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Where do we go from here? (First published in TWELWE #3, 2017)

“One of the many things that gives you the feeling of being on top of the world, is the pleasure of being well dressed. Perfect taste is a criterium, and in hats, there’s nothing smarter than an Adam. From stern to stern, your Adam Hat gives off that look of quality. You see quality in the carefully molded shape, in the richness of the genuine all-fur felt and in the subtle color shade. Next time you pass an Adam Hat Store or authorized dealer, come on in and try on an Adam. Once you see and wear an Adam Hat, you’ll agree that today, as before, Adam is one of Americas outstanding Hat values. Now, on to the program.”

About a minute’s worth of text read out loud on national television. Live and without a single cut, the image on the TV screens across America simply showed the announcer while he read it. This was the first live TV commercial and it didn’t cost Adam Hats a penny. But at least the announcer, Ray Forrest, got to keep the hat.

In 1941, TV was still new. It was exciting and we completely misunderstood the power of the medium. TV ads, when used right, can create worlds. They turn fantasy into reality. They make everything seem so real, it feels like we can almost touch it. And they become part of our dreams. But when we first started in TV, we tried to use the knowledge we already had. We knew how radio worked and TV was broadcasted the same way, so we treated the images we sent through the air just like radio. 

The first ad was live, just like the best radio ads. We based it on a strong advertising text, just like in radio. We used the announcer in the studio, just like in radio. There were no cuts and no pre-recordings. In TV we could do something completely new: We could show people what made the sound. So that’s what we did. We showed the announcer, while he read out the text.

TV ads quickly learned to use the new format better. Advertisers started telling small stories using not only the sound, but also the image to convey their message. The house wives shown cooking, cleaning or taking care of children spoke about their hard days at home and how much time the pudding-mix saved them. Men in all forms and shapes showed off their new inventions, their “premium solutions” or the upgrades in this year’s new car model. Small cartoons and stop motion films opened up new ways of bringing products to life. Cigarettes started dancing around in circles, bacteria came alive on the kitchen table and fantastic imaginary animals started interacting with perplexed actors right there on the fuzzy black and white screen.

From a distance it seems like the industry learned quickly, but the storytelling and image techniques were all known from more than 40 years of film creation. Simply bringing it to a smaller screen was not actually that hard.

The Internet has been around since the early 90’s. But still most of the advertising online consists of banners, pop-up’s and advertising films. Where TV brought us moving images, the new thing that the internet brought was context and interaction. Some contextual advertising has snuck in in the form of sponsored search results, location based advertising and cookie based solutions, but it is far from what it could be. We humans are just not that good at thinking out of the box. Nature tried to help us when it gave us our ability to see patterns, so we try to make the new ideas fit in the old boxes.

So my question is: What happens when we encounter a completely new medium?

 

Let’s explore Virtual Reality as a case. 

Everyone is talking about VR, although in most cases it is actually 360º videos. The difference might not seem important – until you try it out! 360º video is recorded with a special camera system. You can mount it on a tripod and do a fixed recording, or strap it to something (a car, a plane, a helmet or your selfie-stick) and move it around. If you make a recording from a tripod, that is what you see when you later put on your headset and play the movie. You can look around, but you cannot move or interact with your surroundings. 

If the camera is moving, so will you. Well, so will your Point of View. Your body is still sitting in your office chair while your eyes are telling you that you are base jumping off a cliff with a parachute strapped to your back, somewhere in southern France. Quite often this creates a certain discomfort, as your brain is trying to stabilize the weird contradicting signals your body, your balance nerves in you inner ear and your eyes are sending. 

VR on the other hand is not recorded. It is built. A fully explorable, interactive world that you can move around in by, well, moving around. External sensors track your movement and translates it into the exact same movement in the virtual world. You are limited only by the imagination of the programmer and your own emotions. The programmer creates the framework and limits of the virtual world and the storytelling and interaction he wants to communicate. In the meantime, your emotions limit you in a very basic way. When the edge of a virtual cliff materializes right in front of you, your reflexes take over and you step back to safety.

