It's only the second day of South by Southwest Interactive, and virtual reality is already being touted by panelists and attendees around Austin as the breakaway trend for the annual festival's 30th year. But while the nascent space is still heating up with consumers trying VR for the first time, brands say a lot more people need to experiment with the emerging technologies.
Speaking on a panel about how virtual reality can be used to change the way products and services are sold, representatives from Hasbro, The North Face and Lufthansa German Airlines said the mobile era is ripe for virtual reality to go mainstream.
"Once it becomes more accessible, then it doesn't become a fad," said Victor Lee, svp of digital marketing for Hasbro. "And then comes truly the reality of anyone can do this. Then it's a race of who does it best, who's more creative, who tells the best story and who's going crazy with it."
In 2016, a number of major tech players will make their virtual, augmented and mixed reality headsets available to consumers. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens will be released this year.
However, few—other than Google Cardboard—feel accessible to the masses. Many are expensive. The HTC Vive is expected to cost around $800 (and also require a desktop computer with powerful graphics capabilities). The Oculus Rift is expected to cost $600, while the Microsoft HoloLens is currently selling for $3,000 to developers.
The North Face already has developed two action-packed VR experiences that transported viewers to Yosemite and Mount Everest, both of which have aimed to bring interest to the outdoors. Eric Oliver, director for digital marketing at The North Face, said he's optimistic that the ubiquity of smart phones will be a "gateway" for massive adoption of VR.
"I think with massive media companies like the New York Times and obviously Google and Facebook behind this technology, lots of people—and brands included—are going to figure out the distribution problem," Oliver told Adweek after speaking. "But one of the biggest hurdles on the hardware side is already taken care of because we all carry smart phones."
While he wouldn't say what else The North Face has planned to top Yosemite and Everest, Oliver said the brand expects to do more with VR in 2016.
Lufthansa is taking more of a grassroots approach to how it introduces both staffers and customers to its VR film, which shows what it's like to fly with the airline. Torsten Wingenter, head of digital innovations for the brand, said even people who were averse to trying on the Google Cardboard to watch the film were hooked after a few minutes. He said airlines are often judged only by price and travel time, but he thinks VR could help marketers like Lufthansa better illustrate its value to those who have never flown with the company.
"People are convinced, suddenly of the technology," Wingenter said.
But whether or not VR headsets become more mainstream any time soon remains to be seen.