Virtual augmented reality is here

It’s predicted that by 2020, 100 million consumers will shop in augmented reality and by 2026, mixed reality will be used globally.

There is a lot of technical jargon floating around the digital space, so before delving into the stimulating world of virtual, augmented and mixed reality and how they overlap, let’s start with some clear definitions.

Virtual Reality (VR): a computer generated 3D environment in which the user interacts with an artificial world, cutting the user off from their true surroundings via a wrap-around headset device.

Augmented Reality (AR): Unlike Virtual Reality which creates a totally artificial environment, augmented reality uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it, for example an augmented reality catalogue that allows users to visualise how certain pieces of furniture would look in their home using a tablet device.

Mixed Reality (MR): Mixed reality is a combination of virtual and augmented reality and is sometimes referred to as hybrid reality. Mixed reality augments the real world with virtual objects that aim to look as if they are in the real world, e.g. placing a virtual lamp onto your real life coffee table.

Where are we now?

Virtual reality has been around for decades, with a deep rooted association in gaming technology, but this is dramatically shifting as more industries are realising the potential of VR, AR and MR.

Simultaneously, consumers are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. In 2016, there were 43 million active virtual reality users worldwide and of those who haven’t yet tried VR, 65% were interested in trying it. So if brands want to keep up with this demand, the time for VR, AR and MR marketing is now. “Brands can no longer wait to see if VR is becoming the next big thing. It already is.” (Stewart Rogers, Journalist, Analyst and Speaker for Venture Beat and VB Insight, 2017).

Predictions also claim that brands need to be getting ready for example, it’s anticipated that by the end of 2017 virtual reality and mixed reality will be much more mainstream and brands will need to have experiences built and ready for this – “the world around each customer is now the brand’s canvas” (Jesse Stay, Stay N Alive, Digital Marketing & Advertising Agency).

Sectors including travel, retail and finance are understanding the importance and potential of VR, AR and MR to engage with consumers on a new level and major brands are paving the way.

Leaders in virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality

Travel

We know that the art of storytelling in marketing is a hot topic that is continually evolving, and travel brands are taking this to the next level with virtual reality storytelling experiences – a prime example of this is Thomas Cook. The travel agency installed Samsung Gear VR headsets in 10 of its UK stores to give users a fully immersive 360 degree experience of their potential holiday destinations including New York, Singapore, Cyprus and Greece.

“We were showing people views from the top of the Rockefeller Centre, then they would take the headsets off and buy the tickets for the real-life experience right there.”

Critics have argued that this type of VR content “misses the mark” and that companies simply use it as a PR tool around a VR story and don’t think of it as an actual tool for increasing sales and revenue.

Thomas Cook contradict this claim, with their VR campaign resulting in the revenue for New York excursions increasing by 190% in three months. As well as this, flight and hotel bookings went up by £12,000 from people making a purchase after using the Samsung Gear.

But how can this type of technology bridge the gap between on and offline and is it limited to offline and in-store experiences?

Well, Thomas Cook took it even further with their ‘Try before You Fly’ online campaign: an experience that can be viewed online in a browser.

Customers begin their journey in the cockpit of a Thomas Cook plane and are challenged to look around the plane to find clues to three of the airline’s latest destinations. Once complete, they are taken to a microsite to enter their guesses, with the opportunity to win a £3,000 holiday.

Jonathan Smith, founding partner at Catch, added: “This new technology is perfectly placed to highlight Thomas Cook Airlines’ new routes and high-end A330 aircraft.”

Retail

Major retail brands are already using augmented reality to connect their brand and products to the consumers.

Studies show that 62% of people believe there are benefits to shopping in augmented reality and Tesco’s Home Book Augmented Reality is a prime example of how augmented reality can be genuinely useful to consumers when brands get it right.

The AR technology has taken the home catalogue concept to a new level by delivering product information to consumers in the most creative and engaging way. From the interactive front cover to 3D products and buy links, the brand uses AR to showcase these within the consumer’s very own home.

Users can view Tesco’s soft furnishings on their own sofa with the ‘cushion visualiser’ tool and essentially try before they buy.

The functionality encourages the shopper to discover a range of products in their own personalised context, building a stronger connection and loyalty with the brand and ultimately increasing sales. Experts claim that “augmented reality will bring us a step closer to the virtual showroom where we can interact with objects three dimensionally rather than via images. That enhanced experience will drive both retail and online sales as the experience of online and offline move closer to one another”.

Finance

Forget contactless payment and online banking, financial companies plan on taking it to the next level with virtual bank branches.

The chief technology officer for Deloitte has indicated that virtual reality bank branches allowing users to visit without actually leaving their home could be implemented as early as the next 18-24 months.

Another key player, Wells Fargo has tested how Google Glass and Oculus Rift can be used by the San-Francisco based bank “We’re looking to re-imagine customer interactions with money within and across channels including how a customer might use virtual reality to manage finances”

As this sector comes with a stronger need to educate the consumer and gain trust compared to the retail and travel sectors, it’s developing at a slightly slower pace with many financial brands and banks in the early experimenting and prototyping stages.

However, some major brands are hinting that virtual bank branches could make an appearance in as soon as 18 months.

How will this impact our online user interactions, website design and SEO?

The ever-changing world of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology should not be considered in isolation and will ultimately have significant implications for brands.

Creating succinct user journeys between online and offline channels, website design/functionalities and adapting marketing activities (namely SEO) must all be carefully considered before brands delve into the virtual, augmented or mixed reality world.

The changes are already indicating that websites will soon be tailored to work with VR headsets and we can already see from the above examples that brands are maximising the potential of this technology within their business and marketing strategies.

Ecommerce sites in particular will need to be aware that this technology will be fundamental in online shopping moving forward. Brands will be able to empower consumers by allowing users to try on clothing before they buy within a virtual clothing store. Travel brands will need to keep up with changes in 360-degree cameras to capture hotel interiors that allow users to walk through and look around before making a booking.

These shifts in how users interact with brand’s websites can ultimately improve customer to brand relationships and improve site interactivity and design status.

However, with these developments there may come challenges, in the form of page rendering and load times which will in turn frustrate users. Designers and developers will need to work closely to overcome such challenges and prepare for the likelihood that new technologies will eventually impact the way sites need to be built.

The search environment will also need to keep up momentum with the virtual world and the SEO industry is set to see “the greatest transformation it has ever seen” as a direct result of virtual technologies.

While virtual content is fairly new, it will be considered an exciting and intriguing phenomena to the public, making it incredibly newsworthy, sharable and linkable. With quality links still being key to achieving high Google rankings, this will have huge benefits for sites adopting this. Not to mention the potential improvements in click-through-rates and user engagement – as well as the possibility of reaching new audiences.

So where next?

It’s evident that virtual technology discussions, debates and predictions show no sign of slowing down soon. Brands are already ramping up their VR, AR and MR technologies, consumers are enthusiastic to get involved and marketers are carefully considering how the changes will impact them.

2016 continued to be the ‘year of the mobile’ and ‘all about storytelling’, but we expect 2017 will be the ‘year of virtual and augmented reality’. With the powerful technology breaking the gaming stigma and making its way into our everyday lives – it’s vital that we don’t overlook or underestimate the impact of this. After all, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality will soon become the norm.