Marketing Virtual Reality Experiences… Without the Headset

Is it possible to promote the unique pleasures that Virtual Reality (VR) offers without putting people in headsets? This was the question at the heart of this R&D project. We are thrilled to have partnered with Anagram, drawing on their 2021 VR documentary Goliath: Playing With Reality as a case study for our research. This page documents and evaluates our latest experiments with developing new ways of promoting VR based on applying theoretical concepts to a set of prototype marketing materials.

 

The prototype content in question tested out Thomas Baekdal’s theoretical characterisation of two so-called ‘moments’ of a VR experience: (1) a ‘macro moment’, which refers to experiencing VR yourself in a headset; and (2) a ‘micro moment’, which is when VR content is presented or broadcast to people in 2D without a headset, and speaks to those whom prefer watching others in VR rather participating in it themselves.

So, what might promotional content for 'macro' and 'micro' moments of a VR experience look like? Is it possible to blend both of these approaches within the same marketing campaign so to appeal to different kinds of audiences? And which of these two approaches to promoting VR would be the most successful?

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CREATOR'S STATEMENT

Produced by Anagram, Goliath: Playing With Reality is a 25-minute animated virtual reality experience about schizophrenia, gaming and connection. Through mind-bending animation, Goliath: Playing With Reality explores the limits of reality in this true story of so-called ‘schizophrenia’ and the power of online gaming communities. Echo (narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton) guides you through the many realities of Goliath, a man who spent years isolated in psychiatric institutions but finds connection in multiplayer games. Combining heart-felt dialogue, mesmerising visuals and symbolic interactions, weave through multiple worlds to uncover Goliath’s poignant story. It is now available for free on the Oculus store.

 

The project had its World Premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival in 2021. It has been made with the support of Oculus VR for Good; the British Film Institute awarded funds from the National Lottery; Creative XR, Digital Catapult and the Arts Council England; Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée; StoryFutures Academy; and developed thanks to La Biennale di Venezia - Biennale College Cinema VR.

BACKGROUND RESEARCH

The immersive market is growing at a fast pace, reaching £100 billion in 2020, yet questions still remain over the mass-market potential of Virtual Reality (VR), with general UK adoption of VR headsets at home still low. As things stand in 2021, approximately 4% of UK internet users own a VR headset (Allen & Freeman, 2021). This means that more work is needed to better communicate the magic of VR for audiences without access to headsets. However, doing so is not easy. VR is a very hybridised cultural form – a blend of film and video game, but also theatre and even theme park. VR is a visceral medium, too, one that, at its best, is known to incite emotions of empathy (Milk, 2015) and awe (Quesnel, 2018), but is otherwise predicated on the ability for technology to create fully three-dimensional ‘wrap-around sensory experiences’ (Dovey, 2019).

 

But to what extent does marketing for VR actually need to produce wrap-around sensory experiences? Can these innate VR qualities of visceral three-dimensional space, awe-inspiring imagery and empathy-building digital storytelling be communicated without a VR headset? And might the secret to marketing VR to a wider audience lie not just in presenting it to them as a 2D experience, but where other people are the focus?

Thomas Baekdal, a media analyst and author on various topics of digital transformation, identifies the ‘viewing’ of a VR experience as an emerging trend, particularly across the gaming sector. Here, the focus is not on trying to get people to buy or even experience VR themselves, but instead on watching other people interact within a virtual environment. Consider the two ways in which we might experience a video game:

 

‘One way is to play the game yourself, which is really fun if that’s what you want to do. But the other way is to watch someone else play the game, through which you experience their emotions and actions. Why would people want to spend time watching someone else play a game, you ask? Oh, I don’t know. Why do you watch football on TV? It’s the same thing. Millions of people watch football on TV, but most people don’t actually play it themselves. This is what we call 'let’s players’ (2017).

 

Baekdal’s ‘let’s player’ concept leads him to characterising two different modes of VR experience: (1) a macro moment, i.e., for experiencing VR yourself in a headset; and (2), a micro moment, i.e., for presenting VR experiences to people without a headset. This second category is about how to show a VR experience to a non-VR viewer – and thereby catering for people more interested in watching, not playing. For example, film-goers may be less accustomed to using controllers than gamers, and generally are used to consuming stories that they merely observe. Managing the expectations of a VR gamer versus a VR film-goer are very different propositions that marketers must recognise, given the uncertainty surrounding expectations of VR.

 

To put it simply: how might we create marketing for a VR experience that, on the one hand, experiments with new ways of promoting VR as a macro experience, potentially encouraging audiences to purchase a VR headset, while, on the other hand, also promotes VR as a micro experience, one based on watching others interact within the VR environment? To what extent might adopting this 'micro' approach to VR promotion grant a larger number of audiences with access to a VR experience that they might otherwise not have?

This R&D project was done with the full support of Anagram, and funded by StoryFutures Academy, 2021.

