Seeing Is Believing

Connecting brands with worlds full of new possibilities, virtual reality is the next big, immersive thing

By John Patrick Pullen

Illustration by Matt Chase

Veronica is white-knuckle gripping the steering wheel while Justin casually counts the diamonds, like he was dividing up a stash of M&M’s. We’re racing away from a pack of gangsters, and as the getaway car tears down the road, I watch the world go by from the back seat windows. Up through the open sun roof, there’s blue sky above, and peering down, the leather seats look plush and bigger than I expected. It’s exciting; I’ve never been in a jewel heist before, let alone in a MINI — and that, right there, is the entire point.

The reality, however, is that I’m in my office, seated at my desk with a virtual reality (VR) headset over my eyes and headphones on my ears — not that my senses know any better. “One of the really impactful things about VR is that you actually have somebody fully immersed and engaged,” says Lee Nadler, marketing communications and launch manager for MINI USA. “When you put that headset on or that cardboard with your phone up to your eyes and put earphones on, you are focused on one message.”

While VR, as a holy grail of capturing consumer eyeballs, may seem too good to be true, logistically it’s not only possible, but currently happening. Forward-thinking brands aren’t just experimenting in this space, they’re already starting to share rich experiences with customers. And when consumers press these screens to their eyes, they’re blocking out any and all distractions, including incumbent media like television, websites, and apps.

Yet calling it a sensory overload is only a slight exaggeration — done right, VR can trick viewers into thinking they’re someplace else entirely, especially if they’re immersed in expertly crafted brand experiences.

According to SapientNitro Director of Engineering and Innovation Bhavyesh Maroo, the day is rapidly approaching when VR will go mainstream. Over the past year, his marketing and consulting firm has been telling its clients to watch the space closely and familiarize themselves with it. And over the past four months, his prediction has started to become reality. “That hockey stick of adoption — it will be gradual in the beginning — but we are at the beginning of that curve,” Maroo says.

There is a pair of factors driving this. First, starting in early 2016, a collection of high-powered VR headsets are coming to market and their impact will be transformative. (See “Get Your Head(set) in the Game,” on page 8.) Second, the mass adoption of smartphones, featuring various sensors and computing heft, has put a high-powered display in everyone’s pocket. Add to that the low-cost headset options from various makers, and there’s practically been a VR revolution overnight.

While it’s happened fast, don’t mistake it as a fad. “Clients want to treat any new thing with caution — and we advise that as well — but now is the time to learn,” Maroo says. “In 12 months, you’ll be late to the party.”

Early Adopters

Ironically, The North Face, a company that values authentic experiences, disconnecting from technology, and getting out into nature, was one of the earliest companies to embrace VR.

In June 2014, the company had an internal conference that included a stop at the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a room filled with high-tech VR gear. “They’re trying to test human response to ethical, psychological, and fun challenges,” says Eric Oliver, director of digital marketing at The North Face, talking about the lab. “I was one of the people who demoed a walk-the-plank simulation.”

For Oliver, a switch flipped when his eyes and ears quickly tricked his brain into believing he was actually in that death-­defying situation.

“It makes you hesitant,” he says. “We liked that, but it was computer-rendered and that doesn’t feel brand-accurate for us.” A week later, however, he was introduced to Jaunt VR, a Palo Alto, Calif.–based startup that was pulling the disparate elements of VR together — everything from camera hardware that films 3-D 360-degree video to online video distribution. Together, Oliver and Jaunt captured immersive video of The North Face climb­ing team for a three-minute film as an internal proof of concept, which was well received. “One of the people in the room literally had to take the headset off because he’s afraid of heights,” Oliver says. “So that was our really good indicator.”

Eventually the experience was ported to some of the brand’s retail locations, where it’s been shared with customers via Oculus or Samsung Gear VR headsets, to help customers experience the brand firsthand, by taking them some place they’ve never seen before — maybe even inspire them to book a trip.

Measurement for this medium is difficult, because ultimately, the video is a slick piece of brand marketing. “I can’t draw a straight line from a view to a sale,” says Oliver, who will say that this content has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.

“At the end of the night that we debuted it in San Francisco, I was starting to pack up my little demo rig, and a woman came up to her husband who had been watching the movie and said, ‘You’ve been distracted by that thing long enough that I bought something,’” Oliver adds. He admits that’s hardly a definitive statement of VR’s success, but keeping people more engaged in the store can lead to a positive brand impression, if not more impulsive purchases.

The North Face has continued experimenting with VR, bringing Jaunt and film production company Camp4 Collective to Nepal to film scenes around Everest. While they were there, the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck. To help distribute the footage, the company teamed up with Outside Magazine to give Google Cardboard viewers to 75,000 Outside subscribers.

