You Won’t Get It Until You Try It: Marketing VR

Virtual Reality is inherently difficult to market, or even explain, to someone who hasn’t used it. It is so difficult, in fact, that even once you’ve gotten a first-time user into a headset, it is likely they will not understand that they can look around. This is especially true for seated experiences. The user is so accustomed to interacting with stationary screens that they do not grasp the capabilities or even primary function of a virtual reality headset.

Those running VR demos often repeat the phrases “Look behind you” or “feel free to walk around” four or five times before a new user finally grasps the concept, turns their head around and, much to their delight, finds the continuation of their virtual space waiting for them.

Virtual Reality has to be experienced to be understood. A massive part of its charm is its ability to take experiences that would be relatively dull in traditional media, and imbue them with a depth and (for now) novelty that makes what was old feel new again.

I was chatting with a friend recently and we briefly discussed a VR title called “The Brookhaven Experiment”.

Brookhaven is a first-person-VR-Zombie shooter that, when presented on your typical monitor, looks like a bland, less than mediocre, shooter experience. But experiencing it in with the headset on, “it’s terrifying” they told me, laughing and talking about the dichotomy of how surprisingly effective it really in comparison to how bad it looks when presented in a traditional (and incorrect) format.

Polygon, an extremely popular Games website, even called Brookhaven “the Vive’s Scariest Horror Game”, which is shocking when the 2D trailer looks this…

Boring, stale, cliched… ultimately this thing looks like a cheap I0S game when if you’re viewing on your computer. But the thing is, when someone is in the headset, it is a whole different experience. They really feel afraid, excited, and wholly immersed in the experience.

Headtracking, stereoscopic lenses, motion control, and a host of other factors make the experience feel real and the final effect of all these methods working in tandem simply cannot be replicated on a two-dimensional screen.

Some, like Valve, have come close to giving people a sense of what VR is like by creating mixed reality environments which show how the user is interacting with the VR world. These are great little ads they do an excellent job demonstrating the experience of the user, but they still don’t fully convey the sense of immersion and presence created by VR. They convey the context, but not the feel.

So how do we market Virtual Reality, or do we even need to?

It is arguable much of the hype surrounding VR right now is being fueled by the mystery of it. People see how it works and intellectually they understand it, but they cannot understand how that will affect them emotionally. They are curious and, to be honest, a little skeptical that VR will impact them as much as they have heard.

This is where VR has the upper hand, because as long as you’re presenting a quality (IE: non-vomit inducing) product, most people are pleasantly surprised when they finally try VR for the first time. This lack of expectation most often leads to a great response from the user.

And it is this — the reaction!- that is currently the best way to market VR to the uninitiated. As the year rolls on and the Playstation VR is released, the tide of users is going to shift dramatically from hardcore techies, to casual enthusiasts and novelty seekers. Over time, this market is where the big money will be, and for VR to expedite it’s path to success, it would be wise to target this user group now. Target the group who doesn’t fully understand how the VR trailers they see on the internet can be so dramatically different from their in-headset counterparts.

Playstation VR isn’t quite nailing this (their ads are more than a little dorky), but they have the right idea. Don’t showcase the tech, don’t showcase the experiences — showcase the reactions!

Being that the Playstation is an entertainment platform, sony is using these reaction ads to say “you will be entertained”, first and foremost. “Playstation VR will surprise you and you will love it- just look at these people’s faces!”

VR ads will develop and changes as the novelty of the medium quickly fades. It will be interesting to see how the methods for promoting VR software evolve over the coming years. Unreal is already beginning to demo some of their software in using in-engine VR trailers which play like a 360-video.

It will be difficult to properly draw the attention of the user to the right spots in short VR trailers, and it is likely that VR games will continue to receive standard for sometime (think about how games now present trailer content that never even ends up in-game, simply to give people a “feel” of what the game will be like in a condensed format).

But whatever happens, VR is here to stay, because there is one marketing tactic that has proven incredibly effective. Handing users a headset.