So how do we use this new media? How do we leverage the new possibilities that it offers? How do we create great advertising that allow people to engange with brands?

The new thing in VR is a mix of two things: interaction and complete immersion. We all know 3D from the big shiny stickers on our new and improved flat screen TVs at home. But where 3D on TVs is just an effect allowing us to percieve depth in the images shown on the screen, immersive 3D in VR allows us to break the fourth wall and become part of the story. Being able to not only perceive depth but to utilze and explore it. This is far beyond new angles or bonus material. It’s no longer just possible for famous hollywood stars to go to mars in sci-fi thrillers, we can go there ourselves.

Interaction we know from the internet, but what’s new here, is that it’s all around you. No mouse clicking, no browser tabs, no desktop. Stop looking for a box to check – start exploring! Instead of following the plot, we get to create it ourselves. We can finally become Columbo and investigate the daring feat of a career criminal or switch sides and explore the cat burglar business by ourselves – without being liable for explaining clues and facts to left behind widows or the long arm of the law.

To be able to dive into a three dimensional digital world and explore it means we have to merge all the knowledge collected with digital tools over the last 50 years with all we have learned about the physical world, in our own personal lifetime. The creators of virtual worlds have to know how to leverage all of this into one experience. Deciding for each instance if they want to lose, keep or enhance any one of these factors and only then, they can add the overall storytelling or experience. A good VR experience merges the known physical, known digital and the magical into one. Does my user know how to use a hammer? Does she know how to click a button? Can I teach her how to perform open heart surgery on an alien in a weightless environment?

To think out and engineer an interactive world is no easy feat and there is still much to explore. The tools we know from the digital world can only help us so far in VR. If you cannot see your hands, it’s hard to use a touch based solution. If you have no mouse, then how do we know what you want to do? Most solutions today make do with virtual controlers that mimic the physical ones that come with the headset. But many ways of interacting have to be reinvented. Social sciences, psycology and live data analysis will find many new ways to improve VR in the near future.

The live data analysis opens up new worlds. Specifically for the people who create the interactions. Never before have we been able to track the specific actions and reactions to our content from physical users with digital precision. A VR system tracks the orientation and movement of the users head and hands with sub milimeter accuracy more than 60 times every second. This allows us to learn how reactions look and how we best provoke them. We can even hard code our own IF/THEN conditions into the experience. This creates interaction at a completely different level than the “waiting for interaction”-posibilities we have in the internet. If the banner ad isn’t clicked, what is it worth? In VR, we can allow the users to explore the ground for as long as they want, but at the moment IF they look to the sky for more than a second, THEN we let our giant lizard appear wearing a helmet with our logo. Maybe this will increasingly become our input.

All of this is reality and it is here now. At Serviceplan we have had headsets in our offices from both of the two leading contenders for the virtual reality market, HTC and Oculus, since June this year. We have been testing out the limits, technical and emotional. We have been experimenting in corporation with different partners and productions. We have been helping both employees and clients with understanding the possibilities, opportunities and dangers in both 360 degree video and true virtual reality. Today, anyone can order a VR headset online and start exploring new worlds. 

However, before you put in the order and get going, keep in mind that at the moment this article goes into print, additionally to your 700€ VR Headset you will need a 2.000€ computer to take care of the processing of all the data. You will also need at least 2x2m of free floor space in your home to be able to move around in the virtual worlds. The amout of floor space needed could be tweaked with clever uni-directional walkways that, no matter which direction you go, always keeps you centered. The price point of the headsets are forecasted to hit the magic price of 100$ as soon as 2018. Who knows, maybe we’ll all have a fully functional VR experience in our cell phones in 2020. Then again, do we need real cell phones when we can have a virtual one?