While the earthquake was catastrophic, for Outside readers, the ability to experience it with such breathtaking perspective was transformative. “For a brand to be able to go shoot some place like Everest and capture it and bring facts of it back to people to inspire them is just great brand storytelling for us and good marketing,” Oliver says.

The Depths of the Imagination

Considering that GE works at the literal ends of the Earth — from submarines on the ocean floor to jet engines above the clouds — it should surprise no one to learn that its marketers are also developing experiences on the cutting edge of VR. But the reason they’re doing it is an unexpected one. It’s not to differentiate their company from the competition, it’s simply to build mind-blowing science and technology content, says Katrina Craigwell, director of content and programming on the global brand marketing team at GE.

“We take great inspiration from io9, the Gizmodos, and the list goes on,” she says, pointing out a variety of tech and science blogs. “We have to make sure that our content is unique and just as high quality.”

One way to do that is to take viewers to the hard-to-reach places where GE operates. The company has been doing this on Instagram for the past four years and, now with VR, it’s stretching that strategy 360 degrees.

GE launched its first VR experience in late 2014, taking people to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Brazil in a virtual submarine to provide a view of how extreme and advanced sub-sea oil and gas production is. Hooking the headset up to “4-D” rumbling chairs made for an even more immersive experience.

“Whether you’re 15 years old or you’re 60, a student or an industrial business leader, everyone who sits in that chair is captured,” Craigwell says. “That’s a beautiful thing about the medium.”

In 2015, the company produced seven more VR experiences, including one co-branded effort with The New York Times, which saw one million Google Cardboard headsets delivered to homes of subscribers. Jake Silverstein, editor in chief at The New York Times Magazine, called it a “watershed moment” for virtual reality, according to Ad Age. And one day, when its impact is measured, it may have been as big an initiative as GE has ever undertaken.

The New York Times — we have a great relationship, great partnership with them,” Craigwell says. “We are very conscious of not just doing an ad-buy, not just buying inventory, but thinking how can you partner together on something that represents a step forward.”

In this initiative, GE collaborated on everything from the design of the headsets and how they were delivered to how audiences were instructed to use it. And, of course, they produced a piece of content about how nature is inspiring the industrial future, which now can be found in the paper’s NYT VR app.

Watching VR develop from the inside is no less thrilling for Craigwell. “I view it as incredibly exciting,” she says. “There are few times in life when we see such a massive kind of paradigm shift in how we experience something.”

Driving Innovation

GE wasn’t the only advertiser involved in the massive New York Times VR initiative — MINI USA also contributed its immersive video know-how to the project. In fact, this was the second time in October 2015 that MINI had worked with a media partner to put Google Cardboard in readers’ hands. The first was through a partnership with Fast Company.

“With Fast Company, it was about getting it into the hands of a select group of individuals,” Nadler says. The company worked closely with the magazine on homepage takeovers and custom content that explored VR as a technology and medium, as well as on producing a limited number of hard copies of a 50-page booklet that was sent out to the publication’s list of the world’s 1,000 most creative people.

“We sent them our cardboard goggles as well, and really stayed at the forefront and connected with these individuals,” Nadler says. The effort was named one of the top 10 co-branded content efforts of the year by Ad Age (an honor that GE also won for its NYT VR video).

MINI’s heist video, Blackwater, was more drama than demo, says Nadler, but ultimately it was designed to highlight the MINI Connected system, an infotainment system so advanced that users can even hook up GoPro cameras to it. And this is why the carmaker pursued Fast Company’s creative elites to promote it. “You really need to bring somebody into an experience to give them a sense of all that MINI Connected delivers for you,” Nadler says. “Virtual reality was a great way to communicate that message both in terms of the immersion but also in terms of delivering on innovation itself — and delivering the message through an innovative means.”

As successful as MINI has been with its VR videos, don’t count on seeing more episodes of Blackwater any time soon. When asked if more were in the pipeline, Nadler demurred.

But Maroo believes there’s great potential for VR to champion high quality luxury products. “If I walk into a luxury watch store, I can’t sit there and disassemble the watch to explore all its complications, or understand the back story of how a watchmaker sitting in Hamlet is working on their craft,” he says. “With VR, a rich, luxurious product like that — I am afforded the opportunity to explore, understand, and enjoy that product before I even spend my money on it. Pulling apart a watch without having to touch one — understanding that — these are experiences that are never possible in real life, and yet with VR it’s something that all of us can enjoy.”

Maroo also believes in-experience commerce is possible with further development of VR technology.

SapientNitro’s virtual reality prototype, The Apartment by The Line, is a 360-degree video that brings to life an upscale, New York–based shopping boutique in VR. It lets users interact with products they see there, and once they find an item that interests them, they can add it to their shopping cart and buy it.

