In 2014, Facebook shook the world by buying a company for $2bn. Which company was it? Was it a data analytics firm, to better process the shooting messages of its platform? An encryption service to protect the privacy of its users? Or perhaps an augmented reality start-up to bolster the quality of its filters? Even though all of the above can be connected, and Facebook’s core products, Facebook invested in an entirely different area which was beyond its remit as a social network company: Oculus, a VR start-up.
This single acquisition prompted what I call the Immersive Reality Revolution, a spurt of VC investments into software and hardware that promotes virtual reality. One by one, more companies entered the immersive race. Google came out with Google Glass before the product folded (and re-emerged again in 2019). HTC diversified its portfolio and made the HTC VIVE, a competitor to the Oculus Rift which can handle user applications. Other start-ups went big and pushed high-spec headsets, such as Pimax with 4K screens per eye. In the centre of the storm was Oculus, who pushed out the Oculus Rift in 2016, Oculus Go in 2018, and Oculus Quest in 2019.
How does all this relate to PR? Currently, VR has several image issues which it must deal with to really hit mainstream appeal. They are:
An antisocial experience – VR is effectively strapping a big slab of metal over a face, to see pictures privately. That makes VR a very reclusive experience, which people cannot participate and enjoy. It is not like Netflix, where friends can watch the same show together; it is more personal.
The PR challenge companies have is that VR can be a social experience. Games like Keep Calm and Nobody Explodes puts people in a room where they have to diffuse a bomb, while the other player holds a physical manual with instructions. If appropriately designed, diffusing a bomb with a friend is a close bonding activity. Similarly, Rec Room lets people face one another in battle, provided they also have the headset. And the Oculus Quest has the capability to Chromecast its screen to devices, so friends can watch what’s happening. VR can be a social experience; the story just needs to be told to show that it’s the case.
VR is shrinking – For years, publications tended to talk about how VR is not growing as fast as expected. Analyst expectations were always below expectations, and VR headsets never saw the heights of products like Fortnite or Pokemon Go.
In reality, VR has been around for decades. Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy in the 1990s, a VR toy for children to play. While it flopped, the technology came back in 2019 with the Nintendo Labo. Similarly, businesses have been using VR for decades for training and development, particularly in the army forces – which has never changed. As I said to the Times a few weeks ago, enterprise customers are looking for headsets with robust capabilities for their projects. HTC is fully aware of this trend and released the VIVE Pro Eye, a headset which offers more in-depth data analysis by capturing user feedback in real time. Look in the right places, and VR has been thriving for decades; just away from the public eye.
VR has been developing and growing for years, with a recent spurt five years ago. The role of PR is to tell the narrative and show how the technology is going strong. With the success of the Oculus Quest, people beyond the VR bubble may start to see what it has to offer. With the right strategy, VR and PR can work together.