A man sits in his living room driving a virtual reality racing car
iStock/peepo

Coming back from a Star Trek Virtual Reality mission on PlayStation 4 (losing ship, crew, and my own life as Captain Kirk), I turned away from my utter failure to ask myself a question: where is AR/VR in its evolution?

More specifically, will VR/AR evolve from an entertainment gimmick into something more? If so, shouldn’t marketeers be preparing to utilize it as a strategic pillar of the marketing armory?

To answer these questions, let’s clarify some lingo first. What are the differences between augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR)?

Know Your Realities

AR, MR, and VR all simulate part or all of our environment. The differences between them lie in the level of integration with real-world environments and the level of interaction.

  • VR creates a fully computer-generated environment independent of the real world.
  • AR projects digital information and objects onto a physical environment.
  • MR takes AR one step further, linking computer-generated objects to real-world objects and enabling interaction.
Three images to represent VR, AR, and MR. VR shows a wholly virtual environment; AR shows a smartphone with a location icon overlaid on a city; MR shows a person's hands interacting with a projected simulation.
VR, AR, and MR integrate differently with the real world.

How real AR/VR feels depends on how well a simulation matches the expectations of our senses. This is where there have been the most dramatic advancements in recent years, thanks to increased computing power and high-resolution screens.

Current systems allow the user to physically move within an artificial environment (called six degrees of freedom) instead of holding a static point of view. This is what provides the sensation of “being there.” Spatial audio, haptic feedback, and other sensory stimulations enhance that sensation—the more our senses are manipulated, the more real the experience feels.

It’s also worth noting that AR/VR is not limited to goggles. Digital mirrors project objects over our own reflection, and holographic tools or interactive projections augment the real world. 5G, an upcoming ultra-fast mobile data transfer technology, will make such experiences accessible everywhere.

But what does all that mean for marketing?

Marketing Opportunities with AR/VR

While the global AR/VR market was estimated at $27 billion USD in 2018, it’s forecast to grow to $209 billion USD in the next 4 years. Thousands of applications across platforms are already available within the consumer space alone. New devices will be released by Microsoft, Google, Apple, Oculus, HTC, and others in early 2021.

But those marketing the technology aren’t the only marketeers who will benefit.

Marketeers dream of engaging people with their brands and products, and then making those people come back for more. AR/VR makes this dream . . . well, a reality. The technology can create experiences without limits. For marketeers, this holds several advantages.

Bring your brand’s reality to life

In AR/VR you can create literally without limits: scale the universe, zoom down to atomic level, time travel. It’s the ultimate canvas to bring your brand to life and make your brand vision a (virtual) reality. IKEA’s Place app lets you project IKEA furniture into your living room to see if it will fit and explore how it will look. In other words, you experience the brand and product right within your home.

Talk to the senses

The more senses AR/VR engages, the more immersive the experience becomes. You can let people see, hear, feel, taste, and smell your brand’s reality. You can make them a part of it. Merrell’s Trailscape enhanced a VR outdoor walk with tactile elements like rope walkways and wooden planks to make the experience feel more real—all with the end game of showing what a hiking shoe could handle.

Reach out at scale

Once an AR/VR application is created, it’s applicable on a global scale. Every modern smartphone can run AR/VR applications, making every smartphone owner (currently a third of the global population) a potential user. Pokémon GO lets players “hunt” virtual creatures projected into the real world through a smartphone camera. The app has been downloaded more than a billion times globally, generating more than $3 billion USD as of October 2019.

Cheaper than the real thing

AR/VR applications often outlive physical experiences—they also create them at less cost. LEGO Wear’s virtual store has a physical location in London where people shop via Snapchat. Given the possibilities of AR/VR, it’s no surprise a visit there might leave a much stronger, more positive impression (and provide better ROI) than the physical experience of trying on clothes.

Try before you buy—from anywhere

AR/VR lets the user experience products and services remotely before purchasing the real thing. The customer can explore options from anywhere, which creates confidence in purchase decisions, increases conversion, and reduces returns. Volvo’s VR test drive app lets you experience driving the Volvo XC90 from the comfort of your home, at a time of your convenience.

Vast application potential

Whether B2C, B2B, or internal communications, AR/VR can help in any situation where a first-hand experience would be beneficial, but isn’t currently possible (say, in a pandemic). It can be applied to anything, from education to product demonstrations to sales pitches. Fortnite—a multiplayer online video game—hosted a virtual concert in April with the rapper Travis Scott that attracted over twelve million virtual concert goers.

New Realities Here to Stay

AR/VR hardware is becoming cheaper and better, and major platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, and WeChat now support it. Mainstream adaptation is just around the corner.

Here are some aspects marketeers might want to consider as they approach implementing AR/VR into their marketing plans:

New medium, new rules

Like the transition from TV to the internet, AR and VR are both new and very powerful, so it’s no surprise they come with new rules of engagement to explore. Besides practical considerations (how do you get people to turn their head without telling them?), we’ll need a new class of ideas to utilize the advantages to the fullest.

Explore and learn

There are myriad ways AR/VR can support your marketing efforts. Now is a good time to start exploring. The question is not if, but when you find the best way to utilize AR/VR’s benefits for your brand. The earlier you start, the earlier you will find an answer.

Integrate AR/VR

AR/VR should be part of your digital marketing strategy to maximize the value of each contact point and create continuous interactions. It requires different departments (digital, social, event, IT, data, etc.) to collaborate, so this is another area you should get started sooner, rather than later.

Find a technology partner

There is a large, established AR/VR community out there that knows how to turn your ideas into (virtual) reality. A good starting point is the International VR/AR Association, which offers news, information, and training on AR/VR, as well as an industry directory.

Next Steps for Marketeers Today

So back to the questions at hand: Has VR/AR evolved beyond a gimmick? And should marketeers be using it more?

The short answer is that the technology is getting there, so you should be, too.

AR/VR is becoming a uniquely valuable asset for the marketeer’s toolbox, offering highly immersive and engaging experiences. To fully leverage the potential, you’ll need collaboration across departments, integration into other marketing activities, and exploration of the possibilities. AR/VR’s future is bright—and already much more real than the name suggests!