As a frequent early adopter of technology, I have sometimes experienced a unique and contradictory set of feelings when using groundbreaking tech: I can be simultaneously dazzled and also modestly disappointed. The former sentiment comes from the unmistakable leap forward the tech represents and the latter from the apparent limitations of version 1.0 (along with the knowledge my expensive new hardware will quickly be surpassed).
These conflicting emotions describe how I feel using my new Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset, a product recently launched by Facebook. It’s an impressive piece of tech that clearly demonstrates the promise of the future, but the drawbacks of this first version are also easy to recognize. Both the strengths and the challenges of today’s VR devices will impact consumer adoption, as well as the opportunities for marketers.
My feelings about my new Oculus Rift are identical to the ones I had with my Atari 1040ST in 1986 and Palm Treo 600 in 2003. The Atari was one of the first home PCs with a graphic user interface and its 320×200 color monitor displayed images that seemed wondrous at the time, but I couldn’t help but be frustrated at its slow speed and the need to continually swap floppy disks when using software. Almost two decades later, my Treo encouraged the same feelings–the ability to respond to email, take (terrible) photos and access the Web were awesome, but the kludgy interface, size of the device and pokey responsiveness were constant reminders of the hardware and software improvements to come. Using the Oculus Rift provides me those same synchronous feelings of wonder and mild exasperation, and that fills me with high hopes for the future of VR.
By mentioning some of the limitations of today’s VR hardware, I don’t intend to discourage others from considering a purchase, but anyone who invests in the initial iteration of leading-edge tech must expect some bumps in the road. Consumers and marketers interested in VR should be aware of the strengths and challenges of today’s tech and what is likely to occur in the future. I will first share some of my feelings as an Oculus Rift user and then convey some observations about what this all means for marketers.
Positive impressions of the Oculus Rift
Here are the aspects of the Oculus Rift that have been most positive in my experience:
- Hardware and Setup: For a Version 1.0 of revolutionary hardware, the current Oculus Rift feels very polished. It looks good and was spectacularly easy to set up, with an interface that expertly walks the user through the process, verifying progress at each step. Wearing the headgear takes a little getting used to, but I did not find it heavy or uncomfortable to use.
- Head tracking: There is no aspect of VR more important than head tracking. If hardware makers get this wrong, the entire experience collapses. The Oculus Rift gets it right, smoothly tracking head movements and allowing users to look around in 360 degrees with precision. That doesn’t mean, however, that some software doesn’t induce motion sickness. New users are advised to pay attention to the Comfort ratings of VR apps, which help to select games and apps that range from “Comfortable” (with little camera movement and motion) to “Intense” (which means you may rip off the VR headset in a sweat within ten minutes). As an experienced gamer (and a fan of FPS games), I anticipated little motion sickness, but I am finding it takes time and repeated exposure for me to get used to some of those “Intense” games.
Future opportunities for the Oculus Rift
Here are areas of improvement that I expect in future versions of the Oculus Rift hardware and software:
- Pixels: The clarity of 3D image that the Oculus Rift furnishes is an impressive feat that requires a beefy PC, and most folks who purchase an Oculus Rift are going to need a substantially upgraded computer. But even though today’s VR hardware stretches PCs to their current limits, it is easy to see room for progress in screen resolution. Even at an extraordinary 2160 x 1200, the screens so close to one’s eyes can make pixels visible, and this causes many of the 360-degree videos and photos to look fuzzy and distant objects in games to appear indistinct.
Like my Atari PC in 1986, the VR images are impressive by today’s standards, but the opportunities for tomorrow are apparent. (While I have been startlingly unimpressed with many of the 360-degree videos in the Oculus Rift, one I can recommend for current VR users is LoVR in the Jaunt video player. It is an artful example of 360-degree 3D video done right, and a demonstration of what VR can do for infographics in the future.)
