Virtual reality was a popular prediction for what’s going to be big in 2016. I think it’s a virtual reality itself as 2016 isn’t going to be the breakthrough year of mass adoption, but it is still something that PR professionals need to understand and be ready for. I want to strip away the hype digital gurus and social media evangelists always attach to emerging technology and focus on what it actually means for professional public relations.
That’s why I’ve invested the princely sum of £12.99 in a Google Cardboard v2.0 virtual reality kit. They might not be the best VR glasses, but it lets me use my mobile phone as a virtual reality display and see just what it is the social media and digital pundits are getting so excited about. It arrives in a cardboard sleeve (that confusingly looks like it’s part of the kit) and takes less than a minute to assemble (and another three minutes to find and watch the video telling you how to do it!) Your phone slots inside and when you look through the glasses the two images on it merge into one moving image. As you move your head left and right or up and down you see what is around you. If you’re using headphones you’ll also get a similar audio experience of the sound moving around you as you move.
My first impression is that it’s no Oculus Rift… but it doesn’t cost $599 (about £414 or €533) either. It is fun and gives you a good feel for what VR is all about. I certainly won’t be investing in an Oculus Rift (available March 28) anytime soon, although I might be tempted by the £85ish Samsung Gear VR (available now). I will keep experimenting with VR using Google Cardboard and would love to get my hands on a Samsung Gear VR to use with my Note 5.
VR won’t immediately impact PR
Virtual reality isn’t going to have an immediate impact on professional public relations practice as user numbers will be so small initially. However in the medium to long-term I believe VR could have a major impact on PR because virtual reality will enable us to create immersive experiences that will enable us to build stronger emotional connections with stakeholders.
At the moment there aren’t too many examples of companies or organisations creating VR experiences and most of them offer little more than novelty value. For some brands and companies ‘novelty’ can be a legitimate reason for experimenting with VR as it can get attention beyond the limited number of people who actually use it. The number of people who’ve read or heard about North Face’s VR climb in Yosemite National Park (USA) or the Star Wars VR Jakku Spy experience will be far greater than those who’ve actually used either. But novelty has a limited window of opportunity and it’s already starting to close.
One of the potential uses of VR for PR is storytelling to put stakeholders inside a brand or corporate story. This is VR as just another step in improving ‘content marketing’ to tell better stories. However, given that PR as a whole still thinks mainly in words (guilty as charged as I’m writing this) and struggles to use video as much as it should then it might be a stretch to see the profession being at the forefront of virtual reality.
You can get an idea of what storytelling for PR might be like by looking at how VR is already being used for journalism such as the New York Times virtual reality app. The NYTVR app puts you inside stories so as you look around you see different views. As a political junkie my favourite is ‘The Contenders’ which tries to make you feel like you are ‘there’ as the US presidential candidates put their cases. It fails miserably to make you feel like you’re ‘there’, but it’s still great fun. Other stories available include ‘Vigils in Paris’ after the attacks and ‘The Displaced’ 30 million children driven from their homes by war.
The mind boggles at the possibilities of more immersive experiences in some sectors and I haven’t wanted to explore all of what’s already out there already, but it’s worth remembering that porn allegedly counts for 30% of all internet traffic. It’s therefore inevitable that this dark, exploitative side of the internet will be at the forefront of experimenting with VR.
Amnesty used VR to increase donations
Another great example of using VR for storytelling is Amnesty International which used VR in early 2015 to give people a more immersive and emotional experience of the devastating results of barrel bombing in Alepppo, Syria. Amnesty’s VR experiment drove real results with an increase in online conversations, which for a campaigning organisation is a robust objective as maintaining awareness of issues that would otherwise be ignored is an important part of campaigning. If you’re only interested in the bottom line then you’ll also want to know that Amnesty also received increased donations with 16% of people experiencing the VR in on street demonstrations then signing up to monthly direct debits.
One of the most obvious ways that PR can use VR include ‘try before you buy’ which could be particularly relevant for expensive things where it’s hard to show the real experience such as holidays. Marriott has invested heavily in content including producing its own films, so it’s no surprise that it has also experimented with VR creating an experience that is meant to allow travellers to see, hear and even feel what it would be like to visit different locations.
But it’s not just consumer PR where VR can play a role. It also has huge potential in corporate communications in practice areas such as investor relations where a company can ‘take’ investors and analysts to a remote site or location to see and experience it. Even in very traditional areas such as public affairs and lobbying VR can play a role. Amnesty’s Aleppo VR experience could easily have been used to help influence politicians and their advisers. Politicians go on fact finding missions to war-torn locations and return with new perspectives. VR can never be a substitute for seeing it first hand. But what influence can it have on those politicians who don’t get to experience the devastated streets of Aleppo or the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon themselves?
VR can also play a role in public consultations for major infrastructure projects by giving people a much better understanding of what is being proposed.
Even in crisis communications, or maybe even especially in crisis communications, VR could be useful. Instead of just telling people you’re taking action you can let people see it in a much more immersive way. It could also play a role in crisis communications simulations and rehearsals to give participants a more realistic and emotional feel for what it’s really like.
I spend a lot of my time delivering modernised PR training and using VR for crisis communications training is just one way I see in how it could be used to enhance learning. The latest Google Cardboard app I’ve installed is Public Speaking for Cardboard which simulates delivering a speech or presentation before a live audience. At the moment you can choose from two locations with more planned. The first is to a dozen people in a meeting room in Oxford, UK and the second is a large conference room in San Jose, USA to an audience of 300+. You can even display your own presentation on the screen in the simulation.
Probably the biggest barrier to PR adopting VR are the skills needed to do it. It’s possible to start experimenting with using video more effectively using nothing more than your mobile, but creating your own VR experiences can’t yet be done as easily. But if you are interested in developing virtual reality experiences then Google even has an app for that with its Cardboard Design Lab.
So my prediction for VR is it’s going to be big, but not quite yet, so now is the time for PR professionals to learn, experiment and understand it or risk once again being left behind as other professional disciplines and communications industry sectors streak ahead.
So what are you waiting for? Buy a Cardboard v2.0 virtual reality kit today and download some apps to learn and have some fun!