I Was a VR Skeptic Just Like You. Here's What Brought Me Around

It's easy to write it off as the latest marketing trend

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I’ve been dismissive of virtual reality and its potential for brands. You may have dismissed it, too. It’s hard to imagine popular adoption anytime soon. VR has looked like the emperor’s newest clothes, the latest marketing fad.

But I’ve had a change of heart, and I hope you will join me.

The visionary chairperson of HTC, Cher Wang, described VR by saying that “total immersion will lead to greater empathy” in her keynote address at the Mobile World Congress in 2018. That sounds like a good thing to me; the world could use a little more empathy right now.

For brands operating in a world where attention is so massively fragmented, a deeply immersive experience is tantalizing and rare. The empathy created by that level of immersion is emotionally powerful. That’s what makes it possible to create a lasting memory in the minds of the audience and a stronger relationship with any brand that’s involved.

While breadth isn’t there yet, in terms of audience reach, depth of storytelling appears to be. And that offers an opportunity to the right brand facing the right task.

So, is there any truth to the claim that total immersion leads to greater empathy? Well, yes, it seems so.

VR is helping people living with disabilities experience things in ways that are otherwise impossible. It’s helping returning soldiers cope with PTSD. And VR can help us learn, as Lockheed Martin pointed out to dramatic effect with their excellent, award-winning Mars Experience Bus campaign.

But most brands overlook the audiences that need VR the most because they are obsessed with millennials and Gen Z. And it’s hard to imagine those young audiences will be flocking to VR anytime soon.

Younger audiences value authenticity and experience. They tend to reject things that have been overly curated for them by older generations. It will take a Gen Z VR storyteller to make the technology feel vital and owned by younger generations.

When executed in the right way, for the right people, it can change their world.

Meanwhile, while we wait for this kind of storyteller, it’s clear from the Mobile World Congress that technology and UX continue to improve as the world moves to 5G networks. In their “moon landing” experience, Huawei has built an amazing demo of what VR can do when linked with 5G tech. In addition, HTC Vive created an incredible hot air balloon ride VR experience, and Samsung had long lines of people waiting to experience their various attractions.

But while these experiences show off the tech, they still have a gimmicky feel to them. They lack the purpose that has made other VR examples, those that assist or educate people, so compelling. Tech feels like a gimmick when it lacks purpose, when the experience of using it is “the thing.”

Always start with a story that has purpose—a story that shifts peoples’ thinking from A to B.

Then ask yourself two questions: First, how does being totally immersed in this environment make this story better? And second, how does deeper empathy drive how the story is experienced?

All things considered, there is enough here to have changed my mind on VR. The technology is worth exploring, watching and caring about. Because when executed in the right way, for the right people, it can change the world.

Immersion and empathy are powerful, but we need to handle them with care. Which brands can innovate with VR and make a difference to the people that need it most? And in a way that tells a story, that has a purpose, that drives their business and that doesn’t feel like another gimmick? That list of brands may be short, but the opportunity is huge for the brands that get it right.