“Virtual reality is going to change the way we live and work and communicate.”

It’s something that we’ve been talking about for years. Something that the man who made the above statement claims to have been dreaming up since he was a little boy. It’s a technology which promises endless possibilities for all aspects of our lives, allowing us to experience something that would otherwise be out of our reach.

Yet, it is also something that attracts widespread scepticism and is often put down as being a mere gaming gimmick. So what is the truth about virtual reality? Is it really going to have the same seismic impact on the world as that of the smartphone? Mark Zuckerberg clearly thinks so. And, with investments in VR and AR start-ups hitting an all-time high in Q4 2015, he’s not alone in that opinion.

The virtual reality leaders and challengers

The Mobile industry is getting behind VR in a big way. Both the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the Mobile World Congress (MWC) earlier this year can attest to that. Everywhere you looked at both events, the excitement around virtual reality was palpable. VR demos and booths were packed, with queues more reminiscent of those at theme parks than conferences.

Virtual reality took centre stage, embodied quite literally with Zuckerberg’s surprise appearance during Samsung’s press conference at MWC. In his speech he told us that “VR is the next platform” and a room full of heads nodded in agreement. 

This agreement was further supported by the launches of Samsung’s “Gear VR” and HTC’s “Vive VR”. And it is examples such us these that begin to show us the significance of virtual reality from an industry standpoint. Whilst Facebook-owned Oculus Rift is probably the best known example of VR technology on the marketplace (and is an incredible piece of tech) it is mainly focused at the world of gaming, and carries with it a pretty hefty price tag!

However, new ventures from the likes of Samsung and HTC are beginning to reflect the consumer-oriented nature of the technology. Gear VR uses goggles and Oculus software to enable users to view VR content on their Samsung smartphone, whilst Vive VR immerses users in a virtual world through an independent system (rather than using an HTC phone).

Most importantly, unlike Oculus Rift, they are both affordable. They also both make the benefit of VR content for consumers and businesses clear – getting users more engaged with products and differentiating organisations in a world flooded with mobile devices. The hype and excitement around the product launches in this space is quite simply astonishing and we’re sure to see many more before 2016 draws to a close.

The reality for customers

But what does this actually mean for the customer? Here are a few examples:

1. The branding and customer engagement landscape will be transformed:

with VR technology, brands will now be able to create a completely different relationship with customers, engaging them in a way never previously possible. For years brands have deliberated over how to make their customers actually feel something. Virtual reality makes this more of a possibility; no longer passive spectators, customers will become active participants.

Cheese-maker Boursin’s “Sensorium” is a perfect example. By wearing a VR headset, the user is taken on a wondrous journey through a fridge full of delicious ingredients to immerse themselves in the product.

2. E-commerce will be revolutionised:

one of the major drawbacks of shopping online is the inability to see how a product “fits”. Whether it be clothing or furniture, it is next to impossible to know how your purchase will look when it arrives. VR changes that. It gives us the ability to actually see those products in a virtual environment and removes that longstanding barrier eCommerce. Imagine being able to see how that wardrobe would fit in your bedroom with a full 360-degree experience before actually buying it.

Retail giant eBay are making major strides in this space, with their CMO and Director of Retail Innovation stating that the future is no longer about eCommerce but in fact “vCommerce.” Steve Brennan tells us that “VR will no longer be a separate retail channel but a complimentary channel added into the retail mix.” Quite the game changer, I think you’ll agree.

3. Geographical location will cease to exist:

one of the benefits of the mobile revolution was the breaking down of geographical barriers, and many would argue that geographical location is already irrelevant. However, VR takes things to a whole new level. Sure, right now we can Skype a friend on the other side of the world, but the division in location is still very clear. With VR, not only won’t it matter where you are, it will actually feel as if you are in the same room.

Hotel giant Marriot has taken this a step further with their virtual travel “teleporter”, allowing users to travel to the far corners of the world without leaving their home. Using a telephone booth-like structure Marriot combines the visual VR experience with sensory devices (e.g. heaters, wind jets) going beyond the possibilities of a mere 360 video. Just think of the implications for marketing within the tourism sector!

And the list could go on.

But, with everything, there are sceptics

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that use cases for Virtual Reality are really only limited by our imagination. The hardware is truly incredible, and the speed of its development almost inconceivable. But, and this is a big but, sceptics will be quick to point out that the speed of content development for VR platforms is lagging behind.

Whilst potential use cases are seemingly limitless, real-life ones have been slow to develop. There is a reason why almost all of the VR demos on show at CES and MWC pertain to the Entertainment industry, and even Mark Zuckerberg had to admit that gaming was where VR was most prevalent right now. So, whilst several companies are talking about using VR as a means of transforming their customer experience offering, the majority of the ones we interact with are not. 

“Be where your customers are” is a commonly followed mantra at customer-focused organisations and the simple fact is that customers, and the large majority of markets, just aren’t there yet.

But that should in no way lessen the excitement around its potential. VR is more of a reality than it has ever been, and no brand that deals with physical products can afford to sit still in this space. Just because customers aren’t there yet it doesn’t mean that they won’t be soon. VR is increasingly moving from novel to norm. And, as we have found with many technologies before it, the companies who don’t start thinking about how to incorporate VR into their strategy now may well be the ones that don’t have a place in our future.

The mobile industry clearly believes that VR is more than just hype and, whether you are sceptic or supporter, it seems clear that virtual experiences that deliver real impact might not be as far off as you think.