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VR vs. 360 Video: First Class vs. Economy and Why It Matters

Google Cardboard

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are very hot topics right now. There’s no question that gaming and entertainment will be profoundly impacted by VR (I’ll leave AR for another day). The interesting question is how deeply VR will penetrate into other areas.

Last week at the Google “I/O” developer event, the company revealed a new VR platform called “Daydream.” This is an ambitious project to VR-ify content and apps and create what amounts to a parallel Google Play store featuring VR-enabled apps and experiences. Google also announced that it was going to build its own upgraded VR headset. Its low-cost “Cardboard” glasses (above) make VR experiences accessible if not entirely fulfilling.

Many other companies, including and especially Facebook, are placing huge bets on VR.  Indeed, Google’s efforts are somewhat defensive in this arena, given how aggressively Facebook is trying to own VR with its Oculus platform. Similarly, for competitive reasons, Apple is reportedly working on VR. In addition, Samsung, HTC, Sony, Disney and others have significant initiatives already in market or in development.

There are high expectations for this technology. Some have gone so far as to say VR/AR will “save” digital marketing. That’s unlikely; digital marketing will have to save itself.

Regarding the VR experience: the big issue here are headsets. While Cardboard has solved the issue of affordability, it provides a sub-optimal experience. Cardboard is mostly about checking out the novelty of VR rather than ongoing engagement with VR content.

At the Google developer event the company announced that there had been more than 50 million Cardboard VR apps downloaded over the two years since the simple goggles were introduced. But this is probably somewhat misleading. A more interesting stat would be active users or repeat usage.

Unless or until the industry can solve the challenge of the headset (cost, usability, quality, portability), VR will operate mostly in the realm of gaming and entertainment at home, which could include things such as virtual travel, sports, concerts and other events. This isn’t to say it won’t translate into a multi-billion-dollar industry, but it won’t be fully mainstream and live up to all the predictions, projections and marketer fantasies.

However 360 video is already here and doesn’t require a headset. To use a travel analogy, if Oculus is the first class of VR experiences then 360-degree video is economy.

There are already a great many 360-degree videos on Facebook and YouTube. These videos offer what might be called a “virtual VR” experience. They provide the ability to move around an environment as you would in VR but don’t quite put you inside of it.

Yet these videos can be extremely effective tools to bring users much closer to the experience of a vacation destination (Hilton) or the view from a specific section in a sports arena. There is already lots of 360 imagery and video on TripAdvisor — and there are many other such examples.

While 360 video is not simple to shoot at this point, it will get easier. It will be accessible to small businesses as well. Somewhat ironically, 360 imagery has been around for years. It was introduced years ago with virtual tours for real estate and hospitality. Google Street View is another precursor. Video is simply the next step.

So while I fully expect VR to take hold and have a major impact on the market and marketing that will take a number of years and may not affect as wide a range of industries and business categories as anticipated. By contrast 360 video is here today and can create bring a much stronger sense of place/product/experience than still images or conventional video to would-be buyers.

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