Advertising in the New Era of Digital: The Data on VR — Part 1

The era of television as emperor of our attention is gone.

Right now there is an important media consumption shift happening. Users are rapidly ‘cutting the cord’, moving away from television as their primary screen, opting instead to spend most of their time on desktop and mobile — or simply, ‘digital’. For most of us, this feels like old news, but from a market standpoint this is monumental. TV, since having been introduced and widely-adopted over the last 60 years has yet to be dethroned as champion of our attention.

As a consequence of this coup-d’etat, advertising spend on digital will also overtake TV as soon as this year, ushering in digital’s reigning era. Brands and advertisers should start acting now or face media Darwinism, similar to those who did not adopt a mobile strategy over the last decade.

What’s leading this historic movement?

Digital is overtaking TV for one simple reason: humans hate being alone. 
As social creatures, we crave being together, and the digital-always-on-world that desktop and mobile have enabled has fueled our dependency to remain connected at all times. We need look no further than the milestone two billion Facebook users this past month or Snap’s recent creation of Snap Maps as primary examples of why digital reigns supreme in the war for our attention: it is so much more human.

Snap Maps allows you to see your friends media, globally

And given that we as a society have chosen our new entertainment outlets, advertisers are scrambling to get in front of these channels, looking for ways to measure the success of their campaigns by leveraging our digital footprints. With this new immersive medium, advertisers can capture, measure and quantify more than just click-through, bounce rates and session-length as they did on the web and mobile.

Today, we can start capturing human behavior & physical engagement with content. At this moment there is an entire data & analytics industry being built around capturing and competing for:

  • Brand affinity
  • Sentiment analysis
  • Emotional targeting

But these metrics are mostly based off of algorithms which scrape social media and the web, looking for commonality in words people use when discussing a brand, and then trying to infer feeling off of those words. This is a rather imprecise way of doing things and could be, at the very least, complemented by the physical actions users have while on their device.

VR’s form-factor will one day become seamless with human experience. *Photo Credit: MIT Technology Review.

Fade in: Virtual Reality & The New Data Opportunity

With the new era of immersive media (VR/AR) on the horizon, the era of the screen as we know it today will also come to an end. Indeed, in the next ten years tech giants have shown promise to go ‘screenless’, opting instead for smartphones with new form factors, futuristic glasses or even contact lenses. Meaning, brands will need to equally re-invent the way they capture our attention; the status-quo of annoying thirty-second advertising spots risk to become even more invasive when experienced in an immersive world. There is now a perpetual Sword of Damocles now hung above the advertising industry, signalling that more than ever, brands and publishers need to be thinking about how to create compelling branded experiences & narratives to appeal to their audiences.

Of all mediums, virtual reality allows the deepest connection with the user, whether that means connecting with the content itself with friends, family and even strangers.

Thus, the power of VR, when successful, can be distilled to three axioms:

  • VR transports the user, changing real life behavior
  • VR captures a user’s full attention
  • VR builds moments of lasting affinity

It is through the user’s physical behavior where we can start to measure brand affinity, sentiment and make calculated estimations of whether these axioms have been satisfied.

Example: The Stanford VR Tree-Cutting Experiment

In a 2014 study carried out by researchers at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), subjects were placed inside a simulated forest environment and given a virtual chainsaw and forced to cut down the virtual trees.

The study revealed that the users, on average, demonstrated a 20% decrease in consumption of paper for up to two-weeks later, as well as preference to use recycled objects and materials. The difference with VR, then, is the fact that there was an immediate and lasting behavioral change. Compare this to traditional display advertising campaigns which generate awareness but not action, proactivity or the real behavioral shift observed in VR.

The virtual deforestation leads to behavior change. The advertising industry can benefit too.

Thinking about this from an advertising perspective, the potential of VR is monumental. Imagine having a campaign that could start to change the behavior of your target audience? Or creating content which would resonate with a user for weeks at a time?

At the same time, this is where so many brands fail at creating compelling VR experiences today: they don’t utilize the medium properly, focusing entirely on their own narrative rather than focusing on what the user would care about, and how that narrative is communicated to the user.

