For some time now, the whole area of Virtual Reality (VR) has been a fascination to me. It offers new ways to interact with our audiences in a truly immersive way.

Anyone who has seen one of my presentations recently will have heard me waxing lyrical about the potential of this new way to engage users in a variety of ways.

Virtual Reality may be the next big thing in the media industry.
Virtual Reality may be the next big thing in the media industry.

Media companies have the potential to create new revenue streams from VR advertising formats and sponsorship opportunities, as well as the opportunity to offer immersive journalism in new ways to tell our stories.

The latter offers ways of putting readers on the scene, in the location of the news item — something that might have once seemed like science fiction.

VR, for many, is indeed science fiction. But it’s not. The future is here now, and you can take first steps into the world of VR with basic equipment — starting with just your smartphone.

Many people, knowing I have immersed myself into this new technology, have asked me how to get started and, even from a more basic level, what is it and how it differs, for example, from the likes of Augmented Reality (AR).

This blog post will answer those questions and hopefully give you the knowledge and confidence to try VR for yourself to see its potential.

Starting with VR

VR has been around for a while, but 2016 was the year it finally became visible to the masses, and 2017 will see more companies adopt it to create better customer experiences in new ways.

Earlier this year, we saw the launch of Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. These ventures are all high-end gaming systems that rely on connecting to a fairly powerful computer or games console to operate.

But VR is not just for hardcore gamers. There are ways to enter the VR arena in simple, cheap ways.

Mobile VR is a great starting point into this world, with all the work done by your smartphone rather than a computer. And in a world becoming more mobile by the day, mobile VR is also an entirely appropriate place to start.

Google and Samsung have begun making their own VR hardware, and though Apple has yet to officially support the technology, the iOS App Store is starting to populate with apps designed for a VR experience. All you need is an iPhone and a viewer to hold it in.

So, what is VR?

Let’s take a step back for a moment. What exactly do we mean by VR anyway?

VR is all about giving the user the feeling of being in another parallel world; in effect, being somewhere else. VR headsets cut out the real world from sight and instead presents each eye with a slightly different image feed to give the impression of depth of field.

The result, when it’s executed well, is that you see a “real” 3-D representation of a simulated world. Head movements are tracked via the smartphone’s gyroscope, and, with its accelerometer (should you look left or right), has simulation that follows you.

It’s a truly immersive way to find yourself a virtual world. From a journalistic point of view, this could be anything from a major sporting event to the nightmare of, say, the streets of war-torn Syria.

VR is not to be confused with the technology called AR, which overlays imagery onto live footage of the real world (think Pokémon Go). AR is a cool technology and indeed can work with VR to create new levels of immersion (known as Mixed Reality, or MR), but AR is not the focus of this blog post. 

Many believe this mix of virtual and augmented realities will eventually form part of our everyday lives, both personal and business.

Consider a future where conference calls, sales and marketing presentations, or product prototyping is delivered in a virtual way? Even today, VR is advanced enough to allow users to witness breathtaking panoramas, see the world through the eyes of a skydiver, or even take a walk on the moon’s surface — all experienced as if you were really there.

VR viewing

At its most basic, a VR headset is essentially a box with twin eyeholes plus a compartment to hold a smartphone. The most well-known viewer is Google Cardboard, cheaply designed with the intention of making VR accessible to everyone. (I noticed during recent the Christmas season in the United Kingdom, high street retail giant, Marks & Spencer, has introduced its own version, for sale for less than £10). It’s literally a cardboard box with two glass lenses and a simple “capacitive” or control button for basic interactions ... and it works!

The more expensive viewers tend to be constructed from plastic instead of cardboard, and they basically improve comfort and durability. But the basic experience is practically the same. 

I guess, for the best VR experience, there are three things to bear in mind when choosing a viewer:

  1. Does it have a head strap?
  2. Does it have a capacitive button?
  3. Are the lenses adjustable? 

Many viewers have at least one of the three points above covered.

Getting started

Using a VR headset is simple. For the most part, it just requires downloading a compatible app and slotting the smartphone into the viewer. It’s best to see what’s being done in the space by others to gauge how you could adopt the technology.

If you’ve picked a headset that includes a button, the Google Cardboard app is an easy and cheap place to start. It features an adventure called Arctic Journey, where you fly alongside a flock of birds, as well as several other demos that give a flavour of the potential with this technology. It should, in fact, give you an idea of how you can adopt VR within your company for storytelling purposes.

For a better immersive experience, I’d recommend using headphones.

Much of the best VR video content can be located in a small number of apps that curate high-quality 360-degree movies. It’s a whole new way to absorb media, in which you’re free to look around and focus on whatever captures your attention.

Google Spotlight Stories is a platform for VR storytelling focused on animation and interactivity. It’s where you can see the Simpsons celebrate their 600th episode with a couch gag made just for VR, full of hidden jokes and characters who speak when you look at them. It might be a throwaway cartoon joke, but it offers a glimpse of the future of virtual storytelling.

The New York Times also has its own app, NYTVR, full of original content in the form of short documentaries. Learn about topics ranging from bees to the Olympics, or engage in guided VR meditation on the beaches of California.

Other media companies are diving into VR in other ways. Vice worked with the director Chris Milk to create a VR journalism project about protests in New York plus a refugee camp in Jordan.

Meanwhile, Condé Nast developed a VR series about a dynastic family with a special gene that gives them the power to become invisible.

Back at NYT, the company created a short documentary in VR and worked with Google to distribute its VR device, Google Cardboard, to subscribers. (It’s also interesting to note that the NYT now has a VR editor.)

Discovery Communications started a service called Discovery VR, which is available via Apple and Android apps. Discovery VR has more than 75 VR experiences and the app has been downloaded 600,000 times (and viewed more than 23 million times), according to the company.

Is VR the future?

It’s rumoured that Apple has a team working on a secret VR project. It’s bought up a series of companies in related fields in recent times and has hired several VR professionals. Some people are even claiming the iPhone 8’s “big thing” will be focused on VR and AR. We shall see in due course.

And of course, time will tell whether today’s VR will be a fad that’s here today and gone tomorrow or a sign of our increasingly digital future. However, heavy investment from so many of the world’s biggest tech companies (Germany’s Axel Springer have bought shares in Jaunt VR, for instance) suggests VR is here to stay.

Forrester expects that 52 million units of VR head-mounted displays will be in use in the United States alone by 2020, spread across enterprise and consumer ownership.

It seems it’s worth your time to see for yourself — get a headset and get onboard. You, too, will start to see how advertisers could be adopting or buying VR packages from you. A lot of opportunity abounds in terms of sponsored content via new branding and interactive methods. Plus, advertisers have a desire to offer their customers new, immersive experiences.

Will you be there to give them that opportunity, and, in the process, open up a new revenue source?

It’s all limited by your imagination.