If that sounds far out, consider online shopping experiences today, compared to when consumers first got online in the 1990s. “VR is going to be big,” Maroo says. “Very similar to the web back in 1997 and 1998, and then mobile, and then social.” In other words, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Get Your Head(set) in the Game

The market for virtual reality (VR) hardware is quickly taking shape, with a handful of major headset makers seeking to establish their own space within the landscape. But all headsets are not created equal (nor are the media played inside them). Before you develop a VR strategy, determine your target demographic (just like with any other marketing campaign), so you reach them where they (virtually) are.

Google Cardboard
The official Google Cardboard headset is made of thick paper that holds lenses and blocks out light, but it comes with an app and video platform. As for other cardboard-like hardware, there is a variety of makes, models, and price points from companies looking to get in on the action. For example, View-Master, the film-slide toy everyone grew up on, was relaunched last year as a plastic headset aimed at younger users.
Launch Date:
Already available
Starting at free
Designed to hold a smartphone and use the device’s screen as a display, the lowtech solution is accessible, because it relies on the technology already available in people’s pockets to display 360-degree video.
Between the paper headsets and the varied tech specifications on consumers’ phones, Google Cardboard does not deliver a high-quality viewing experience, which can make it difficult to trust with your brand’s reputation.

HTC Vive Pre
A high-powered headset complemented by a pair of handheld controllers and some room-mapping sensors, the HTC Vive Pre may be the most technologically advanced VR setup on the market. Designed to let users walk around and explore, the Vive excels at rendering interactive programs that trick its users into believing they are in an alternate reality.
Launch Date:
Preorders begin Feb. 29 for April delivery
Currently unknown
With a built-in, front-facing camera, this headset can not only detect and interact with the room’s actual environment, but it also allays new VR users’ fears that they could bump into nearby surroundings or be snuck up on by someone.
It takes a lot of computing power to run a headset as powerful as the Vive Pre. So, once that mystery price is revealed, consumers will need to add about $1,500 to it, because that’s the price of the computer needed to run it. In other words, target only dedicated techies or affluent shoppers on this device.

Magic Leap
Little is known about this augmented reality headset except that it has tech investors giddy with excitement, so much so that the company has gathered nearly $600 million in funding to date, which includes backing from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley.
Launch Date:
Rather than using a screen, the Magic Leap projects its imagery right onto the eye, making resolution a thing of the past.
Right now, there are too many unknowns.

Microsoft HoloLens
A head-mounted display that wearers can look through, instead of into, this device has been positioned as a productivity tool by Microsoft. With an array of sensors around the headset, HoloLens can detect objects in the room and interact with them, as images are projected onto its visor.
Launch Date:
First quarter, 2016
A self-contained unit, HoloLens will not be tethered to a PC or be powered by a smartphone.
With such a hefty price, the HoloLens is probably not the most appropriate option for brands looking to get into the platform, at least to start.

Oculus Rift
The biggest name in VR, Oculus is backed by Facebook, which means there are probably even bigger plans for this head-mounted display down the line. But in the short term, the hardware is powerful enough to run the most gripping virtualizations around, as well as some very fun games.
Launch Date:
Pre-orders available now, shipping March 28
Though it started as a crowd-funded effort, Oculus was bought by Facebook, so it has solid backing. And as such, this platform will be the foundation of VR for years to come.
Like the Vive Pre, Oculus Rift requires some hefty computing power to run the rich VR experiences that have been developed for the platform. Oculus headset bundled with PCs able to run the software will start at $1,499, putting the experience out of reach for many consumers.

Sony PlayStation VR
An accessory to the Sony PlayStation 4 video game console, PlayStation VR is squarely aimed at gamers. But with great Internet connectivity and an ever-growing app store, Sony’s top-of-the-line entertainment system could make for a dark horse in the VR race.
Launch Date:
Sometime in 2016
With 36 million PlayStation 4 consoles already embedded in living rooms, this VR solution is much more likely to catch mainstream success than its high-powered competitors, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive Pre.
Not quite as powerful as its PC-tethered counterparts, PlayStation VR seems like a “get what you pay for” solution. And if the price is even more than the Vive Pre or Rift, PlayStation owners may avoid it entirely.

Samsung Gear VR
Designed in conjunction with the Oculus but utilizing Samsung’s phones, the Gear VR is a great stepping stone for consumers looking to enjoy higher-quality virtual experiences, without making a high-priced investment to do so. Well made with a controller built into the side of the headset, the Gear VR is light and comfortable, physical features that can be overlooked this early in the game.
Launch Date:
Already available
Using Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays for VR is a brilliant move, not only because they are vivid, but the screen’s high resolution immerses wearers into the experience.
Only relying on Samsung hardware makes this a niche product. And as nice as Samsung’s displays look, the fact that this headset can’t be used by other Android devices (or iPhones) limits its reach with consumers. — J.P.P.


"Seeing Is Believing." John Patrick Pullen. ANA. February 2016.

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