- Cords: You can experience VR today without wires by using Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR with the right phone, but the computing capability on phones cannot match what the Oculus Rift can do connected to a powerful PC with a meaty graphics card. Nonetheless, the cords are a bit of a problem–they get tangled, twisted and caught in things, and that can be annoying when you can see absolutely nothing outside your head-mounted device.
- No camera or desktop access: There is no front-facing camera or ability to access your PC’s desktop, and both seem like serious omissions, even for version 1.0. The lack of a camera not only means the device cannot offer augmented reality capabilities (even though AR is crucial to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for VR) but also means you must remove the headgear to do, well, anything in the real world. Merely getting a sip of water requires you to exit your VR experience (unless you are comfortable blindly groping for a glass of water near your expensive computer equipment).
Also, the inability to use your PC desktop is frustrating. Perhaps the Oculus Rift’s resolution is too limited to provide a useful view of the desktop, but removing your headset every time you need to attend to a software installation or simply wish to check Facebook seems an unnecessary inconvenience. (What, no Facebook app in Facebook’s VR store for Facebook’s VR device?!) By way of disclosure, I should mention that I must wear eyeglasses while using the Rift, and the tight fit and clearance needed for my glasses makes getting the headset on and off a minor chore. Of note, the Rift’s current primary competition, the Vive from HTC and Valve, offers a camera that furnishes some limited capabilities.
- The Oculus Store: The Oculus Store looks lovely but is missing key features and seems ill-prepared for a massive influx of apps; for example, there is no ability to view or add ratings or to search for software while using the VR headset. Speaking of software, the current slate of games and apps available for the Oculus Rift is understandably limited at launch, but for it to succeed, the Rift will need a whole lot more software options than it has today. While the Rift is an expensive purchase, too many of the games seem focused on children and not the serious gamers who are likely to make the sizable investment.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the limited selection of VR apps than this: Two weeks after getting my Oculus Rift, I began playing a new game the old-fashioned way–on a monitor. While a third-party app, vorpX, demonstrates promise in allowing VR gamers to play existing non-VR PC games, it is tough to install the app and get it configured for each game–assuming you even manage to find the right mix of more than a dozen different (confusing and poorly explained) settings.
What today’s VR strengths and challenges mean to marketers
Adding it all together–the expense, the terrific new capabilities, and the limitations–it is evident that marketers must proceed with care as they consider adding VR to their brand’s marketing mix. Although it is understandable that marketers get excited for the opportunity to envelope prospects and customers with 360-degrees of video and audio, any branded VR apps will enter an increasingly crowded marketplace competing for attention from a small (but growing) set of consumers with capable devices.
At the recent Gartner Marketing Conference, I presented the current state of virtual reality and forecast VR’s future for marketing leaders. I foresee the same four phases of rise and fall that we have seen in the past with other tech advances:
- In the current phase of launch and pitches, marketers are showing early interest in innovative new VR platforms, and marketing agencies have already begun to pitch their new VR services.
- Soon, many marketers will suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) as buzz rises, causing some to act too quickly and with insufficient consideration.
- Once brands rush in–along with professional content from entertainment and gaming brands–the crowds and noise will grow, making it difficult for brands to gain attention for their VR apps and experiences.
- And finally, many (but not all) marketers will be left asking what they got for their VR investments. This will be no different than the way many marketers were left asking about the ROI of their SecondLife islands, mobile apps that few people downloaded and opened more than twice, and their large Facebook fan bases that have experienced plunging levels of organic engagement.
Gartner subscribers can access our report on Virtual Reality for Marketers. It describes an approach and series of questions marketers should ask to determine if VR is right for their brands and how to get the maximum benefit. It guides marketers to begin with a focus on goals and audience and ends with consideration for the usability and promotion of branded VR offerings.
Virtual and augmented reality will grow in the years to come, but neither consumers nor marketers should expect VR hardware and software to deliver quickly on the tech’s full promise. In short, no one should expect The Matrix or Minority Report any time soon.