Facebook's $2 billion baby Oculus Rift finally started shipping headsets to consumers today, a much-needed move to make virtual reality more mainstream. The development will likely benefit agencies and brands who have spent the past couple of years pouring millions of dollars into creating immersive, 360-degree video clips.
But the technology comes at a price. A headset alone costs $600 from retailers like Amazon or through Oculus' own site and also requires consumers to buy a pricey PC, which costs an additional $1,000 to $2,000.
Oculus is only one of a handful of VR headsets expected to become available to consumers this year. HTC's Vive will roll out next week for $799 and Sony plans to release a PlayStation VR headset later this year. Samsung's also making a big marketing push for its Milk VR by partnering with companies like Vice and creating ads featuring spokesman Lil Wayne.
Here are a handful of reactions to what today's development means for brands.
1. More than a one-off use case?
Until the technology costs less, brands and agencies will continue to use it for experiential activations, said Kevin Purcer, creative integrations director at Erwin Penland.
It also risks being treated like a parody, even though Purcer said Oculus Rift and the rest of the VR players should be taken seriously.
"It is most important for us as marketers to simply pay very close attention to behavior as it relates to VR experiences," he said. "It absolutely has the potential to revolutionize content experiences so ignoring it as a passing trend is a recipe for missed opportunities in the future."
2. Costs need to come down
Peter Corbett, president and partner at Click 3X, acknowledged that headsets are expensive, but that shouldn't stop brands from experimenting—particularly for activations at big events.
"While consumers may find the high price tag daunting, we believe that this launch is just the beginning of really immersive experiences across a rich variety of platforms," Corbett said.
"We're currently producing an Oculus-specific project that is designed to entice large contributions to a not-for-profit organization, so the quality of the Oculus experience is a critical part. The key early adopters that will be most impacted by Oculus are likely to be in the area of specific events where the quality of the Oculus is a big benefit and the cost is justified."
3. But higher-quality content is coming
Another one of marketers' complaints is that branded video tends to be low-quality. That could change now that Oculus is available to the masses, said Layne Harris, vp of innovation technology at 360i.
"While Oculus Rift has provided availability to a low-cost development kit for some time now, it was just that: an unfinished, unpolished prototype. Any program or product produced for the dev version was limited to the quality of what the beta version could do. The release of the high-end consumer version is a different story," he said.
"With the consumer version, brands and marketers can create VR programs that align with the quality that consumers expect from beautifully crafted brand experiences. Brands can also benefit from the initial excitement around any big new product release… With only a small library of content titles, [you] can expect branded VR content to be downloaded and viewed at higher numbers now while competition is less prevalent."
4. Getting a first-mover advantage
While much of the hype has surrounded the debut of Rift, agencies' success with virtual reality will hinge on their ability to be platform agnostic—much like it has become the norm for navigating both Apple and Android devices, said Marc Maleh, managing director at R/GA.
Alex Morrison, vp managing director at R/GA, said brands and agencies have a chance early on to be VR pioneers. "A handful of brands are going to become famous for what they do this year in VR," he said. "What those things are is still anyone's guess, [but] the brands who do will reap outsized rewards. Just like in the early days of mobile, many of the brands who were early to play were able to build a lasting advantage in the space. We're now at a similar point with VR and AR."
5. Branded headsets
With Google cardboard headsets, brands often plaster the packaging with branding. Jordan Gray, manager of creative labs at Organic, sees the same opportunity with Oculus.
"It would be wise for marketers to brand the headset, since there will be countless opportunities for users to be photographed experiencing the headset at activations," he said.
6. More use of existing video
One of the major drawbacks of VR is that it requires brands to produce videos separately from the way that they make other content. But earlier this year, GoPro's CEO and founder Nick Woodman said he sees big opportunity for his brand in leveraging existing YouTube content.
"We're making significant investments," Woodman said at CES. "We can leverage traditional content to market a VR-viewing experience. It's not either-or; it can be both. You can imagine a future where perhaps on the GoPro channel on YouTube, every piece of content we shoot is available in traditional format and VR to help raise awareness of it."
7. Tourism in particular could be a boon
Brands like Lufthansa, the North Face and British Columbia's tourism bureau have all tested VR videos that transport people to destinations, so expect for more brands to build content around specific locations in the future.
For The North Face, a place like Yosemite—revered among American outdoor enthusiasts and the setting for one of The North Face's first films—"was the right iconic place to go if we can use VR to bring that to them," Eric Wilson, director for digital marketing at The North Face recently told Adweek at South by Southwest Interactive.
"The example I use is if a kid walks into our Manhattan store and sees that place and is inspired to go to their local park, then that's what we want as a brand from our VR pilot."
Airbnb vp of engineering Mike Curtis made a similar point during a presentation at Mobile World Congress.
"It sure would be nice to do a virtual walk-through of a place before you go … all things in the future—but I think all of them are relevant and possible," he said.