WALKTHROUGH VIDEO

Summary

  • Aim: To prototype a set of promotional materials that tests out Thomas Baekdal’s concept of a ‘micro VR moment', i.e. conceiving of the audience as a ‘let’s player’ who finds pleasure in watching or pretending to be someone else rather than playing themselves. Our prototype content is based on gamification principles that promote VR as a site for rethinking the nature of reality and for challenging toxic perceptions of gaming culture.

  • Title of our prototype campaign: ‘Where Am I?'

  • Promotional strategy: Our promotional content takes audiences on a hero’s journey, also shifting the perspective as we transition from the world of the protagonist’s schizophrenic mind to the escapist world of online gaming, shifting from the point of view from the character, to avatars, to the audience. Through videos, digital avatars, an AR filter and mobile wallpapers, we invite audiences to consider in which 'reality' they feel most comfortable. 

  • Audience: Research shows that, of all the immersive platforms, Goliath's target audience of 16-34s are most used to engaging with AR filters. We therefore use an AR filter as something of a promotional bridge to VR. Research also shows that this demographic’s most popular location for consuming immersive content is at home, typically associating immersive experiences with a safe, familiar environment. As such, we used platforms accessible for home consumption, like filters, video, mobile screensavers and social media. 

PHASE ONE: VIDEOS

For the first phase, we created a mock trailer and four accompanying videos. These prototype videos begin our hero's journey, with a character struggling to cope in his world of schizophrenia and entering a vibrant new world of online gaming, only to complicate the distinctness of this new reality across the ensuing videos. We adapted what Catherine Allen calls the 'Perspective Shifter' format by creating content that shifts the audience's point of view - for this first phase, the perspective is that of the central protagonist, though we also establish images of digital avatars in the four accompanying videos that are used in later content to shift the perspective.

PHASE TWO: AVATAR CREATION & WALLPAPERS

For the second phase, we prototyped a digital avatar creation tool. Despite the first phase revealing that the protagonist's two worlds are not separate but actually blur into each other, this avatar design tool represents the second part of our hero's journey as the character takes ownership of their life in the gaming world by becoming something else. Notably, we shift the perspective at this stage towards a micro VR 'let's player', with users creating a virtual being to play with. Yet reflecting the blended realities of Goliath, binaural sound makes users feel like they are not a let's player at all, but instead are immersed inside their own fantasy. Our accompanying mobile wallpapers then ask people to choose which reality they wish to live in: a  reality-blended game world or a game-blended real world.

PHASE THREE: AR FILTER

For the final phase, we prototyped an AR filter. Notably, the perspective shifts again, allowing the audience to enter the game world of Goliath, not as the protagonist, nor as their avatar, but as themselves, wearing a VR headset. Thematically, the filter communicates the idea that you do not need your avatar because we already live in blended realities of physical and virtual - fully blending macro and micro VR moments into one. Promotionally, the filter works like a personal totem, directing audiences towards Goliath by creating an image wherein a game world, a strange shift in perspective and the wearing of a VR headset become a dynamic, normalised experience.

AUDIENCE EVALUATION: What we DID

  • Led by Catherine Allen, we tested our prototype content on a real-life audience. The actual Goliath experience is made for a high-end VR headset – an Oculus Quest – which means that in order to experience the piece at home, audience members must have access to this VR device. Whilst this is a significant barrier to entry, headset sales are now on the rise: there has been a 350% increase in purchases since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a distinct sense of online community that is emerging around the devices, especially relating to gaming and virtual hangout spaces. Conversations on Reddit and Twitch about VR, for instance, are thriving.

  • Immersive Promotion Design and Limina Immersive surveyed a 137 people who work across a range of sectors. Some had experienced VR before, but, reflecting the general population, most had not. All respondents experienced our prototype content before filling in an online survey. We then analysed the audience response. 

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audience evaluation: What we found

Finding 1: Uncertainty

 

 

Based on the promotional materials you have

seen, would you like to experience Goliath?

It is great to see that there were very few people who did not want to experience Goliath – only 12.4%. However, the most common response was ‘Maybe’. This indicates a fairly high level of uncertainty. Analyzing the qualitative responses to later questions, there is a distinct theme of people not understanding what the experience actually is. For instance, one respondent said they don’t “really understand the concept fully”, whilst another said “it doesn’t give a specified description of the product”.

 

It is worth noting here that the majority of the study participants rarely or never used VR. VR is new, and many people say you really have to have experienced it in order to ‘get’ it. This is a challenge with marketing to people unfamiliar with the medium. People who had never engaged with VR before were more likely to be unsure about whether or not they wanted to experience Goliath. If the target market is existing headset users, then this may only be an issue for targeting those who have just unboxed the headset. However, if Goliath is promoted at all to people who don’t own headsets (eg. as an in-location experience), our recommendation would be to make sure that promotional copy is extra clear on what the experience is, using language audience members are used to and references with which they already have some familiarity.

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How often do you currently engage with VR?

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