VR will offer numerous incredible and truly awesome possibilities for us. What exactly they will be is incredibly hard to predict. No one would have bet money on Facebook 20 years ago. Uber and Airbnb have stressed strong business models to the max. And blockbuster surely didn’t see Netflix coming. VR opens up for a whole new generation of disruption. Do we need plane tickets when we can meet in VR? Why buy a new TV if your can just load a new one into your headset? When the headsets become small and cheap enough that we can wear them all the time, why bother with designed furniture at all? Or colors on the wall? VR is going to revolutionize what we do and what we are. 

Just like the smartphone changed the world so abruptly we can hardly remember how it was to ever live without it. And just as the smartphone started as an accessory and became platforms for our whole lives, so will VR headsets. But contrary to smartphones, the VR headsets is not limited to a small square. They span across our whole world. It is just a matter of a few years.

At first, additional content will be the best way to ease into Virtual Reality. Advertising will open up new markets with experiences supporting other products. Create a great blockbuster movie and use the 3D material from the green screen post production to offer people the experience of the main cast. Offer low orbit space travel to private customers for a high price, while allowing everybody else to get a taste of it through on board cameras. Write a best selling book, then offer readers to share the world you created on a crowd-supported VR website. VR and advertising will be a great way of selling dreams. Dropping people right in the middle of their fantasies instead of just showing them on a screen.

In parallel, original VR content will grow stronger. What is on the market today is mostly gaming content or small disconnected experiences. But content creators will keep improving how to utilize the full power of this new medium. Stringing the experiences together or bundling them in bigger “platform” worlds, allowing you to sample smaller parts are temporary solutions. So far we still need our 2D interface computers and websites to access the 3D VR worlds.

Storytelling is still a big challenge. In film we tell stories through narration, cuts and changing dynamics, story and plot, camera position and framing, interior, movement, light, music, choice of wardrobe and many other factors. And these are only the technical framework. The actual telling of the story is created by a screenwriter and the directing of actors. The actors bring the characters to life, create their own small worlds and make these worlds collide. A good movie creates emotions through conflict, suspense and surprise. The job of a director is to make all these instances fit together and create an orchestration that makes our hearts sing.

In VR the camera is you. If we move the framing, it feels like you lose control of your eyes. If we move the camera, you lose control of your body. If we cut, you lose your focus. If we fade to black, you lose conscience. You are the main character, but we can’t prompt you with specific directions without breaking the illusion. The supporting actors (if we need any) can talk to you, but you can not reply. – Let’s just say that there is still work to do before we figure out how storytelling can and will function in virtual reality. 

This year at South by South-West (SXSW) – the big film, music and interactive trade fair, festival and meet-up in Austin Texas – I had a short chat with Bruce Vaughn, the former Chief Creative Executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. We were talking about the point where an experience becomes extraordinary. He told me that at the Imagineering labs they used way pointers they called “Portals” and used the gate to Disneyland as an example. It’s a simple gateway you go through to enter the Main Street in Disneyland. On it there is a sign saying: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy”. And that is what people do. They simply and immediately accept being in a world where giant mice are completely normal, where trash collectors routinely break out singing and where the small shops on the street are not fierce competitors but best friends. Portals allows us to switch between experiences. 

If I could mount a sign on VR as a medium this would be it. It is an open invitation to try out everything you ever wanted to do. It is a place where both you, I and any brand can escape their earthly shackles and break free. Become what we want to be, could be or don’t dare to. It is a new place where “we tried that, it doesn’t work” has no value. And it is a place of immersion, exploration and play. 360 degree video is a great gateway-drug and we are excited to see how much attention and interaction it keeps generating as we become better at focusing the storytelling and crafting the technical production.

For brands the most important message should be: Don’t panic. VR is a promising medium but even though people have been talking about it for years, those who start now will still be among the first. Use the time to figure out what your brand could or should do in VR. Reimagine how to communicate and with whom. Start small and focussed. You don’t always need a big gate for your clients to pass under. You just need to offer them the opportunity to dream. And no matter how big a part your brand will be playing in that dream, we, your customers will thankfully appreciate your offer.