Virtual Reality - A Reality?

David Robinson, Senior Strategist

Virtual Reality - A Reality?

It’s been a year since I wrote an article declaring VR now a reality, and indeed in that time both Facebook/Oculus and HTC have released their enthusiast level hardware platforms. Google released Daydream, the follow-up to the experimental Cardboard. Sony released the PSVR, and Samsung updated their Gear VR headset. Whilst sales data is hard to come by, Sony have sold 1m units through to retail, Samsung have sold 5m Gear VR headsets, and Google have now shipped over 10m Cardboard headsets.

It’s safe to say that VR systems are now in the hands of millions of users. But outside the world of gaming, what’s actually going on, where is the content, and who is creating it?

Big things have small beginnings

Whilst at SXSW I took the opportunity to attend several sessions focused on VR, hearing from those who had worked with the medium over the past year. It offered a fascinating insight into the realities of developing for a new platform, some of the pitfalls to avoid, and additional considerations that need to be made. 

It’s fair to say that the overall consensus was that we are still in very early days. Much like with the birth of smartphones or cinema, it will take considerable time for the landscape and language to emerge, as people learn how best to use the technology. People need to discover how to tell stories and craft experiences where space drives narrative and creates an emotional connection. It’s simply not good enough to build something in VR just for the sake of it.

The cost of entry is also still high, for both the end user and the content creator. Whilst Google Cardboard is available for £10 (assuming you own a smartphone) it’s not much more than a novelty. Gear VR offers a great experience, but requires a £500 phone. Building bespoke interactive experiences can be very costly, and if targeting the dedicated equipment (Oculus/Vive) the user base is relatively small, so the ROI is potentially lower.

Resultantly, a lot of the content on show was nothing more than 360-degree video. In the "Is VR/AR the new storytelling... or old 3D?" session, Humana and National Geographic both showed how they used 360 video, delivered via VR headsets, to offer the user enhanced experiences above what could be served through a traditional screen. Whilst Human took the route of dedicated on-site installations, National Geographic chose to serve their content through Facebook and YouTube. This helped reduce hosting costs and extend reach at the same time.

And yet this content is still costly to produce. Both had considered integrating UGC (user generated content) into their campaigns, however, dismissed it due to the poor quality. Instead, they opted to use complex and expensive professional camera rigs, alongside an expensive post production phase. The content was used as part of integrated campaigns with more traditional online and offline channels. Currently, VR is not the main focus, but an added layer of richness, helping to create more immersive experiences.

A new approach to UX

Elsewhere people were more focused on the experience of users within VR environments, and its impact emotionally and physically on the end user. "Virtual Crossroads - A Look at VR and Human Behaviour" looked at VR from the perspective of a filmmaker or product designer. 

Jessica Brillhart is the principal filmmaker for VR at Google, responsible for a number of successful short experimental experiences. She explained how she doesn’t try and tell stories through a direct narrative in VR, rather that the user creates a narrative for themselves from the emotional reaction they have to what they see and hear. The medium allows for a more visceral experience as the user looks at things with more focus.

And yet it wasn’t just the environment inside the virtual experience which was important. One thing I had never really considered was the emotional state of the user before entering a VR experience, and Jessica highlighted the importance of understanding the real world environment in which people would use VR, and how to allow the user to transition from one to the other.

Whilst Jessica was focused on the reaction to an experience, Charlie Sutton is a Product Design Manager at Facebook, and gave some valuable insight into the UI/UX approaches to VR. He explained how with 2D UI design, the designer looks in, at the UI, but with VR you have to look out from the UI, and at the user’s reaction to the experience. It was noted that designers of VR experiences could learn a lot from architects and space planners, who already understand the importance of signposting, and how shape and form can elicit an emotional response. 

“What happened to Pong? Why is everything trying to be so complex? Why not start simple?”

Whatever the experience, the importance of the user’s reaction was emphasised. VR content creators are not just serving content, they are creating spaces and asking users to enter them. There is a responsibility to provide the user with not just a comfortable experience physically, but one which will make them emotionally comfortable.

Interestingly, whist again the content on show was 360 video, it was argued this was a good stepping stone for people entering VR for the first time. It requires only base level devices (though the experience gets better in line with the quality of your equipment) and gets people used to being cut off from the outside world. 

It did, however, highlight the importance of picking the right base level platform, and avoid being tempted to catering for everyone. If your experience requires room scale tracking use a Vive, if it requires 6DOF controllers (capable of tracking full position as well as position and rotation) user either of the desktop systems. There is no point waiting for the mobile experiences to catch up with the desktop equivalents because the day a mobile solution can compete with today’s top end, the top end will include haptic suits and more environmental stimulus.

Upping the budget, and scale

Outside of the sessions, and into the conference hall and various events, there was the chance to see the more experimental side of VR. Birdly lets you fly over cities like a bird, Sensiks have created a pod which adds scent, temperature, and wind to the mix, and The Music Room takes MIDI to the next level. There were plenty of installations from the likes of Chris Milk, the Rez Infinite Synesthesia Suit and a Holographic Buzz Aldrin. And of course, TheTin were there with the Department of International Trade showcasing our own VR experience, Band Explorer VR

It’s clear that VR was big at SXSW this year, and we haven’t even touched on its relations, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality. 

AR is well established; the success of Pokémon go last year is surely evidence of that. I also got a chance to see some practical demonstrations of Google Glass from its lead, Thad Starner. Whilst the project may be on the back burner as far as Google is concerned, real world uses were shown from assisting nurses in their daily tasks to helping firefighters quickly bring up floor plans, hydrant locations or guidance on cutting people from crumpled cars. 

MR is perhaps the most exciting, it’s the space everyone expects Apple to move into this year, and could provide the least barrier for the user between the real and virtual world. There were practical demonstrations of Microsofts’s HoloLens platform, and whilst Magic Leap may have gone quiet, with more than £1Billion investment so far, you have to be at least a little bit intrigued.


Regardless, there are some key takeaway learnings which are applicable whether it VR, AR, or MR.

A few considerations...

It’s still early days, and experimentation is required, so don’t be afraid to try something new. But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start simple, you can do a lot with a little.

Content is King, but how you serve the content is equally important. The users emotional experience is paramount, and we must consider the environment both inside and outside the experience.

Stories can be told without narrative, as the user can both focus and immerse themselves in a VR experience in a way not possible on a 2D screen. By giving the user the space in which to explore, they can craft their own.Whilst large-scale VR installations can be standalone experiences, in these early days, it may be best to think of VR as part of an integrated campaign, where assets have the potential for reuse,

Whilst large-scale VR installations can be standalone experiences, in these early days, it may be best to think of VR as part of an integrated campaign, where assets have the potential for reuse, minimising cost.

Although I said to experiment, don’t just build for the sake of it. Look at how VR can enhance your message, and go from there. 

We live in a world where almost everything is somehow connected with a brand or presented to us via a brand or a branded platform. And much of the content we consume is enabled or enhanced by technology. This is the world in 2017: brand and technology are the two most important factors in the way we experience and make sense of the things around us. 

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