How Oculus Rift Is About to Reshape Marketing Creativity

Brands are enamored with the potential of 360-degree storytelling

Nancy Bennett is a virtual-reality marketing veteran. (Yes, such people actually exist and are about to become hot commodities among talent recruiters.) In the mid-2000s, Bennett had her avatar boots on the Internet-code-built ground of Second Life, constructing cyber experiences for her employer at the time, MTV Networks.

Of course, Second Life never really took off. So with her been there, done that perspective several years later as chief content officer at Two Bit Circus, she does not deal in hyperbole when it comes to the impact the much-hyped virtual reality headset Oculus Rift will have on marketing. Rather, Bennett leans on data. One-third of her agency's new business in 2014 was powered by the Oculus Rift developer's kit, helping grow her 2-year-old Los Angeles digital shop from 15 to 35 employees.

Oculus Rift's developer kit provides a glimpse into the future. Photo: Maciek Jasik 

Oculus, you see, isn't just an oxygen mask for fantasies—it has the potential to do nothing short of inventing a whole new universe of marketing.

"We didn't really have any virtual-reality work this time last year," says Bennett. "Now we've built our own camera rigs, we've built our own livestream viewing capability, so directors can actually see the [360-degree] spherical projection while they are on set. It's a lot of technical geekery going on, but this enthusiasm is not just because the space seems to be blossoming. There's a lot of forces at work—look at what Facebook has invested in VR."

Indeed, Oculus Rift—Facebook's $2 billion baby—this year could be shot out of a cannon (think of that view from the headset, literally speaking). The device is quickly losing its obscure-curiosity status after a couple of years of generating media coverage and lots of buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show and South by Southwest. And as that excitement spills over into the mainstream, Oculus may well become for virtual reality what the camera obscura was for photography two centuries ago.

"I knew that virtual reality would become important to the public at some point, but I thought it would take a much longer time," Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey confesses to Adweek. "I did not take into account the fact that unlike some new technologies, VR has already established mindshare as a concept.  

 

Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey. Photo: Maciek Jasik

Time travel, flying cars, artificial intelligence and VR are all sci-fi staples—and we are in the lucky position of bringing one of those things to life."

That said, the virtual-reality market is anything but a one-horse race. Google is gearing up to ship 500,000 units of its $45-or-less Cardboard VR headset, while the forthcoming $200 Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus software, has been met with great expectations. Meantime, Oculus Rift and Facebook are being extremely tight-lipped about details around their own consumer headset, though it's been reported it will hit the market sometime this year and will be priced anywhere from $200 to $400.

Whether consumers will be willing to pay such a rich sum for the device could bar it from achieving scale in the near future. And scale, of course, is what most advertisers need to take it seriously.

That may not be an issue for long: MarketsandMarkets projects that VR hardware will generate $66 million in revenue in 2015—a small total to be sure, but still a 164 percent increase from 2013. Naturally, gadget-native millennials will drive much of the market. According to a Deep Focus survey of 1,203 young adults, 51 percent had heard about Oculus and similar devices, with 41 percent signaling they were interested in trying one out.

"Millennials will definitely want to get their heads in the game," says Chelsea Krost, a Gen Y-focused analyst and TV host.

On the topic of games, they, too, are a key driver of this market, with popular titles like Call of Duty and Halo crucial to Oculus' prospects. In fact, talk to anyone in the tech space and they'll tell you gaming is the gateway to wide adoption of VR devices.

"It is going to be what gets the headset onto more faces, and that will lead to other types of content," predicts Jim Hord, executive creative director at Havas Worldwide. "Xbox, for instance, is a gaming console, but also your conduit to the Web and you can stream movies. It's a media platform." Hord foresees Oculus as evolving as a consumer product in much the same fashion.

The potential for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company in terms of melding VR and social into a new type of mobile platform certainly stirs the imagination. There have been rumors about Facebook getting deeper into video with original content that seems to dovetail with where marketers see this relationship going.

"The future of Oculus Rift is most likely in gaming and entertainment, areas that Facebook will need to be in if it expects to follow the data that consumers create," says Ian Schafer, CEO and founder of Deep Focus. (Facebook declined to comment for this story.)

Rebecca Lieb, a Facebook analyst at Altimeter Group, adds, "This is likely a much longer-term strategy as the adoption curve is so high. But Oculus can serve as a test bed for new forms of marketing."

Luckey experiments in his lab. Photo: Maciek Jasik 

The Marketing Angle

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