Are We Ready to Live in a Fully Virtual World?

Sudden lockdowns caused many brands to scramble to create digital experiences to fill the void in 2020. But as we settle back into a more physical world, are these virtual experiences here to stay? Three marketers weigh in on what our virtual future might look like.

This article was created by Clear Hayes on behalf of Advertising Week APAC.

Immersive technology has been around for some time – virtual reality has been promised for years, while augmented reality really got a go when Pokemon Go took the world by storm. But on the whole, these technologies were more niche experiments for brands.

Zoe Cocker

Then, 2020 happened, and everyone started craving connection. The game changed as brands unable to get people to their stores, theme parks, or countries, marketers reached for the technology to plug the experience gap.

For Zoe Cocker, Head of Brand and RYOT Studios for Verizon Media ANZ, this rapid technological adoption is something she expects to continue.

“Everything we thought was so futuristic, or five years away from becoming a reality, became five minutes away when the pandemic happened. So everybody had to change the way they saw opportunities to connect almost overnight,” she explains. 

Future Thinking

Immersive experiences with Augmented Reality (AR) Virtual Reality (VR) and 8D have taken a step into the limelight due to a sudden need to replace real-life experiences with digital ones in 2020.

Immersion into virtual reality is a perception of being physically present in a non-physical world. These experiences can immerse the consumer in the brand’s content through sight or sound.

Take, for example, Tourism Australia’s ‘Australia in 8D’ campaign, which used immersive sound alongside stunning visuals of the country’s landscapes to keep travellers unable to leave their homes, let alone travel across the globe, dreaming of an antipodean escape.

The use of 8D added a new layer of storytelling to the campaign and reached over 200 million viewers, a pleasing result according to Tourism Australia’s Head of Marketing, Susan Coghill.

Susan Coghil

“At the time this concept was presented the world was in lockdown and we were looking for innovative ways to connect with our international audiences to keep the dream of travelling to Australia alive,” she says.

Tourism Australia has dabbled in using immersive experiences in their campaigns before, yet this one was their first foray into immersive sound.

“8D technology was relatively new and hadn’t really been used in the travel marketing space before. So not only did the films provide an enhanced content experience for our target audience, but the earned reach through PR further increased the impact,” says Coghill.

The 8D campaign showed the power of how these experiences can pique interests and drive audiences to your brand. The videos alone had 74 million completed visits and drew 1.6 million clicks to the website, which resulted in a 176% increase in traffic.

For Coghill, this technology is something that allows marketers to meet the increasing level of expectation audiences have for the content experience.

“It can be a great tool to use. However, it always comes back to your objective and how best to communicate your story to meet that objective. You can then determine whether or not immersive technology works to bring your story to life,” she says.

Hitting fast forward

Last year’s acceleration changed perceptions of the technology, and according to RYOT Studio’s Cocker, helped improve its not always glowing reputation.

“Until about two or three years ago, this tech was seen as clunky, hard to use, expensive and not fit for purpose. Now, all of a sudden it’s something really easy to utilise, and it has created loads of opportunities for brands to work with it,” she explains.

Sam Ramlu, Owner of New Zealand-based creative tech agency Method, shares a similar outlook on this technology’s rapid adoption.

Sam Ramlu

“The tech is changing so rapidly, we don’t even know what’s going to happen in six months. We have to always be thinking ahead. We look at the new technology coming into play, how we can adapt it, make our own version of it, or use it to do something really engaging and effective for our clients,” she says.

Over the last 18 years, Method has emerged as the agency of choice for everything immersive in New Zealand. Yet for Ramlu, the struggle isn’t how consumers are adopting the technology, but how brands are.

“In our line of work, we could work with any businesses wanting to reach their audiences through immersive tech. But we have to get brands engaging sooner rather than later and get them as excited as we are about the opportunities,” she says.

After the travails of 2020 it’s not just massive brands that are looking to use this technology, but smaller businesses as well, thanks to advances in access and the creation of web-based AR. Method’s solution to this need is Mattar, a web-based AR platform that was born out of the need for an easier and more cost-effective experience.

“It’s so interesting how many people want an augmented reality experience now. We’ve got everyone from coffee shops, through to large players across FMCG, clothing, and museums. But what’s really interesting is that there’s still a lot of education to be done.

“We’ve got a few companies we’re working with at the moment, with a few different campaigns and how Mattar can take it to the next level. People know they want webAR, however, they’re still coming to grips with how it works and how it can add value to their brand or product,” explains Ramlu.

This unknown and untapped potential for brands can be the most exciting part of these burgeoning technologies, or at least it is for Cocker.

“Every single day I’m talking to emerging tech vendors or creators that are using technology as a platform to build new experiences and that is so exciting. They’re almost experiences that you couldn’t imagine that anybody would have cared about a year ago,” she says. 

Risky business

However exciting this emerging technology and its attendant opportunities for brands may be, Cocker is concerned about the prospect of untrammeled development. She says now more than ever governance is needed around new technology to protect users.

“With the emergence of 5G, there will be so much game-changing technology at our fingertips that we need to educate ourselves on how this is going to change our lives. We need to put up the right safeguards for users because, at the end of the day, the tech isn’t what you have to worry about, it is the human application of that technology,” she says.

Ramlu believes these tech-driven experiences need to enhance the physical world, not replace it.

“One of my real concerns is technology taking over the opportunities for you to actually explore a space yourself. We need to take it as a way to enhance stories, rather than erode them,” she says.

Tourism Australia’s Coghill shares a similar outlook and acknowledges although this technology is creating richer experiences, there is still a time and a place for it.

“It should be there to add a level to the storytelling or content experience not just for the sake of having an immersive experience alone,” she says.

So how do we ensure this technology is additive to experiences? “It starts with technology leaders taking a stance on their moral responsibility,” says Ramlu.

“Ultimately it comes down to people and the individual moral responsibility to make sure we’re correctly setting things up for the next generation. We want them to appreciate these experiences, but also use them in a healthy, balanced way. And that comes down to the tech providers making sure they’re drawing that line,” she says.

At the end of the day it comes down to the people factor, and according to Ramlu if last year showed us anything, it is that real connections cannot be replaced.

“Through 2020 we saw so clearly that we were all craving people and human company. We aren’t ready to live in a fully virtual world. So, while we may be looking at how tech has enhanced our lives, it hasn’t replaced some of the really important things, which are the human connections we make and nurture,” she says.

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