The Virtual Reality Gold Rush: Part Two


Following on from the first piece in this three-part series, in this second entry, Singapore Managing Director Don Anderson examines the impact of Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices, and how they are poised to launch a new revolution in branded content.

If you look at the popularity of ‘virtual reality’ as a search term, you’ll see a significant spike of interest around 2014 and continued growth from there on in.

Google search volumes for ‘virtual reality’ 2004–2015

The reason? Oculus Rift, the invention of a then 18-year-old Californian named Palmer Luckey. It’s this device that is being credited as having singlehandedly reignited interest in virtual reality technologies.


Frustrated by the poor performance of available head mounts for gaming, Luckey created his first Oculus prototype in his parents’ garage. By the time he got to his sixth generation prototype, he decided to take his work to Kickstarter to crowdfund a DIY kit. He raised US$2.4 million, close to a thousand times his original target.


And then Mark Zuckerberg came knocking.

In March 2014, Facebook paid US$2 billion for a company and its technology that was barely a year old. Zuckerberg gushed on his Facebook page about the potential opportunities and how it would usher in a new platform for communications.

Although he saw it having a future in gaming first, Zuckerberg felt the social implications wouldn’t be far behind. However, he has also admitted that the device needs to sell 50 million to 100 million units to reach scale and find real meaning as a communications platform. So far, it’s sold 150,000 test units to developers.

And of course the Internet quickly reacted with mixed feelings.

Since then, Oculus Rift has dominated search volumes, starting with the spike around Facebook’s announced purchase, and later with a fake Facebook-Oculus Rift commercial on YouTube.

Google search volumes for ‘Oculus Rift’ continue to grow.

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about virtual reality. It’s quite another to experience it.

In Asia, apart from Cardboard and a host of cheap OEM options that litter eBay and other C2C ecommerce platforms, the availability of more mainstream and refined devices is still somewhat limited. Unless you are a developer and have been lucky enough to get your hands on an early Oculus unit, those hoping for a full experience will just have to sit tight and wait, or attempt to live vicariously through the experiences of others who have detailed their journeys on YouTube.

Yet no less than five major technology companies including Samsung, HTC, Sony, Google and Microsoft have now announced their own hardware solutions for bringing the metaverse to life.

The Samsung’s Gear VR was one of the first to market. This costs around US$200 but you need to add a smartphone, which means you get your VR experiences for under US$1,000 — considerably more than Google’s Cardboard.

By comparison, Oculus Rift is likely to be priced upwards of US$1,500, and will only work with high-powered PCs. And sorry — no Macs.

From HTC and Valve comes Vive, which reviewers say provides a Matrix-like experience.

Sony’s Project Morpheus, meanwhile, will support 3D audio and a feature called ‘Social Screen’ which lets users extend the gameplay from the headset to their TV so others can play alongside.

Even Lenovo’s getting into the game. At their recent TechWorld event it announced its own headset to compete with Samsung, Sony, Google and HTC.

Lenovo’s virtual reality entry.

And for younger audiences there’s the remodeled View-Master, a collaboration between Mattel and Google that will debut this fall.


The next-gen View-Master, a Google-Mattel collaboration set to debut later this year.

Beyond this is a generation of highly advanced hologram-based augmented reality technologies supported by the likes of Microsoft and Google along with investments from a raft of venture capital firms, such as Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.

With all this going on, brands have only just started to get their footing in this space. For many, it’s an area of uncertainty in terms of the real value it offers organisations.

It’s akin to the debut of the iTunes app store and the initial surge of marketing investments in branded apps that saw little, if any, returns following launch.

However, those brave enough to be early adopters are seeing the opportunity to experiment, and this is yielding insights on the expectations and behaviours of target consumers around this technology.

While we are far from mass consumer adoption, VR is allowing brands to provide new, more dynamic and immersive experiences.

While many of the initial attempts have been written off as gimmicky, some brands are succeeding at integrating the technology to produce compelling content experiences while capitalising on first-mover advantage in capturing earned media exposure.

At the 2014 Paris Motor Show, Nissan Europe combined a treadmill with virtual reality to create a physical, Bladerunner-like experience for visitors around their Nissan Juke vehicle promotion. Standing on an omnidirectional treadmill, the user wears an Oculus Rift which transforms them into an android character within a virtual world.

In similar fashion, Castrol overlayed VR atop a real car, with the user experience occurring in both real and virtual worlds. The result is essentially a combination of video gaming and VR in a simulated world.

There is no question that VR and travel have a great future together. Interviews with no less than a dozen notable VR practitioners, technologists and content producers revealed that almost all saw travel as the top opportunity for application.

Marriott has been pretty quick to capitalise on this opportunity, rolling out a travel booth in New York City where visitors could explore the beaches of Hawaii or London’s Tower 42. The experience also included sensory elements such as heat, wind and mist, based on different virtual locations.

But the range of brands entering this space doesn’t stop at automotive and travel. Fashion and cosmetic brands are also getting in on the act with Dior recently announcing the launch of its own virtual reality headset. This will provide users with exclusive backstage access to its runway shows as well as tours of the Dior universe.

At the same time, not all branded VR initiatives have been well placed.

Earlier this year Samsung launched what it called “The world’s first live streaming VR birth”, which allowed a father to witness and participate — sort of — in the birth of his child, despite being 4,000 miles away. While the stunt was intended to demonstrate the features of Samsung’s VR technology and how it can change people’s lives, some critics deemed it a little too close to comfort. The moral of the tale? Some stories may not necessarily be ready for VR.

Compare that VR experience to one Patron launched last month that provides a virtual tour of the Hacienda’s agave fields. Here, the on-site experience is replicated and viewers get to see how tequila is produced.

The company’s agency customised drones equipped with seven GoPro cameras and 3D audio capture, with assistance from certified pilots, to bring this initiative together.

Again, it’s early days for brands in this space, with the output generally still somewhat questionable in terms of adding real brand value. But it is encouraging that some brands are willing to venture further afield into this unchartered domain while grabbing first-mover insights.

Next: The Virtual Reality Gold Rush PT III: US Billions at Stake, 3D Paul McCartney, and the Future of Journalism.