by Ben Erwin
There is an ‘A-HA!’ moment you experience when you ‘get’ what the big deal is with XR. You see it in that “XR Smile” when a person who was previously uninitiated to Virtual or Augmented Reality is having their first immersive experience, or just experiencing mind-blowing new XR content for the first time. In 2020, we turned a corner in the adoption of immersive technologies on the road to a mass market where content will not only be in 3D, but fully surround you with Six Degrees of Freedom. The “WOW’ factor is high for first-timers and there are more and more every day.
For now, higher-end VR experiences remain the province of “PCVR” or Virtual Reality headsets that are tethered to a desktop computer with a high-end graphics card. Augmented Reality headsets exist but are still a few years away from mass-market when Apple, Facebook and others will bring their long-awaited products to market. In 2019, the Oculus Quest lowered the cost barrier-to-entry and removed the setup friction. It remained sold out for much of its run until the Quest 2 was announced in October 2020, and by the holidays, it too was sold out. It massively improved on the specs of the first edition, and further lowered the cost. This has driven a new wave of adoption and all these new users that have been onboarding into the metaverse are looking for something to do.
Content is the egg that represents creativity and something new. Hardware represents the Chicken, and it doesn’t matter which came first because it is cyclical, evolving and multiplying. The install-base for VR has grown, and it’s going to keep growing. This has created a demand for innovative content that will only continue to grow. By the time consumer adoption reaches critical mass a few years from now with high-quality, affordable, wearable AR and VR gear, a critical transformation will have already taken place that is still in front of us now. The question of how to pay for all of this 3D content will be answered when advertisers set their sights on immersive content, which they have largely been ignoring. This will proliferate the quantity and quality of experiences. It will create new jobs and replace old ones.
The journey from the 2D in 2D web of text and images, through the 3D in 2D web of model viewers and AR filters. The 2D in 3D web has limited uses, except perhaps allowing someone to watch a 2D movie on a virtual big screen TV. That and some content, like text you read doesn’t need to be in 3D, but it does need treatment. This will culminate in the “3D in 3D” web. This next evolution in content is more sophisticated than just stereoscopic 3D, it is immersive with Six Degrees of Freedom, and there is a big difference between 3D content you observe and spatial content you can move around in. Websites are no longer a place you look at and scroll infinitely, immersive websites and virtual worlds on social VR platforms are places you can go, and even interact with other people.
Advertising has been a constant in publishing since the dawn of print, to the advent of radio and television, through the digital revolution which brought us the internet, social media and mobile apps. Immersive content is the next frontier. Agencies which produce content for advertisers that have been visibly slow to go XR because of lack of hardware which is why their advertising clients have been slow to spend on a small market, but in 2021, you can expect that to change dramatically.
Here are the Top 5 opportunities to get in front of in 2021 if you work for an advertiser or an agency, and your goal is to seize upon this burgeoning new market and build content for a new medium:
1) 3D Brand Makeovers
It starts with recreating an existing 2D logo as a 3D model and placing it in 3D space, but that is only the beginning. The thought process with which most brand identities were conceived was 2D thinking for 2D mediums. Applying design-thinking to the immersive content revolution is more than adding a z-axis or extruding something flat. It is more than determining the position, rotation and scale of an object in 3D space. It is all of this and much more, plus it still needs to look good in 2D. This will evolve and reinvigorate the process of creating brand identity guidelines. Fonts, colors and positioning of logos, taglines, emblems and identity assets are as important and ever, but need to be completely rethought in the context of 3D, It is more than applying textures and lighting, of Six Degrees of Freedom, and immersion. This will require designers and project managers and developers to upskill and learn the new lingo to accommodate the demand for immersive brand evolution.
2) World Building and Social VR
It seems like a no-brainer, but we still don’t see a lot of 3D worlds sponsored by advertisers, yet… What is a 3D world? It is a place that you can go in an immersive experience, it surrounds you, you can move around it, even fly, yes fly in it if it lets you. Mature Social VR platforms like AltSpace, VR Chat and Engage allow the creation of bespoke worlds that people can gather in. Events such as Burning Man in VR proved that even in our isolation, we can gather and be together virtually, sharing experiences that create memories that are as cogent as in real life. Moreover, they can be more fantastic, defy physics, and allow you to do dangerous or impossible things from the comfort of your living room with no time or travel expense. Where single user experiences like informational content and some games are no longer novel the second time, multi-user experiences in virtual worlds with people you know or strangers you just met can be compelling. A common complaint about public virtual worlds is that they are overrun by children. But consider that they are attracted to them because they know something you didn’t, that this is the future of gatherings. Advertisers with the vision to invest in virtual worlds for their target demographics will be creating places that can be expanded and morph and be redecorated for every occasion. They can place Easter Eggs and make experiences fun. Virtual Worlds are a broad new creative medium for shared experiences that few have even begun to make use of.
