Virtual reality: All hype and no substance?

This is a viewpoint from Chris Elson, client development manager at Diverse Interactive.

Walking around the halls of World Travel Market London last November, one thing became crystal clear. Print, for destination marketing is alive and well. Acres upon acres upon acres of chopped down rain forest covered the myriad of tables, desks and stands as each and every country, city, town, and attraction on display did their best to attract attention from passers-by.

I’ll admit it, I was shocked. In fact more than shocked, I felt let down. Let down because 2016 promised big things for the year ahead with regards to how virtual reality was going to revolutionize the travel market. Yet there we were rounding off 2017 at the biggest destination event on the planet and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stepped back in time to a pre-digital era.

But…where is the VR?

“Oh VR was last year” I was reliably informed. Shaken, because I didn’t realise that virtual reality was a passing fad, especially in the knowledge that certainly in the UK, holiday and tour operators are looking towards VR as a complete print replacement over the next three years. I needed to take a seat and reflect on what I had just heard. I wanted to understand why, at such a world class event virtual reality had, it seems been written off as a non-starter by every destination marketing company.

 It even made me question; could Mark Zuckerberg be wrong in his summation that “virtual reality provides you with a feeling of presence, a feeling that you’re really “there”, in another place” as one would have thought that virtual reality is to destination promotion, what search marketing is to a website. The perfect compliment.

 I’ve been in the digital space for longer than I care to remember. I’ve weathered the digital storm and wear the battle scars of the mobile revolution with pride, so to see again people dropping new technology like a hot potato comes as no surprise, especially given the PR job the VR industry span on the world over the past 24 months.

Predictions of it being a mega-zillion dollar industry, with trillions of people around the world plugging in to VR headsets to escape the real world sadly didn’t materialize to the extent everyone had hoped for. In fact this year as a whole, the VR industry only hit 65% of its predicted revenue for 2017.

 So is it all hype and no substance? Well, in short no. In fact, far from it. Given that consumer orientated virtual reality is but 18 months old, all should be forgiven because it’s us that actually has the problem. Digital technology has made us impatient. Digital technology has made us irritable. Digital anything in fact has significantly reduced our tolerance for what we consider to be “acceptable” in terms of user experience.

Virtual reality promised the world, but along the way it got misunderstood. People thought that virtual reality technology alone was going to save the day with regards to engagement by reinvigorating lost connections with customers and make brands stand out in the increasingly commoditised attention economy, where it is difficult to get noticed.  And it did, for a short period of time. The VR headset experience was a technological wonder to behold and it was enough to get the conversation started. Brands were happy, consumers were happy. Everyone was happy.

So…what happened?

The novelty soon wore off and consumers demanded more. Brands were left wondering what to do as they had jumped into the deep end of a new digital content pool full of well-established VR content swimmers (the gamers), with the equivalent of an inflatable pink flamingo under their arm (in the form of 360° content).

Embarrassed by what they had to offer they got out and left, blaming VR in the process as “not working”. Sort of like blaming the water for being too wet.

However let’s not confuse “not working” with “not understanding” because for many, creating a VR experience appeared to be as simple as shooting some 360° content. Well not quite. Virtual reality opens the door to a whole new world of user experience and content narrative. Enter unprepared and you’ll find out pretty quickly that the rules of traditional 2D digital content production no longer apply. What’s more, deliver a less than awe inspiring content experience via VR headset to a now incredibly experienced, digital content savvy audience and you’ll lose their interest quicker than you can say Oculus Rift.

 As the experienced digital content consumers that we are, we demand rich and interactive, personalized content experiences. Close is enough is not good enough, and here lies the problem. If we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years is that above all else content is king.

Whatever the delivery device; mobile, tablet, laptop or VR headset it’s the quality of content that matters the most with regards to successfully engaging with an audience to the point that they choose you over the rest.

VR virtual reality

Facebook Spaces

The future of VR

So what does this mean for VR moving forward because let’s face it, VR is not going to go away. Much like the internet will not be switched off, it’s here to stay and is only going to get stronger and even more influential – Zuckerberg himself wants one billion of us interacting in Facebook’s own VR world, Spaces. Have you heard about it? You really should check it out.

Any virtual reality experience (360° or otherwise) if done properly can become a very persuasive channel of communication. It has the power to completely captivate an audience and deliver an immersive experience that takes any narrative to the next level in entirely new and novel ways. As customer attention gets shorter, VR offers a quality level of sustained engagement that people remember (try getting that from a printed flyer).

 Now for all that’s been said and done, there are a few exceptions to the majority, with a few big players in the travel industry already investing in VR content experiences; Kuoni and Tui for example as part of their high-street experiences, Eurostar with their VR “Odyssey” under water adventure. KLM Airlines taking things a step further by using VR to train their cabin crew. Even American Airlines (back in 2014) used VR as part of the “Explore the new American campaign”.

 So let’s not point the finger at the technology / the hardware too much any more. Let’s instead open our arms and welcome virtual reality as the digital content tool its designed to be. Let’s educate and learn about the opportunities and possibilities virtual reality presents. Let’s embrace the content challenge for all that it’s worth and stop sidelining VR as a non-starter before it’s even been given a chance to shine because according to the Digital Consumer Survey commissioned by Accenture, a whopping 67% of the 21,000 people survey across 19 countries say they would be interested in using virtual reality to learn more about a place they are wanting to visit.

 Let’s keep an eye out for those that take note, and what WTM 2018 looks like. I for one have high hopes!

This is a viewpoint from Chris Elson, client development manager at Diverse Interactive. Opinions and views expressed by all guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of tnooz, its writers, or its partners.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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