This guest post is written by Ken Parnham, General Manager Europe at Near

Advances in virtual reality have developed rapidly in recent years and technology that was once considered futuristic has finally hit the mainstream. Devices such as Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR and HTC Vive, and Sony’s soon-to-launch PlayStation VR are making captivating virtual experiences accessible to the masses.

Brands are just as excited by the possibilities as consumers. Automotive giant Honda is currently preparing a contextually targeted virtual reality video that will put consumers behind the wheel of its Dallara car to help celebrate the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Last year, UNICEF raised awareness of the growing Syrian refugee crisis with its 360-degree ‘Clouds over Sidra’ film that enabled viewers to experience life in the camps.

The increased availability of consumer headsets is also building a new gaming genre. Virtual reality games such as Alien: Isolation are creating extraordinary environments that devices like the Oculus Rift headset make possible for players to explore. So what opportunities will virtual reality create and how will it help brands heighten consumer engagement?

The industry will begin to see virtual reality transform the consumption of TV and films. Consumers will soon be able to step inside their favourite programmes and join much-loved characters on their adventures, or share viewing experiences with friends and family on the other side of the world. Virtual reality will also create a new channel for social networking – as explored by Facebook recently – with users able to interact with each other via virtual avatars.

Remote retail experiences in fashion, beauty and interior design will become interactive, with consumers able to try products virtually, compare them, and place orders via their devices. Consumers will even be able to invite friends to join them on their shopping trips, forming new social experiences from each user’s home. Stores and FMCG companies will increasingly utilise virtual reality to improve merchandising and market research processes, allowing brands to virtually test new designs or products in a three-dimensional virtual store and make better informed decisions.

Education and learning will become more immersive in schools and the workplace, particularly in professions and subjects such as healthcare, engineering, and geophysics. Students will enjoy a more interactive learning experience from the comfort of their classrooms, and Google’s Pioneer Expedition programme is already offering schools the opportunity to visit the bottom of the sea of the surface of Mars via virtual reality.

Virtual reality will also help to create solidarity in business environments where employees are based in different locations or working from home, providing a personal element to the traditional conference call. 

Testing the water in a new environment

Yet while virtual reality offers brands a unique ability to develop deeper connections with consumers than ever before, they must tread carefully. Virtual experiences are immersive, personal, and user-centric. This means tolerance for interruptive and irrelevant intrusions will be even lower than it is for messages that disturb consumers when they are surfing the web, and marketers must strive to provide real value.

As the technology advances, we will begin to see brands develop virtual reality experiences on a foundation of user-generated data and location intelligence that accurately — yet unobtrusively — create a complete picture of unique behaviours. In this way, marketers will be able to provide targeted virtual reality experiences that are engaging, contextually relevant, and highly impactful for individual consumers.

Large scale platforms for even bigger data

With the ever-growing volume of activity creating a myriad of data sources, turning information into usable profiles will become increasingly difficult for brands. The greater the number of platforms in use, the more likely it is that reliability will fluctuate and key variables will be omitted, making datasets incomplete or incomparable, while negatively impacting user identification.

Platforms that aggregate and streamline data will therefore become essential. Enabling brands to analyse and utilise data from multiple sources, they will provide the means to compare information simultaneously and build cohesive user profiles.

Its ability to convey users into any time, place, or even galaxy, makes virtual reality a tool that offers brands the chance to capture consumer imaginations on a level never seen before. Yet they must approach this new technology with caution. The immersive and personal nature of virtual reality means consumers will be unforgiving of poor quality experiences, and brands must get it right from the start.