As an example, TOMS built a brilliant experience where viewers were transported to Peru, leading themsthrough a narrative of their trademark ‘1 for 1’ policy. Throughout the experience we are shown how the TOMS shoes make their way to school children, we are then guided through a young boy’s home and throughout the Peruvian landscape. The first-person stories told to us by the locals help the viewer connect with them in a profound way, especially when the storytellers look at the camera, creating a sense of presence not felt in other mediums by breaking the fourth wall.

You can watch his in ‘magic window’ mode on desktop/ mobile or in 360VR mode with a VR headset.

The power of VR is in the fact that viewers are not just observing a story, they become an agent within it. What’s even more powerful, is the fact that we can measure each viewers’ response to that story, revealing what they cared about and whether the narrative was successful from a creative perspective.

Preliminary Data on ROI : Monumental User Engagement

At Retinad, we’ve compiled months of research, sifted through dozens of case studies as well as parsed through our own data to distill the first insights of the impact of VR from an advertising perspective.

We then benchmarked this data against historic mobile & desktop advertising data from the likes of Flurry Analytics or MOAT.

What we’ve found, as a first step, has been staggering: VR advertising content achieves tremendous impact compared to traditional mobile & desktop. Whether it is hosted on a mobile phone via ‘magic window’ or consumed on a mobile headset such as the Samsung Gear or Google Daydream, or a standalone headset like the Rift or Vive, our data reveals impressive users receptiveness to VR ad content.

The question then becomes: what is leading this medium to achieve such high yield? Outside of speculative answers related such as ‘it is immersive’ or ‘it captures the user’s entire attention’, there has yet to be a definitive, empirical demonstration of one specific variable. At Retinad, we’re on a mission to define and establish these leading parameters and interpret why some content is more or less attention grabbing.

So How Can You & Your Organization Start Measuring?

Analytics in 360 virtual reality are similar to what you can capture from any traditional 2D-video ad campaign on Youtube or Brightcove (both which offer 360VR capabilities). *For native 3D, game-engine driven content with six degrees of freedom, the analysis becomes more complex, as there is more movement data to interpret, as well as a larger environment to analyze.

The magic is derived from the gyroscopes found in the headsets and our smartphones. These sensors help interpret movement and can can be used to capture a user’s head movement. This movement-capture allows for a finer detail of data analysis and reveals critical information related to behavior and usage. As you can imagine, this information capture can happen accross not only the existing 80 million VR headsets but as well as the 1 billion smartphones which have the capability to run 360 video. The only way to capture this information a few years ago would have taken thousands of dollars of research equipment and rigorous analysis performed in a contained lab environment.

At Retinad, we translate this movement behavior in a way that any advertiser or creative can digest. Gaze heatmaps, exploratatory scores, focus score and other novel VR metrics help reveals how much of the VR scene was viewed, demonstrating user attention and enjoyment of content.

We capture head-movement

And visualize it like this

Heatmaps reveal a user’s attention and engagement within a VR headset

Part 2: The Problems of Weak Headset Distribution & the False Promises of VR— coming in a few days!

We know that ROI isn’t only about core metrics related to click-through and engagement: its about your organization’s bottom line.
In our next series, we’ll tackle the problem of reach, dig into metrics you should be capturing in VR, how to start capturing, and why it matters that your organization start measuring today.

Help Shape the Discussion by Joining the VR/AR Advertising Committee

Retinad is a Co-Chair of the growing ad committee part of the global VR/AR Association — joined by the likes of Google, Yahoo! and Orange. As an organization we are determined to establish advertising creative best practices, marketing strategies and deliver insights to the broader advertising community. So far we have created a first pass at the VR/AR advertising landscape and are actively compiling industry trends and insights to help educate and drive the medium forward.


At Retinad our mission is to decipher user behavior in VR/AR through data.

We’re on a deep quest researching and discovering the language of immersive media: virtual, augmented and mixed reality.

Founded in 2014, we’ve developed a robust data analytics platform used by industry giants to help them test, measure and improve their virtual reality campaigns. We invite you to join us on our exciting journey!