There's a South Park episode in which Stan, one of the four main characters of the show, is transported to a virtual world that looks much like the 1982 film Tron. In the show, the computer-simulated environment is supposed to be an embodiment of the world's largest social network: Facebook.
The episode is a funny parody of the social network and the awkwardness of digital relationships - from friend requests and photo albums, to Farmville and Café World. The show aired over four years ago, but it was the very first thing I thought of when I heard that Facebook was acquiring one of the hottest consumer tech companies today: Oculus VR.
As I read the news about Kickstarter-funded Oculus VR being acquired for $2 billion, I could not help but think about how this South Park episode was a simple and perhaps visionary illustration of what Facebook may be looking to build. I say this partly joking, and partly dead serious. Beyond something like Second Life or a popular massively multiplayer online game, Facebook may be getting humanity closer to the 'Metaverse,' a term coined in the 1992 science fiction book Snow Crash, than anything ever before.
According to Wikipedia, the Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. When I think of a virtual world we can connect to with a device like the Oculus Rift - five, ten, or fifteen years from now - I imagine an ever expansive virtual universe where one can access all kinds of lifelike and immersive experiences (much like we can install apps on our phones today). With Facebook now being a frontrunner in VR, it is clear such a digital environment will be one that is also seamlessly social.
Today, Oculus VR may be more like Nintendo's Virtual Boy than a 'Metaverse' that blurs the lines between IRL reality and virtual reality, but we are certainly moving in the direction of the latter. Whether we realize it or not, our society will be impacted by this. There are important implications that I find particularly interesting to the tech industry, consumers, and the marketing industry, and I explore some of these below.
IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL REALITY GOING MAINSTREAM
1) We've become a geeky society and we are already fascinated by VR
People have been fascinated by all things VR for a few decades now and the subject has increasingly become a hot topic in pop culture - i.e. TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, and movies like Total Recall, Back to the Future, Demolition Man, The Matrix, Surrogates, and Ender's Game. VR is now widely understood at a surface level, even though most people have never actually experienced something like it.
2) Facebook is making a bet on the future of virtual reality
Facebook is no longer just a social network. It is now becoming a new kind of holding company. Much like Google with Google Glass and self-driving cars, Facebook sees virtual reality, and Oculus VR in particular, as a way to ensure its empire grows stronger by venturing into areas of technology where few have gone before. A Facebook-powered platform leveraging the technology and talent acquired from Oculus VR will provide Facebook with a path to be a Metaplatform.
3) Facebook isn't alone in the race to VR
Sony has already announced "Project Morpheus" and Microsoft is rumored to be working on a device that will be tightly integrated with (or an extension of) the XBox. Other companies like Samsung may see VR as an opportunity to further expand their offerings beyond leading categories (i.e. 3D Smart TVs) and emerging devices (i.e. The Galaxy Gear). While Facebook has proven that it can be a serious gaming platform, it needs to go beyond laptop screens to be able to compete with the big players in the space like Sony (PlayStation), Microsoft (XBox), Apple (iOS) and Google (Android). Just as these tech companies displaced Atari, Sega, and even Nintendo, Facebook is looking to be part of the next cycle of entertainment innovation. VR will become serious business and the founders of Oculus VR are but the very first to see the monetary benefit from it.
4) Virtual reality could be a path to significant new revenue for future platforms
VR is exciting for companies like Facebook, Sony and Microsoft because it provides them with an opportunity to create experiences where users are 100% immersed - there is but one single screen when you are using a device like the Oculus Rift. Such immersion could translate to increases in monthly active users, time spent online, and potential revenue on their platforms, and this is not at all limited to videogames. As Mark Zuckerberg put it, "After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.” More experiential use cases means more possibilities for revenue, not only from advertising but also from new business models, valued-added services and add-ons.
5) Society will be impacted whether we like it or not
Our society continues to become more and more fascinated by technological advancements. We may not be driving flying cars, but we are certainly becoming attached to the Internet and a plethora of Internet-connected devices. As consumers, we must realize the power we have to vote for the future with our digital clicks and our big ticket item purchases. Given how immersive and realistic VR experiences could become in the next years, it is important to consider potential implications in our health / sanity, our real life relationships, and our bank accounts. We have no idea what the long-term effects of children being glued to a VR headset could be.
I personally think it's good to be both excited about the cool possibilities of VR while also remaining aware of possible negative effects of being plugged into a machine for many minutes, hours, and in extreme situations - days.
MARKETING IMPLICATIONS OF LEGITIMATE VR PLATFORMS
1) Marketers love social, immersive and contextually relevant experiences
Over the past few years, Facebook has attracted marketers of all sizes - from the smallest of small businesses to the largest conglomerates across verticals and locations. Facebook has allowed advertising on its platform since 2006, but it wasn't until recent years that marketers understood the power of Facebook virality. These days, Facebook is seen as a "pay-to-play" platform. While many marketers dislike the algorithmical changes screwing up their plans to do "free" marketing, they are still paying up as they understand the necessity of being there. However, marketers want more than boosted posts on Facebook - they want immersive experiences that guarantee their ad dollars turning converting into something meaningful.
2) Consumers will be hesitant, skeptical and critical of marketers
Many Oculus Rift fans, including Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson, have already revolted against the company being acquired by Facebook. Just as such former fans are skeptical of Facebook's intent, mainstream audiences that buy into early versions of a Facebook VR environment will likely be skeptical of any marketers intruding on their personal virtual spaces. Just as Instagram users raised their fists when sponsored posts started to appear on their feeds, VR users will raise their fists at marketers some day not too far away.
3) Marketers will move fast
Marketing laggards are everywhere, but early adopters are as easily identified. As soon as a virtual reality platform (powered by Facebook or other companies) opens up, marketers will seize their opportunity to develop applications and create creative experiences that benefit their businesses. Because of the multiple potential use cases of VR, it is likely that we will see everything from product placements and stickers / badges / emojis to fully branded experiences.
4) Marketers will break things
As with all media and advertising real estate, some marketers will turn people away with annoying, irrelevant, untargeted and lame executions. The pop-up is thankfully behind us, but we will likely see something like a VR pop-up created simply because marketers (including those with spammy and scammy inclinations) will sometimes do anything to reach a wanted audience.
5) Marketers, and developers, will have to figure out what works
The companies that own the platforms always have the final say. Traditional media companies have controlled air waves for decades and these days we see media opportunities controlled by the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple. Within such closed environments, marketers will have to tackle the limitations and get analytical + creative in order to figure out what works. Some marketers will figure out how to force results by manipulating and misleading audiences, but the good ones will bring us valuable, utilitarian and entertaining experiences. Perhaps one day we will experience virtual performance art theater, front-row seat concerts, behind-the-scenes moments for Oscar-winning films, and breathtaking documentaries sponsored and/or created by great brands like Nike, Red Bull, lululemon and Chipotle. Or at least we can hope this will be the case.
I personally think that marketers should be very aware of VR trends and they should be careful in how quickly and how deeply they invest into such platform until they understand how they add can add actual value as opposed to just generating impressions. HBO's Game of Thrones Oculus Rift experience (developed in part by Relevent) may be the best example of marketing done well on the platform so far, and I certainly hope we will see more like that.
At any rate, virtual reality is becoming a reality and we can be sure that while the geeks will be there first (me included), marketers will be right there with them - for better or worse.