The Future of Brand Experiences: Now Is the Time to Start Preparing for What Comes After VR

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By Thom Gruhler, Corporate Vice President Apps and Services, Microsoft Corporation

We’ve been hearing it for months - 2016 is going to be the year of VR. And with the release of three consumer headsets in the first half of the year, they just might be right. Certainly this will be the year that VR begins to break into the mainstream and starts to become a fixture in people’s homes. And that’s a very exciting thing for consumers and marketers alike. But while VR is just now gearing up for it’s big moment, smart marketers are already thinking about what’s coming next.

Virtual reality with features like 360 video as we know them are fascinating, and they present some incredible creative opportunities for brands. But they are just the first step towards a new paradigm we’ll all be experiencing in the coming years.  We are indeed seeing the emergence of a new computing platforms that will go far beyond what we have seen to date and new innovation in technology that allows the projection interactive holograms, not onto a screen, but right into the space with the viewer, is already coming down the pipeline. What we now refer to as Augmented Reality (AR) will continue to evolve to allow us to present and interact with information and entertainment in a way that goes far beyond what virtual reality has brought to the table so far.   I recently spoke on the future of this technology and its implications for branded experience at a marketing and entertainment conference and I heard many of my peers on the fence about the importance and impact of this technology for their brands and content. This is a mistake marketer’s cannot afford to make, all of us need to start now experimenting around this monumental shift, or risk being left behind.

As with the beginnings of VR or any new platform, we are again somewhat limited today by a lack of first party AR content. And yes, these devices are expensive right now and will take time to scale, especially those that support new innovation like holograms. But all that means is that now is the time for marketers to start preparing, envisioning and integrating future brand experiences into their marketing strategies, and begin testing and learning in order to define their role and opportunity in the space.

Here are a few things marketers should keep in mind as they look beyond the emergence of VR, and start blazing the trail into AR.

  • Give people a real experience. Remember that people don’t want “things” as much as they want experiences. And that’s where the AR opportunity for marketers and content creators comes to life. AR allows for brands to bring something interactive, memorable and totally unique to consumers. This is what all creators should think about when approaching the medium. Don’t use it for selling, use it to give people something they want, and you’ll reap the rewards. ModiFace has done a great job of this by allowing consumers to virtually try on make up. It offers a useful experience and as a result, has quickly been adopted by major brands like Sephora, P&G and Unilever.

  • You don’t need to go big. Right now, we’re talking about a medium that is in the developmental stages. It’s OK for content to be experimental and it’s fine to test and learn your way in. AR on its own is rich, surprising and novel to new users, so let it take center stage. A new app called Blippar has incorporated AR to allow you to learn about the world around you. It's a simple concept that has legs to grow and develop, a good example of letting the capabilities shine.
  • Don’t wait for a single device or platform to scale before getting in there. At this stage of the game, it’s not just about learning any single technology. It’s about figuring out how your brand can leverage this new medium, how you’ll tell your story and what you can bring to your audience. Take the opportunity to learn as well as contribute to a wide open new way of communicating. Chances like this don’t come along all the time.
  • Invest in AR capabilities inside your marketing department. There are some talented agencies out there who can help you create AR content, but in the long run, you’ll be better off investing in your own people. This obviously won’t be possible for every small brand who wants to try their hand, but if you’re big enough that you’ve brought your web and mobile development needs inside, you should think about giving your own team the chance to learn in the AR space. Give them the ability to test, learn, fail and redeploy. It will set you up for success down the road.
  • We’re on the cusp of a hugely exciting shift in media, commerce and culture. Marketers who think a step ahead, and use this time to start learning, exploring and defining the medium will be the ones that rule the day when this technology goes mainstream. Those who wait will be left scrambling to gain attention in a model that has already passed them by.