Immersive Virtual Reality Creates a New Currency in Storytelling

Early adopters are defining best practices and developing tools for measuring ROI

In the last 10 years, we’ve learned to rely on connected devices — smartphones to tablets to the Internet of Things — to communicate. And today, digital technology is transforming the art of storytelling by transporting consumers beyond the screen.

A powerful new medium for storytelling is virtual reality (VR) and it’s blurring the line between the storyteller and audience. VR technology is evolving rapidly as a channel for engaging viewers with everything from entertainment to advertising. Early adopters are already defining best practices, and developing tools for measuring ROI.

On the leading edge of visual storytelling is USA Today. In one of its earliest immersive videos, USA Today actually takes you inside a house fire. As part of a branded content promotion for Nest, a smoke-alarm technology, viewers can experience a 360-degree perspective of what it’s like to be inside a house that’s on fire.

USA Today and Nest give viewers a 360-degree look inside a building on fire to demonstrate how smart smoke alarms can save lives.

The idea behind the promotion is to underscore how smart smoke alarms can help save lives. “It’s very difficult to explain the benefits of this product to consumers in the store,” says Kelly Andresen, senior vice president at USA Today. “This was an amazing opportunity for us to help people experience what it’s like to be in a burning building.”

The result, produced in partnership with a local fire department, was a two-minute immersive experience. “We distributed it in our VR section, across our desktop, web, and mobile app,” says Kelly. “Also, for the first time, we ran 360-degree video footage in our high-impact ad unit space on our desktop landing page. On the day it published, it was the most watched video on our site of any kind, including VR, 360, or 2D content.”

USA Today’s success underscores just how hot VR technology is in today’s marketplace. Immersive VR offers companies the ability to allow customers to truly experience the features and benefits of a product in an engaging and entertaining way.

The power of virtual reality

One of the remarkable features of immersive VR is that it creates memories for the viewer that can be as real as an actual experience. “In the very best examples of immersive storytelling, a few days later, the user or the viewer can actually remember that story as if it had actually occurred to them,” says Joseph R. Jones, principal product manager at Adobe.

Not surprisingly, technology that has the power to leave an indelible imprint in the viewer’s consciousness is like catnip for marketers. Among the pioneers of VR for brand storytelling are car companies. “The industry that’s moving the fastest, and making the most noise in terms of VR are car brands,” says Joseph. “Car companies like giving a user the ability to really feel like they’re inside of the car.”

In fact, USA Today’s first foray into branded immersive video content was for Honda. But rather than give you a virtual tour of their latest car, the 360 video puts you in the driver’s seat of the Honda Indy two-seater, traveling at over 200 mph. “The fastest seat in sports” immersive VR experience is a compelling way to underscore the power of Honda’s brand and engineering capabilities.

“The tw0-minute video was hugely successful — we got millions of views,” says Kelly. “It also helped us understand that there is an audience out there that’s looking for really high-quality VR experiences to consume — whether that content is from the newsroom, or from our advertising partners.”

USA Today’s first foray into branded immersive video content was for Honda. A 360-degree video was created, so viewers could experience what it’s like to lead the start of a Verizon IndyCar Series race in the Honda Indy car two-seater.

Joseph says brand advertising that uses virtual experiences to sell a product is helping to shape the early evolution of VR storytelling. “The vocabulary of cinema evolved over 100 years,” he says. “But we’re already seeing VR used more frequently for storytelling, and today’s immersive experiences will inform how the tools will evolve in the future.”

Creativity meets technology

Every great marketing campaign starts with a really good story. Some of the companies already defining how to tell VR stories include High Fidelity, Oculus, and Felix & Paul. Joseph says Felix & Paul, in particular, creates compelling content. “They are breaking new ground in terms of how you tell stories in this new medium.”

In addition to these content creators, other innovators in the 360-degree VR space include the Discovery Channel and Fox Innovation Lab. “Mythbusters: Sharks Everywhere!” is one example of a great 360-degree VR video experience. Another is an immersive VR video that lets users experience what it is like to land on Mars, from the perspective of Mark Watney, the lead character in “The Martian,” a feature film.

360-degree virtual reality video lets users experience what it’s like to swim with sharks.

Of course, engaging VR content requires the creative process to seamlessly blend with technology. For marketers interested in 360-degree video, there are some technical issues to consider when thinking about a VR production. These include everything from bandwidth and resolution to logistics and post-production requirements.**

**“**One big challenge that people need to think about is the pre-production phase,” says Joseph. “You have to figure out, in advance, how you’re going to move the user through the story, and how you’re going to deal with the fact that these 360-degree cameras see everything, so there’s nowhere to put lights and crew.”

What that means, in terms of post-production, is that a lot of time will be spent in editing to hide all of the tools that create the magic. Stitching together the shots to generate a seamless viewing experience is another challenge. “You’re going to spend the time that you would normally spend just getting a small subset of scenes, doing visual effects and cleaning up stitching errors,” says Joseph. “Every shot is a special effect shot, so it’s important to allocate the appropriate amount of time and resources for post-production work.”

