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Q&A: Talking VR and AR marketing with expert Alan Smithson

How should content marketers should approach the VR and AR? We found out.

Mahlab sat down Alan Smithson, VR expert, to chat about how content marketers should approach the technologies.

You may associate virtual and augmented reality with science fiction films. Perhaps you think of the gaming applications such as the Pokemon Go craze a few years back. Perhaps you are aware of some marketing brands’ use of the technologies.

However, whatever your perception is, content marketers will have to get comfortable with virtual and augmented reality. Smithson believes that in the coming five years, the technologies will be as commonplace as smartphones are now.

And he’s not alone. Goldman Sachs Research said in its virtual and augmented reality report that “we see qualities in VR/AR technology that can take this from niche-use case to a device as ubiquitous as the smartphone”.

Smithson is the CEO of virtual and augmented reality innovation consultancy, MetaVRse which was named a Top 100 Rising Startups by TechWeek and nominated VR Startup of the Year in 2017. He is a founding Member of the VR/AR Association, the inventor of the world’s first Virtual Reality Photo Booth™ and one of the foremost experts in business applications of VR/AR technologies.

We spoke with Smithson about why it’s time to take virtual and augmented reality seriously, and how marketers can and should use the tech.

Mahlab To begin, can you explain what the difference between VR, AR and MR is?

Alan Smithson Virtual reality (VR) is when you put on a headset and it takes you to a whole different place. It’s recreating the  space you are in using either 360° video, computer generated graphics or a combination of both. When you look up, down, left and right, and you are in a completely different world from reality

Whereas augmented reality (AR) is augmenting the world you are already in. You look on the ground, and your walls and floors are overlayed with a digital content. And then mixed reality (MR) is when you look at your real world and the technology knows everything in context. The sensors and cameras know that’s a wall, that’s a floor, that’s a countertop. MR is putting AR digital overlays in context with the real world.

Eventually, they all are going to blend into one another. Sometimes you will want to see the real world, sometimes you will want to be in a total virtual world and sometimes you will want a bit of both. You will have a scale of immersion.

M Do you think these technologies will become ‘the norm’?

AS It’s important to remember that a few years ago people laughed at the first iphone and now everyone has these little devices in our pockets. When we started a few years ago it was very easy to dismiss virtual and augmented reality as a fringe item. It was just a video game tool or a bunch of geeks in the corner. But you can’t dismiss an entire paradigm shift in human communications. If you do you will be left behind in a similar way to people who didn’t get on mobile.

Glasses will be the next norm. It will be the next computing platform. It may take five to seven years before we see a consumer-grade pair of glasses that does all your computing in 3D. But with the superpowers that will be in those glasses, you won’t be able to compete on the world stage with just a phone anymore. Imagine having every piece of data pop up in front of you just when you need it. You will be able to be way more productive than anybody who doesn’t have it.

It’s definitely coming.

M So, how do these technologies assist with marketing efforts?

AS Over the next five to seven years the entire world will go from computing on a 2D device like a cell phone, computer screen or TV screen to computing in three dimensions. You will wear a pair of glasses and the world around you will become your computer screen. You can digitally overlay on top of people, you can digitally overlay on top of billboards. You can drive by a billboard and see pictures of your family instead of an ad.

That’s not what marketers want to hear but that’s what’s coming. Instead of having certain fixed points of marketing you could create experiences with subtle marketing. There’s going to be some really interesting stuff with product placement around your house, around your office, in your everyday lives.

You will be able to transport people when you’re selling a product. They won’t ever have to go to a grocery store because who really wants to walk up and down aisles with groceries on them. Maybe some people do, but I want a better experience. It’s funny because up until now, the VR shopping experiences that I have seen are recreating a store.

Why would you recreate a physical store when you have literally unlimited capabilities? You could have a bow and arrow, and have to shoot at your food to select it. Make it fun! Make grocery shopping fun.

M At what point should marketers consider including these technologies in their content mix?

AS Marketers should start experimenting now, even if there is only a few people who see it. Because VR news outlets are looking for new stuff all the time, release it as a press release or feature. You can get a lot of earned media out of the fact that you are using VR and AR as a marketing tool. So really leverage the earned media across all the different aspects both in tech, marketing and whatever sphere the brand is in. We have been very successful with getting earned media out of our VR and AR experiences.

M What can most marketers do with AR and VR right now?

AS The easiest thing that people will be able to start working on is Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit. These foundational development frameworks are now available to the public and by the end of 2018, there will be over 1.6 billion devices that have advanced AR capabilities.

Ikea place is a great example of a tool right now with AR capabilities – consumers can see a couch in their living rooms in the exact size and then say ‘oh that doesn’t fit there’. These are just very basic tools.  Ebay just released an AR app that helps you choose the right size UPS box for shipping. Utilitarian apps that help people are going to be the most popular.

