Virtual reality has been a hot topic for decades, since science fiction movies like "Demolition Man" first predicted a future where any activity - even romance - could take place on a virtual reality screen. But until recently, virtual reality in the real world has mainly been of interest to technophiles, gamers and entertainment junkies, with seemingly little application to business.
But things are changing in both the virtual and real worlds. In the not-too-distant future, virtual reality will allow marketers to promote real-world businesses, allow customers to virtually "try before they buy", and deliver immersive experiences that can support important purchase decisions and increase brand loyalty.
What roles can we expect virtual reality to play in the future? Here are three ways virtual reality is set to transform the marketing world.
1) Inspiring Customers with Virtual Reality
Pokemon Go, the augmented reality app by Niantic and Nintendo that in just a few weeks since launch is already in daily use by more than 26 million players, is set to become the most popular augmented reality game in history. The game combines the virtual action of capturing, training, and battling with Pokemon characters, while walking and visiting various points of interest - called Pokestops and Gyms - in real life.
The combination of virtual gaming and reality spells marketing opportunity. Savvy businesses are purchasing in-game "lures" to drive Pokemon-seeking consumers through their doors. A coffee shop, for instance, can offer lures to attract players who then decide to purchase a cup of coffee in real life.
Pokemon Go is an amazing test case for the real-life marketing opportunities made possible by virtual reality. But games that mix real-world business with the virtual world aren't the only ways virtual reality is set to transform marketing.
2) Try Before You Buy
One of the biggest opportunities virtual reality presents for marketers is the ability to overcome buying objections and "try before you buy." Ad Age recently called VR the "sleeping giant" of the auto industry, and it's little wonder: Brands like Audi are already offering virtual reality test drives using technology from HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, giving consumers a chance to try out different models and options that might not yet be available in real life. Virtual reality also allows buyers to try driving in conditions and places not suitable for a real life test drive, such as off-road - or even the surface of the moon.
Virtual reality "test drives" aren't just for cars. Many consumer decisions are all about the experience, but with big-ticket items such as buying a home or taking a vacation, there is no way to try them out until after the purchase is made. Almost any tangible product or service, from furniture, to fashion and travel, can be tried out virtually, allowing consumers to really understand which products or options are right for them and to imagine themselves "in the driver's seat.".
3) Delivering Immersive Experiences
With virtual reality, marketers can deliver immersive experiences that help consumers make decisions, learn about a product, or develop brand loyalty. Some recent examples of these kinds of marketing campaigns include a virtual "Hacienda tour" from Patron that allows consumers to experience the making of tequila, and a virtual experience by outdoors brand The North Face that allows visitors to experience winter in Nepal.
In the future, these immersive experiences themselves could become a marketable product. After all, why just take a vacation to a beach when you could take a vacation to another world?
Today, virtual reality marketing is limited mainly by access to technology and cost. Virtual reality marketing campaigns are beyond the budget of many small businesses, while the technology to fully experience VR stretches consumer's pocketbooks.
This too is changing as companies like Microsoft and Google invest in developing applications and devices that will make virtual reality more accessible. Microsoft's Windows 10 operating system is touted as the first OS capable of fully supporting holographic computing. The company is also developing HoloLens, a headset that supports virtual and augmented reality. Google has developed Google Glass , and is also focused on transforming smart phones into VR devices with Cardboard, which retails for under $50.
Virtual reality marketing is all about immersing consumers in experience. While still in its infancy, as the technology moves into the mainstream and becomes more affordable, marketers should be thinking about how this once-futuristic technology could transform their business.