Delving deeper into VR, AR, and AI: six emerging themes – Part 2

Sam Battams

Following on from last week’s blog post published in The Drum, here I’ll discuss the remaining two themes.

VR gets active

If VR got heads turning in the last year, the end of this year and going into 2017 will see arms waving and bodies moving. VR is going active, and it’s this step-change that is often the “eureka” moment for VR-sceptics. Currently it’s the HTC Vive that takes users into a 3D experience where they can move as they please and use controllers that quickly and convincingly are replaced with all manner of things in the virtual world, from artistic materials (see ‘Tilt Brush’) to huge samurai swords (‘Fruit Ninja’). This version of VR removes the spell-breaking moments of its predecessors; immersion is the right word here. Beyond the Vive, it is surely PlayStation VR (previously known as Project Morpheus) combined with its Move controllers that will bring VR into something approaching mainstream adoption when it launches in October.

The latest demonstrations of VR noticeably no longer involve the gormless expressions of users seemingly lost in a virtual world, but expressions of concentration as they are handed controllers to fix the International Space Station or hit a homerun, for example. From the outside these experiences look more involved, more technical, more complicated. But when executed well, they achieve the opposite: an intuitive experience that actually feels natural and inclusive.

Whilst virtual reality moves forward in user experience at the top end, at what could be seen as the other end of the spectrum, 360 video is becoming more prevalent from both publishers and brands. Before producing content in this form, a simple question should be asked: why is it better in 360? Some brands are considering this question, but each time one doesn’t, the reputation of, not only this particular format, but the view of VR as a whole is damaged. 360 and this version of VR do, of course, have some relation — the content of both exist in a 3D realm — but to closely relate the user experience is incorrect. Ignoring true VR to focus purely on 360 content, or moreover, not pursuing VR due to a lack of success with 360, could be a sorry mistake. The marketing world — often disproportionately obsessed with perceived ‘scale’ and cost rather than value — must understand the difference between these formats and platforms to make the most of the opportunity on offer.

AR! Now I get it

You know something’s big when you see real people (by which I mean non-industry types) doing it in the real world — even when that thing’s virtual. Every now and then a piece of tech, an app, or a digital meme, comes out of nowhere and dominates not only the mainstream media, but those clutching their devices on buses, trains, or in this case, while pounding the streets. On a sunny Saturday morning in July, sitting in a coffee shop, I noticed the woman next to me feed her baby with one hand while searching for the next Pokemon to collect with her other hand. Pokemon GO had reached the UK and ‘everyone’ was at it. I’d stumbled across a ‘use case’ — mothers with young babies, tech savvy and often on foot — that went from unexpected to darn right obvious in that very moment.

Back at work the following week the expected happened. What does Pokemon GO mean for my brand? Should we do something with it? Should we do ‘a Pokemon’? And what does that even mean? Pokemon GO itself is a clash of technology and culture that is never an exact science. A new version of something that already existed, dressed up in powerfully-branded, 90s-retro clothes. What it pointed to for me though was the arrival, and instant breakout, of augmented reality in the public domain.

For some time, those of us that work in tech have explained that AR is where the future really is. Some would even say that VR is a rehearsal for what will be the real deal: AR. Sadly, we explain, the tech isn’t quite there yet though (HoloLens will not likely launch for consumers before 2020) and solid examples of AR in action are few and far between. Now, with Pokemon GO — twinned with the constantly evolving Snapchat Lenses — AR was (and to a lesser but still significant extent is) being played with by millions, daily. The experience may be different to that of future AR (or the new kid on the artificial reality block, MR – mixed reality) but overnight we had an answer to the question of will anyone ever do ‘it’? The truth is that AR was only a small part of the experience (one which many even turned off) and Pokemon GO had quickly become a crude shorthand for geo-based AR in a way that makes people like me squirm with discomfort, but it provided an interesting starting point for brands thinking about mixing the digital with the physical, and that is an interesting question.