You are going to find that as marketers learn about ARKit and ARCore, things are going to get really interesting.  These technologies are the training wheels for the next phase. That is, when we wear glasses. Learning how to code on a phone-based AR is vital right now to the future of computing in 3D.

Facebook is starting to provide more AR and VR capabilities in its newsfeed, for example with 3D models. What kind of impact do you think that would have on the accessibility of these technologies?

AS The problem that everybody is going to find is making 3D models is not as easy as you would think. It’s actually quite difficult. We’re creating a system that automates that conversion of physical products to 3D assets. We are working on turning that into a quick process and I know there are a couple of other companies that are working on that as well. But you are going to find that a lot of interested companies will look at the expense and decide its not scalable or sustainable. That’s going to be a stumbling block for a little bit.

The long-term stumbling block is glasses and VR headsets are still going to take some time. It’s going to take three, five, seven years to have a mass consumer base ready. You have to think about what we can do now, and lay out road maps to understand how you can use this technology in three, five and seven years.

Viewing products in 3D on websites, Facebook and in AR is a perfect way to bridge the gap between where we are right now to where this is heading in the inevitable future.

M Are there any cases where VR might not work for marketers and won’t connect with particular audiences?

AS If you are using VR as your only medium and you want to get it out to thousands or millions of people, it’s not going to work. The consumer adoption of the headsets is just simply not there. There’s not enough of a base for you to get mass reach of your message. So anybody who wants to do a 360° video and hope to get millions of views in VR, it simply won’t happen.

But make it as part of your content mix, knowing that you can share it on Facebook, you can share it on YouTube, you can create Tiny Planet videos out of it – which is basically turning a 360 video inside out. You can repurpose the material quite a bit.

You can also make it available to key people at events or through experiential marketing. You can bring it to your audiences.

M What does VR/AR/MR provide that traditional formats don’t?

AS VR in general provides a level of immersion like no other format. Imagine being completely immersed in sound and visuals within a world. Marketers have a really interesting dilemma. You want people to be immersed in the experience, you want to get your brand message across but today’s customers are so savvy they won’t stand for product placements or random crap anymore. You have to be really, really creative with how you deliver. It has to be an experience that people will want. I think there is going to be a lot of marketing companies working with game developers to create new experiences. It’s going to be interesting.

M Content marketing differs from some other forms of marketing in that the primary objective is to be useful, or at least entertaining, to an audience – to build a relationship instead of to make a sale. What impact do you think mass uptake of VR and AR will have on the balance between stories and useful content, as opposed to sales-led content?

AS Vice is spending a lot of money on VR. They bought a VR studio and The New York Times bought a VR studio. What they want to do is tell the news in different ways. The New York Times is using AR to show you what the Olympics look from a whole new perspective and last week they did a really cool piece piece on the fashion of David Bowie. It’s a new way to consume media and personally, I love it.

It all comes down to taking traditional storytelling and just letting people be in the full experience. When you get people who have a VR headset, you have an audience that is fully captivated. That’s really powerful. I think marketers have only scratched the surface of what is possible with this. Once marketers come onboard en masse and they start thinking ‘what if?’, then the world is a full open canvas. Anything you can think up, you can make with VR.

The creativity is going to be insane. We’ve already seen a lot of musicians, DJs, artists, all jump on board this medium because it’s the most immersive medium humanity has ever had.

M B2C marketers seem to be leading the charge. Do you see this as something which B2B companies can also use?

AS You are going to see applications of marketing at a different level. For example, at a tradeshow, you might want to show someone your multimillion-dollar apparatus, but it costs half a million dollars to ship it to the show. Well, now you can have people stand right next to it and have an experience on that apparatus. They can play with it, work on it.

But I also see this as a training tool. People are already using AR to train surgeons. You could act out training scenarios in VR. For example, your sales team could be could be trained using a VR training scenario. These are real life uses that enterprise is going to be using.

They are also going to be using AR to provide instructions. For example, a machine breaks down in a factory, you put on a pair of glasses and follow instructions on how to fix it that pop up in front of you in context to that machine: ‘Turn this knob right, flip this switch down’, step-by-step instructions. If you get stuck you can call for help and somebody on the other line can see what you are seeing through the cameras on your glasses and guide you through the repairs.

M How might service industries – with no physical product to demonstrate – used this tech?

AS It’s about representing the impact of the service through a story, visually. Take finance for example: if you save $100 a week this is what your savings looks like and this is the house that it buys you. This is your life in 30 years. But if you save $500 a month 30 years from now then you’ve got a big mansion, maybe there is a boat. It’s about showing people what’s possible in their lives rather than giving them some numbers. If you have someone in a VR headset, give them an experience.

Marketers just have to get really creative with it. It’s just a different medium.

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