Is Black Mirror the future?
Once a Hollywood pipe dream, virtual reality (VR) has finally become a mainstream reality in 2017. You no longer need to be Keanu Reeves; anyone with a smartphone can put on a headset and be transported to a whole new world. Be whisked away to an island retreat from the comfort of your living room, all while the rain is battering your IRL windows; or immerse yourself in a driving game so realistic you might find yourself leaning into hairpin bends to withstand the G force.
Sensing the buzz, brands are jumping into virtual reality already, but VR isn’t like any other platform. It’s a very different space, and experiences needs to be tailored accordingly.
“VR is a new channel in its own right. When the moving picture was invented, the sheer novelty of the medium drove its use. People were astounded by 12 seconds of grainy, soundless, black-and-white footage of Horse Ferry Road,” says Sam Fazakerley of Framework Creative, a specialist agency that focuses on producing virtual experiences using the latest technology.
“It took a long time for the narrative method and the modern film format to emerge. We are still at the point when any footage in VR is astounding. For the majority of people you are still providing them with their first VR experience and that’s really nice.”
The simpler the better
Don’t let the new technology get ahead of your idea: refine it before commissioning a developer. The latest games push the most powerful VR headsets to the limit, but all the technical knowhow in the world won’t make an impact if your experience isn’t actually immersive. VR is complicated: if your audience can’t explain what they just experienced, you can forget about word of mouth.
“The highest technical standards and the most immersive experience are not the same thing,” Fazakerley explains to us. “We learned very quickly that anything with a complicated tutorial isn’t really appropriate for a swift brand experience. Now we try to keep our interactions as simple as possible; keeping instructions to a sentence or so, allowing users to learn during the experience.”
Andrew Willans, the Lead Game Designer at Icelandic games studio CCP, warned of a similar experience creating an ambitious menu system for the company’s VR space flight sim, EVE: Valkyrie, which was then drastically scaled back. “We went a bit OTT on the menus,” he admits. “The initial brief was to stand in a planetarium, surrounded by planets. As you look at something the information appears, and then you grab it and pull it towards you… But we realised we’re quite lazy as a species.”
Time is of the essence
A brilliant campaign that hinges around virtual reality isn’t something that can be whipped up in a couple of hours by the new whizkid intern. Crafting a bespoke VR experience can take anywhere from days to months.
“A simple shoot [for a 360 degree video] can be accomplished and uploaded very quickly, but an interactive experience with solid and careful brand awareness takes longer. Six weeks is a good base for a production. If you consider how long it takes a client to collate feedback and revisions, it’s similar to any other production.”
Health and safety matters
While you might be tempted to move quickly, it should never be at the expense of fully testing any VR experience. Willans knows; he’s seen what happens when people don’t have their virtual reality sea legs. There are a few benchmarks he aims for to avoid your brand being forever associated with nausea.
“Removing any kind of lag or latency is incredibly important for VR content. Best practice targets of 90 frames per second, or roughly, 60 frames per second per eye. It’s well worth investing in developers who can make sure the frame rate is as smooth as possible.”
It’s okay to experiment
Before you, as a representative of your brand, put out a brief, be sure to see if what you’re hoping to realise is practical. It may be your great idea could be underwhelming in VR, or vomit-inducing. With the right developers, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds. VR development software has progressed to the stage where rapid prototyping is possible.
“If you think you have a cool idea, get it up and running in VR. Even if it’s just cubes and circles moving around in an environment – do it. That sense of space and presence will massively inform how detailed you want to go. It’ll help you understand how far we can see in VR. We also have a optimum viewing distance, which is between 5 and 15 meters in virtual space. It’s really important to not only understand those rules, but also to feel them.”
Bitesize experiences might be easier, but it’s not what VR owners will want in future
Try to avoid making just another gimmick for VR. It might impress users now, but it won’t as the industry matures. Purpose is much better than stunt, Fazakerley says.
“Businesses want deep and meaningful applications; gamers want to have their socks blown off; and the general public is happy with a quick dip into the VR world. For most people you are still catching their first VR experience. This won’t last forever and people’s expectations will quickly rise. When that happens, brands will have to work much harder just to have people put the headset on. Look at long-term solutions, with monthly or annual updates.”
Follow these tips, and with any luck you won’t be one of these brands left struggling to convince VR users to jump on board.