By Rob Swanger
This Spring, the New York Times shipped 1.2 million Google Cardboard units to their subscribers along with instructions to download an app to view a short documentary presented with immersive virtual reality video. It was their goal to introduce the possibilities of VR as a new way to tell to a story. The app turned out to be the publication’s most popular to date.
“Virtual reality” and “3-D” have been around for decades, but have existed largely as a gimmick to sell toys and movie tickets. Now, VR is growing up. Products like Google Cardboard are leading the world into a new frontier of entertainment and engagement.
Facebook recently acquired virtual reality company Oculus for $2 billion and partnered with Samsung to release the GearVR, a headset designed to display VR images and audio. Google already introduced a 360 Video channel on YouTube, and this fall the tech giant will launch its new VR platform, Daydream, and is already retooling popular apps like Maps and Play for VR.
Device manufacturers are scrambling to accommodate Google’s VR apps on their upcoming models. Limited-permissions versions of the SDK VR API (which will power Daydream) are already available for developers eager to build the first blockbuster VR app.
Social media platforms, strategists and advertisers have taken notice, too. They are already looking for ways that VR can help sell products, services and messages. Facebook began introducing 3D video ads last November and Snapchat acquired an app that will allow VR and 360 video capabilities.
Our advantage as progressives is our ability use storytelling to our advantage. Narratives presenting real-life problems and human examples of injustice create a sense of empathy and compassion that drives people to action. As we work to tell these stories, existing technology allows us to create media that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. However, despite the sharpness, intricacy and clarity we’re able to produce, we’re still limited by a rigid divide between the user and the narrative we’re trying to convey.
VR may be a way to reach a broader audience on a far deeper level, allowing people to see the world through new eyes or identify with a story that is all too familiar. A VR experience could depict a day in the life of a single-mother, the user surrounded by the commotion of a high-stress, low-wage service job or rushing home to prepare dinner for her children.
Or maybe VR is a way for white, male allies to experience the fear of an African American trying to survive a traffic stop, or a woman walking down a city street through a gauntlet of stares, catcalls and lewd propositions. Perhaps we could even better understand the world through the eyes of a Trump supporter!
While all these things are possible through existing mediums, a heightened simulation offers a powerful experience that is more likely to stay with the user even after the video ends. The saliency of the VR experience may convert to more shares, sign-ups and donations, but the impact on memory also suggests more repeat views and improved retargeting.
The jury on VR is still out, but the fact that some of the biggest players in tech are investing so many resources seems fortuitous, and certainly has us thinking of new ways to share the message of progress.