Viewer education is another challenge when it comes to immersive 360-degree VR. “The problem is that people are used to watching a screen,” says Joseph. “So, it doesn’t necessarily occur to them to look behind them.” As viewers become more comfortable with the technology, marketers will be able to capitalize on lucrative advertising opportunities by incorporating unobtrusive and strategically-placed ads throughout the immersive storytelling experience.

Monetization 360

While there are plenty of technical issues to overcome, USA Today is one company that demonstrates how immersive video can be monetized. Adobe is also investing in ways to facilitate the end-to-end management and delivery of VR content, and to measure its effectiveness. Adobe Primetime, for example, includes playback, digital rights management, and ad insertion capabilities.

“In terms of monetization, Adobe is extending the advertising capabilities that are already working on PCs, tablets, and smartphones to VR devices,” says Joseph. “This makes it possible for ad-supported, multiscreen content providers to reach VR audiences without adjusting their business model.”

The possibilities for VR advertising content go beyond pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll exposure. Some of the advertising options within a VR environment include virtual product placements, dynamic billboards in the background, or any other type of creative sponsorship placement.

Adobe also is working on VR advertising solutions that include the seamless insertion of ads in VR environments, and the ability to collect advanced metrics on everything from online video delivery to gaze-tracking data from a user’s VR headset. Also in development are new ways to overcome bandwidth constraints in order to deliver significantly higher image quality to the end user.

Coming soon: Interactive holograms

If you think immersive 360-degree video has the potential to disrupt the marketplace, brace yourself for what’s next. On the horizon are two new mixed reality technologies — volumetric video and light fields — that enable people to walk around inside of a VR video. With these innovations, companies will be able to immerse customers in brand storytelling experiences.

In essence, these new technologies go beyond the VR headset, transforming the user experience from viewing to engaging. Volumetric video provides a way to fully scan and capture a moving, talking person that you can walk around and see from all perspectives. When you engage with volumetric video, it’s as if you are at the edge of a sphere, looking in at the main character. You can circle the character, and, whether you look from the left or the right, up or down, or even tilt your head, the character is accurately portrayed.

With light field technology, the objects you see are also 3D, and accurately portrayed from any point of view. This differs from volumetric video in that with this technology, light fields orient the user’s perspective to the center of the experience. So, instead of being on the outside, looking in, you are in the center of a sphere, looking out. From this perspective, you can walk all around, inside the sphere, and the 3-D objects that are projected around you still look real.

Volumetric video and light field technology will take time to enter the mainstream market because the bandwidth needs are dramatically higher than what is required for 360-degree VR video. As a result, the first mainstream implementations will likely be still photography, not video. New technical standards and bandwidth advances also are needed to help scale this technology.

Immersive VR is growing

While holographic technology is still not ready for primetime, immersive VR is poised to grow rapidly. One report, from The Diffusion Group, projects that VR shipments will grow from less than 5 million annually in 2016, to approximately 70 million a year by 2025. The report also predicts that global VR-related revenue will top $18 billion by 2025.

As the VR market grows, so will advertising and marketing opportunities. But marketers should be careful not to think they can just replicate 2-D or brick-and-mortar advertising in VR. “Especially in virtual reality, you’re living an experience — your brain believes it’s real,” says Cathy Hackl, a VR marketing expert. “Selling and marketing virtual reality needs to be subtle, and part of an experience. This is not about blatantly selling, it’s about the experience.”

One innovative technology Adobe is working on involves the ability to replace brands that appear in VR videos with personalized messaging that targets the user in the context of what they are viewing. That could mean, for example, that someone taking a virtual tour of Times Square in New York City would be exposed to a digital billboard, in which a targeted ad would replace what was on that billboard in the original video. “The idea behind this,” says Adobe engineer Kevin Smith, “is to switch out a real-world advertisement with a targeted advertisement, but still have it be a very non-intrusive, non-disruptive experience for the user.”

On the horizon, is the ability for the VR user to actually interact with an advertiser’s products. The creative challenge is to make that kind of advertising blend naturally into the narrative. “For instance, you’re walking down the street, and there are storefronts on either side,” Kevin says. “The fact that there are storefronts is important for you to feel that it’s realistic. You pass a shoe store, and see an advertisement in the window. You’ll be able to walk over, go inside, and actually look at a pair of shoes you’re interested in.”

While VR is still in its infancy, it is already having an impact on entertainment and advertising. As USA Today has learned from using VR for promoting branded content, a full-immersion experience can create a powerful bond between the viewer and the brand.

“VR does such an amazing job of eliciting empathy,” says Kelly. “This is really about building an emotional experience within VR, and finding a positive, consistent way to engage audiences.”

Read more about big data and immersive storytelling in our Beyond the Screen collection. #KnowYourCustomers