3) Virtual Meetings and Events
Even when Covid has passed, the world has been vaccinated, and it’s safe to go out again, things will never quite go back to the way we did things before and some of that is for the better. When real world events were forced to go virtual and that created efficiencies that are supplanting the parts we didn’t like about virtual events before. The monetary, time, physical toll and productivity cost factor of flying somewhere, staying in a hotel, eating out, being on your feet all day isn’t something people will miss. Where IRL human interactions will never be replaced by XR, it goes a long way to bridge the gap. There remain a number of friction points to interacting in VR that are rapidly such as awkward avatars and poor text input. There are also technical limitations on how many people can be in virtual space because of the load it puts on both the platform and the devices. Most importantly, XR makes events more accessible to more people who join events who could not afford to or get their company to pay for travel. The sponsorship model for Virtual Events isn’t much different that real world events but the cost structures are. For advertisers looking to innovate on how to activate event attendees, experiential content opens the potential for creativity that did not exist before, and at a cost often lower for an experience longer lasting than real world events. Best of all, the venues are reusable and reconfigurable.
4) Immersive Websites
How we got here
Where we’re going.
Apple profoundly impacted the web by killing Flash in favor of open standards but has not yet formally announced support for the WebXR standards in future editions of Safari for Apple Glass. However, Apple has been actively recruiting WebXR talent and can only benefit by supporting Immersive Websites to give their customers content to consume on their devices. Standards compliant or not, the train has left the station on Immersive Content and by the time Apple gets its long-awaited XR hardware to market the space will be highly evolved. Therefore, the time for advertisers to start investing in Immersive Web Content is here, now.
5) The AR Cloud
It goes by many names “Digital Twin of the world”, Microsoft calls them “Spatial Anchors”, Apple calls them “ARAnchors”, but it’s a new spin on an old concept. The <A> anchor tag in html, that is better known as a “link”which lets us navigate the web. The concept of the AR Cloud is the placement of Anchors tied to physical places in the real world that allow us to access. AR content. A good example would be a historical marker. You could visit a place, let’s say Gettysburg and watch a hologram reenactment of Abraham Lincoln making his address in the very spot he originally delivered it. It could be used to create time and place anchors that allow you to see what a place looked like in the past or imagine it in the future. Six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) in AR allows you to move around a holographic projection onto the physical world. When AR Cloud experiences are activated, they will change the way we perceive our surroundings. Pokémon Go gave us a taste of this as a popular game, but mapping virtual information into real spaces will help us inform our journeys. Some call this “Annotated Reality”. A group called the Open AR Cloud is working to standardize and make the AR Cloud interoperable.
Ethics in XR Advertising
An important aspect that advertisers need to consider and educate themselves on as they leverage the immersive market are what the emerging ethical standards and best practices are. Events such as Facebook forcing the merge of Oculus Logins with Facebook accounts has stirred controversy and created pushback from consumers. This piece isn’t intended as a polemic on privacy dos or don’ts but would be remiss not to mention the “with great power comes great responsibility” factor that comes with the new metrics possible in XR. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Invasive data collection practices still prevalent on the 2D web could easily expand into abuses such how biometric data, which is collected for the operation of a device, could be used to report sensitive information to third parties without the consent of the users. XRSI – the XR Safety Initiative has laid down a scientific framework to provide guidance. Kent Bye published the XR Ethics Manifesto in 2019 and routinely discusses privacy and ethics in his podcast Voices of VR . These and other works on the subject are recommended for advertising decision makers who wish to provide the best experiences for their audience, while satisfying the data collection requests made by their clients. Clients who may be asking for sensitive data that push those boundaries.
Meet the new business model, same as the old business model. Advertising dollars are about to start pouring into development of immersive content which will pay for free content for the public to consume on their XR devices. This is going to force a re-think of how brands present themselves to leverage 3D while still serving 2D. That tipping point happening is right now. Advertisers coming from a 2D mentality are up against a more formidable paradigm shift as the previous generation had with the conversion of print to digital. It’s time to start your personal onboarding into immersive if you haven’t already. Simply spending time inside of VR teaches you things by experience that you can’t learn academically, therefore the cost of a device pays for itself in the education you get simply by using it.
The biggest failure at the dawn of the Spatial Computing revolution has been applying 2D thinking and trying to recreate 2D experiences in a spatial context. Virtual and Augmented Reality content has different boundaries and is unbound by the laws of real-world physics. This is a clean slate for creatives and a vast opportunity to innovate with a new set of tools for those with the bold ambition to seize this new medium for a new time. The mass-market success of XR hardware depends on the availability of easily accessible content, and just as newspapers and magazines, radio and television, web and social media all had their growth paid for by advertising dollars, so it will be the same with immersive content. Even subscriber-based streaming services will eventually evolve to support immersive. The day to start planning for that day is today.