Cannes 2016: Marketers will be talking about whether virtual reality has real legs

Debbie Weinstein
Google Hosts Its I/O Developers Conference
Google Cardboard already in 5m homes (Source: Getty)

Virtual reality (VR) used to be the stuff of science fiction. But it has already taken us on trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Abbey Road Studios and the moon. What’s next? Could it bring us closer to brands? Marketers at Cannes will be debating if this new medium has legs of the non-virtual kind.

When we evaluate how new technologies apply to brands, we must consider their reach and their impact.

Few consumers can afford a VR headset. But with smartphone penetration at 76 per cent, and Google Cardboard already in 5m homes, every video on YouTube can now be viewed in VR, making it the world’s largest library of VR content. This is giving many people all over the world their first taste of VR, and allowing mainstream interest to grow.

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As young Britons move away from traditional media channels and towards those that satisfy their desire for immersion, the demand for content on YouTube – whether VR or more traditional online video – is increasing. According to research by Comscore and BARB, YouTube reached more 18–34 year-old Brits than any commercial TV channel in the first quarter of this year.

When it comes to impact, the opportunity of VR is to create deeply immersive experiences – the feeling that you’re really somewhere else. What does this mean for audiences? It could mean access to the best seats in the house — front row at a Beyonce concert, or a seat on the touchline at the Euro 2016 final.

On YouTube, we made a big, early bet on 360 degree video, giving viewers video from every angle by swiping or moving their phone or tablet around — no headset required. The number of 360 degree video uploads continues to increase, doubling in little over the last three months.

For content creators, the potential of 360 degree video and VR is immense. It will require a shift in thinking. VR lets viewers be active participants, and look wherever they want. So, rather than telling a story frame by frame, filmmakers will need to build entire worlds, changing the dynamics of storytelling.

When it comes to VR’s commercial applications, a study from Ericsson ConsumerLab has found that shopping is the main reason smartphone users are interested, with “seeing items in real size and form when shopping online” cited by 64 per cent of respondents. Therefore, there is little doubt that, as the tech becomes available to millions, VR will become an important part of marketing communications.

Read more: Oculus starts shipping Rift virtual reality headsets

Brands are already forging the way. BMW has used it to exhibit a 360 degree car race. AT&T simulated a car crash to emphasise its safety message about using a phone behind the wheel.

It’s still early days, but widespread smartphone use means that VR and 360 degree video will be a major talking point at Cannes this week. The possibilities for advertisers and content creators to immerse and connect audiences is vast. The results will be stunning.

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