According to Road to VR CEO Ben Lang, we’re only 5–10 years from virtual reality systems reaching ownership levels of gaming systems like Xbox and Playstation. Recent advances in haptic technology, reductions in system prices, and the fact that there are more than 10 million owners of VR devices in the United States have accompanied a rising buzz, says Lang, and we talked a little bit about how marketers can monetize virtual reality in the future (and whether or not they should).
One of the more obvious applications for virtual reality as a sales tool would be to serve as an arm of the travel and real estate industries. Rather than spending time-consuming trips to various properties, hotel rooms, cruises, and other similar commodities, prospective buyers and travelers could visit a travel or real estate agency, give the representative a list of ‘must-haves,’ and then use virtual reality to visit potential properties.
The initial investment that an office or agent would have to pay for a system has come down to little more than a traditional game system, and Ben estimates that the programming costs for individual offerings will fall below a critical profitability level soon.
Another promising outlet for VR monetization is the fashion industry, which is a leading innovator in the use technology for advanced sales and marketing tactics. Bfw’s own clients are employing RFID technology and the ‘Internet of Things’ to astounding levels of integration, such that a customer in the changing room can maintain a constant dialogue with the store’s employees and, seemingly, the boutique itself.
While the Internet of Things is a popular way for high-end outlets to cater to customers, VR could bring unprecedented buying power to the fashion retail masses. It would not be too much of a stretch to design an app where an owner of a mobile VR device inputs his or her bodily measurements into an app to see how an outfit looks, possibly even using body-scanning technology to see precisely how the clothes fit!
Though this strategy would require a nearly saturated market of VR users before the investment is worth the return, such a scenario might not be that far off. It has been less than ten years since the first iPhone was released, and mobile Internet use now surpasses desktop browsing largely because of apps like those that are already used by mobile VR owners.
Another use for VR that should not be overlooked concerns spectatorship of concerts and sporting events. Sports packages specifically for virtual reality could provide fans with the opportunity to have a front-row seat for every game, perhaps even closer than that; one could view the game or concert from the field or stage itself with his or her own VR headset. The country’s biggest sporting leagues—NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL—are all experimenting with virtual reality broadcasting. Major League Baseball recently partnered with Intel to stream live games in virtual reality.
Traditional advertising in scenarios, however, may not be the best idea. Studies like this one by Millward Brown in 2015 state that the less control users have over their exposure to advertising, the more negative their attitude towards the advertising.
Preroll YouTube ads are a salient example of this sort of backlash: at least 94% of users skip the ad during the first five seconds, and if an ad is un-skippable, then many claim to forego sitting through the ad altogether and leave. YouTube announced recently that 30-second pre-roll ads are being removed starting in 2018. Considering VR’s uniquely immersive capabilities, an advertiser can’t get much more intrusive than assuming control of an audience member’s senses during a time of leisure.
Great advertising is risky, but not foolish. One possible way to reduce a brand’s risk is to offer VR content through other advertising channels. For example, a TV spot might include a call to action in which a VR app allows one to try on three outfits for free, or being allowed watch a pre-season sports match with the viewer’s own headset as a trial. Virtual reality might be an effective way to increase conversion rates of those who have seen an ad and who are interested, but unwilling to take the necessary action to show up at the store.
If there is one thing I can be sure of, it is that virtual reality will have much more marketing utility than traditional video game consoles—there are many applications for a technology that transplants a person’s cognitive presence to another location, and many products that can benefit from that sort of exposure. It is the opinion of Ben and myself that, in the near term, the investment required to establish virtual reality in a marketing channel will be high enough that only people looking to make a big purchase will be spending enough money to make it worthwhile. Who knows, though—digital technology always seems to produce surprising outcomes. I encourage you to follow Road to VR to maintain an overview of the rapidly evolving landscape of VR technology, as I have been doing since 2011, but be warned—it will be hard to not want your own system when you see the passion behind their articles.