Ross Magri, Sarner International

If you’re a fan of theme parks and visitor attractions, you’ll have seen the rising trend for VR to excite the public with Europa Park, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Japan and Alton Towers all adding VR to their well-known rollercoasters. And museums worldwide are incorporating VR into their exhibitions to impart information in an entertaining and inspirational way.

VR is not exactly new but the desire to incorporate it into the latest experiential events has now reached a critical mass. We started using VR for events in 2013 after the release of the first Oculus Rift. Since then, VR has become a familiar feature of client proposals. At Sarner, we’ve employed VR successfully for clients such as the International Volleyball Federation at the Olympic Games in Rio in order to help members of the public get closer to action. However, as our ultimate ‘reason for being’ is to design shared group experiences, we’ve become wary that the hype of VR has led some marketers to embrace the technology even when it risks diluting the impact of an event that should be shared with family and friends.

Before deciding to keep up with the other brands by investing in VR for a brand experience, we advise you to consider the following:

The Need for Novelty
According to research, only a small percentage of the general public has tried VR. Providing an opportunity to slip on a head set and enter a virtual world can give people their first experience of VR and that very fact can draw in visitors. Gartner describes VR as being within the Hype Cycle and believes it will be a couple more years before the launch of cheaper, more comfortable and more useful devices will become mainstream. Until then, and until more people get VR at home, brands can enjoy delivering a genuinely novel experience to their customers, especially if their target audience is not part of the high-tech gaming crowd.

For any permanent exhibition or long-term event, VR headsets can be problematic. Designed primarily for home gaming, the headsets currently available are not durable in a way that’s practical for busy crowds of daily visitors. Wear and tear can affect headsets’ long-term reliability, hygiene issues require headsets to be disinfected between each use and, for VR headsets that use mobile phones as a display device, overheating can be an issue when continuously running demanding applications.

Cost Effectiveness
For a one-off experience, the investment in VR must pay off for the brand. VR technology is advancing so rapidly that there is a risk that before a project is completed, the equipment may have become out of date and superseded by a better model. As an evolving technology, most companies are still cutting their teeth in VR, discovering new technical creative solutions. This does increase the associated risks of delivering a VR product in time and to budget.

Costs vary, of course. A VR headset is relatively cheap as it’s designed for the general public, but the budget expands considerably when you cost in software and production expenses. There are standard software applications on the market, such as flight simulators, that can be sourced relatively cheaply for a few thousand pounds. However, most clients want to use software and content that is specific to their application, requiring a heavy investment in time and resources.

The Shared Experience
Events and exhibitions work best when the shared experience is rewarding; when groups get to enjoy the same sensory input at the same time and react with each other. Taking headsets on and off can be cumbersome and interrupts an immersive visitor journey. We are concerned that the trade off from a shared to a singular experience might not always be worth the impact that VR can deliver.

The need to power the devices can also affect what you had in mind. Headsets are either tethered to a PC or heavy backpack, or use mobile batteries that do not last more than an hour before needing to be recharged. All this impacts the way the visitor can move around and theoretically ‘lose themselves’ in the exhibition or event.

VR can enable individuals to enter another world, feel part of something completely different, whether that’s a jaw-dropping tour through inaccessible geography, a trip through time or a close-up view of an exciting event. VR has a lot to offer. But it’s worth treading carefully into the virtual world. The fast-changing technology provides challenges that can catch out some marketers. The key is always to decide on the story that you’re trying to tell. What is the impression that you need to make and the information you need to impart? It may be that VR is the ideal mechanism for this, however, it won’t always be. VR is an experiential tool like many of the others in the marketer’s repertoire. Use it wisely.