Seeing is believing:  Advertising agencies and film companies report growing demand from clients for VR projects. The technology is expected to take a few years to enter the mainstream market. Picture: REUTERS
Seeing is believing: Advertising agencies and film companies report growing demand from clients for VR projects. The technology is expected to take a few years to enter the mainstream market. Picture: REUTERS

Is virtual reality the next big thing in marketing and advertising or are its advocates due for a painful dose of true reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is the computer- and camera- generated creation of a seemingly real, three-dimensional experience using electronic equipment, such as a helmet or goggles containing a screen. In some instances, for example by using gloves with sensors, it’s possible to manipulate objects and perform actions in this simulated world.

What started out as a fun activity is now making its way into business, as firms explore its use in marketing. In SA, advertising agencies and film companies report growing demand from clients for VR projects. Among them, Mercedes-Benz customers can experience being driven around the Kyalami racetrack at high speed by Formula One ace Lewis Hamilton. It’s one of four VR films created for the company by the Net#work BBDO advertising agency and Sinister Studios film company.

Late in 2016, Lufthansa’s South African office used Artifact Advertising to develop a programme that allows local travel agents to experience destinations serviced by the German airline’s network. Lufthansa plans to extend the experience to customers soon.

And Velvet Films, in collaboration with the iKineo agency, has produced VR work for Telkom, aimed initially at corporate customers.

People involved in these campaigns speak confidently of a bright marketing future for the technology. iKineo director Manfred Noriskin-Ender says that VR is in its infancy but as clients and consumers become more comfortable, it will become an integral part of marketing communications.

Not everyone is convinced. A report by the US Interactive Advertising Bureau sums up the extreme views, with some people talking of substantial growth potential in VR advertising, but others saying the technology will always be niche.

US business consultancy Forrester Research made its thoughts clear in the title of a 2016 report Virtual Reality Isn’t Ready for Marketing Yet. It forecasts a wait of at least five years before there is "critical-mass consumer-adoption of high-end VR headsets".

That’s the US. Add a few more years for SA.

However, the report does predict that, during those five years, plain 360° video will flourish on lower-end VR devices. YouTube is helping to lead this trend, with a dedicated channel for the technology.

VR should not be confused with other forms of techno reality. The "real" VR environment is immersive and changes as you move through and interact with it. "Your brain really believes you are there," says Noriskin-Ender.

There’s also augmented reality, in which computer-generated objects are overlaid on real scenes. An example was the smartphone-based Pokémon Go phenomenon in 2016. And then there’s mixed reality, often described as a combination of augmented and 3D. It’s worth pointing out that 3D filming was touted as the future a few years ago but, besides commercial cinema movies, has mostly proved a dud.

The Forrester report suggests the US will be home to at least 52-million head-mounted VR devices by 2020. Most of those will be low-end.

It is these devices, often made of cardboard, that are expected to also fuel VR marketing growth in SA. The most common brand, Google Cardboard, is available for
under R200.

Not all brands or products are necessarily suited to VR, says Net#work BBDO creative head Brad Reilly. "It works best in sectors where the full experience of the product is beyond most people’s reach."

Sport, travel and tourism are obvious candidates, as are vehicles. Besides Mercedes, Toyota SA in 2016 used VR to put enthusiasts through an offroad experience in the Hilux bakkie.

Property is another option.

"A lot of top-end Cape Town residential property is being bought from abroad," says Reilly. "Short of coming here to see everything, what better way to show them what’s available, and help narrow down the choice, than by taking them on a VR tour of possible houses."

Gamification — using VR to enhance branded game-playing on computer screens and digital devices — is another obvious target. And what about retail? With the right technology combinations, it is possible to browse the aisles of your favourite supermarket or fashion store, to take the guesswork out of online shopping.

"In principle," says Noriskin-Ender, "the only limits to VR are your imagination and budget."

Film-makers say VR production processes are different. Visual effects studio Sinister’s Christian van der Walt says: "Film-making is more technical, very process-intensive. It requires a lot more effort."

However, Velvet Films’ Jannine Nolan says: "Technically, it’s not too complicated. At the heart is a piece of equipment carrying multiple cameras, in our case eight, to provide the all-round, 360-degree effect."

One of the challenges, says Artifact’s Brent Simpson, is that you can no longer have someone filming behind the camera. The 360-degree element means no one can be nearby in case they are in the shot. Reshoots are a no-no.

"In ordinary filming, you reshoot and edit in the changes. You can’t do that in VR. You need a seamless, interruption-free flow," Simpson says.

For the Mercedes project, Van der Walt says his team used a pod of cameras for a 360° view of the outside world, then – to compensate for lighting and depth issues — recreated the cars’ interiors with computer graphics. For the Kyalami version, Lewis Hamilton was also superimposed into the
final product.

Local Lufthansa marketing manager Jola Slomkowski says marketers are still feeling their way with VR. "Lufthansa in Germany has used it but the concept is very new here. I decided to go this route because I think that most of our communications in SA are predictable and I want to talk to customers differently.
VR is a means of gaining a competitive advantage.

"It’s been a learning experience for us. We are dipping our toes in without knowing quite where it will take us. The only thing we are sure of is that VR will become part of the broad marketing and communications experience."

Or, as Nolan puts it: "Virtual reality is a novelty, but one we can’t ignore."

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