Picture this. You’re in a supermarket and are invited to sample a new brand of beer through virtual reality (VR). Donning a headset, you sip the beer, and as you do you’re transported to rural surroundings where you see for yourself how the drink came to be - brewed in an old distillery on the edge of a forest or by a lake.
Cognitive neuroscientists reckon that VR can alter the way food and drink tastes by triggering the brain to send signals to tastebuds. But serving up shots of VR to create a backstory or emotional link to a product could make an impression long after the fruity or smoky aromas have disappeared.
Alongside its sister technology augmented reality (AR), VR is part of an industry that, according to Digi Capital, is going to be worth $150 billion by 2020. And although AR is set to make up about 80 per cent of that value because it’s believed to have more practical applications, VR - considered as a passing fad by some - can still can have a part to play in marketing products and services to consumers.
A 2015 study by Forbes found that 75 per cent of leading global brands have already created some kind of VR or AR experience. It’s not just companies with big budgets throwing money at it though. Smaller businesses are experimenting too. And we speak to two of them in the U.K, operating in contrasting industries, about how they’re exploring VR and the challenges they see ahead.
Entering unknown territory
At Brighton-based stag party planners The Stag Company, using visuals to sell holiday and activity packages is key. Video increased site conversion rate by five per cent last year, but CEO Rob Hill says that building and selling stories of what makes a successful stag-do should be as much as about participation as it is visuals.
With that in mind, the company is planning a VR campaign so that customers can experience for themselves what their party will be like if they book with them. Hill and his team are particularly interested in creating excitement around some of the more thrill-seeking activities, such as bungee jumping.
"Where we feel will the real value would be is in getting some agreements with our hotels and activity providers in order to create the VR videos, so that potential customers can walk around the accommodation or activity course and be truly immersed in it," says Hill. "Our suppliers are already staring that they’d be happy for us to do this, so this is real step forward in helping people choose where to stay and ensuring they have the greatest experience."
Tom Bourlet, also from The Stag Company, adds that they’d like to create campaigns for multiple destinations, but cost will be an inevitable factor. The key will be to find a way to "gain ROI from it, without it eating into our marketing budget for the year".
VR is arguably still in its infancy and exposure to virtual environments is known to cause symptoms similar to motion sickness.
"Considering the speed and excitement of some of the activities, we are also facing some potential dilemmas around whether it will cause headaches, blurred vision and dizziness," says Bourlet. "We’re entering known territory you could say, so we have to be careful and consider the health of our customers where possible."
The property market is one of the sectors arguably benefiting the most from the rise in VR and AR applications. The technology can provide an end-to-end service, from enabling architects and planners to showcase in 3D what their proposals will look like, to giving interior designers tools to paint walls and place virtual furniture in unfinished rooms.
Recognising its potential is property photography specialists London-based Key Agent. The company recently launched a VR platform through Matterport 3D Showcase, allowing potential home buyers to walk through and experience high-end properties.
The ability to pitch to buyers stories of what their lives might look like inside a property could tug at the heartstrings. When wearing the headset, a recently married couple could see extra details overlaying the images, such as dimensions, meaning that they could be sizing up rooms - choosing which one will be the nursery, for instance - as they walk into them. More importantly though, VR can help build trust and strengthen the relationship with the seller, particularly when the product (the property) may not be complete, says managing director Rolf Groenewold.
"We’re operating in a world of diminishing physical contact and rising online and e-commerce activity... consumers are demanding a better visual experience," he adds. "In the past, you’d have to have had picked up and felt something before making a decision to buy. Today, we need new ways of triggering trust during an online experience."
There is a caveat. In attempting to build that trust, there’s a need to be careful not to put things in the virtual world that can’t be replicated in the real one. Manage this and virtual reality won’t mean brand insanity.