websites to access the 3D VR worlds.
Storytelling is still a big challenge. In film we tell stories through narration, cuts and changing dynamics, story and plot, camera position and framing, interiors, movement, light, music, choice of wardrobe and many other factors. And this is only the technical framework. The actual telling of the story is created by a screenwriter and the directing of actors. Actors bring the characters to life, create their own small worlds and make these worlds collide. A good movie creates emotions through conflict, suspense and sur- prise. The job of a director is to make all these instances fit together and create an or- chestra-tion that makes our hearts sing.
In VR the camera is you. If we move the framing, it feels like you lose control of your eyes. If we move the camera, you lose control of your body. If we cut, you lose your focus. If we fade to black, you lose conscience. You are the main character, but we can’t prompt you with specific directions without breaking the illusion. The supporting actors (if we need any) can talk to you, but you cannot reply. Let’s just say that there is still work to be done before we figure out how storytelling can and will function in vir- tual reality.
If I had to describe VR as a medium, I would say it’s like a portal. An open invita- tion to try out everything you ever wanted to do. It’s a place where you, I and any brand can escape our earthly shackles and break free. Become what we want, could or don’t dare to be. It is a new place where “We tried that, it doesn’t work” has no meaning. And it is a place of immersion, exploration and play. 360º video is a great gateway drug and we are excited to see how much attention and interaction it keeps generating as we be- come better at focusing the storytelling and crafting the technical production.
The most important message to brands should be not to panic. VR is a promising medium but even though people have been talking about it for years, those who start now will still be the true pioneers. Use the time to figure out what your brand could or should do in VR. Rethink how you communicate and with whom. Start small and stay focused. You don’t always need a grand arch-way for your customers to pass through. You just need to offer them the opportunity to dream. And no matter how big a part your brand will be playing in that dream, we, your customers, will greatly appreciate your offer.