There is a lot of hype around Virtual Reality (VR) at the moment. Its protagonists claim the only reason anyone doubts its place in the future of news, entertainment, and education is because when any new medium — radio, television — comes along, there is always a degree of scepticism at play.

Indeed, according to ex-INMA president Mark Challinor, that scepticism was on show at a recent INMA event, where marketing professor Mark Ritson made it crystal clear what he thought about VR. This happened immediately before a panel debate featuring The New York Times and The Washington Post discussing their approaches to the technology.

For anyone who hasn’t heard the news, The New York Times is taking VR very seriously without going overboard. At an event earlier this year, the Times’ EVP and CRO Meredith Kopit Levien told the audience that around two dozen films coming out of its T Brand content marketing studio this year would be VR.

One of the reasons for the hype around VR is the variety of industries that can potentially benefit from it. Most of the current excitement is around games. If the idea behind a video game is to make the environment look as real as possible, then why wouldn’t a games developer want to experiment with VR?

As the founder of one VR studio put it at a VR Masterclass event I hosted last week: “The power of VR is presence — you can play in a world that doesn’t really exist.”

Students got to experience Virtual Reality within a school bus thanks to Lockheed Martin.
Students got to experience Virtual Reality within a school bus thanks to Lockheed Martin.

One of the best examples of VR I’ve come across was in the educational arena, where Lockheed Martin took a school bus and turned it into a VR headset on wheels. The kids on the bus thought they were going for a trip round the streets of Washington, D.C.

But thanks to the ingenuity of the combined team from Lockheed, ad agency McCann New York, and visual effects company Framestore, they actually went on a (virtual) field trip to Mars. The project picked up no less than 19 awards at last year’s Cannes Lions festival.

In the charity sector, chuggers (those collectors who doorstep you for money on the street) are using VR headsets to give members of the public a better sense of the problem they are to trying to solve, though not everyone is happy with this development. A senior executive from Comic Relief I spoke to recently told me he thought this was verging on emotional blackmail.

The other reason for the hype is the simple fact that good VR is just so convincing. At the Masterclass I mentioned earlier, another speaker made the point that when people are in a VR experience, they are 100% focused and engaged. That is because the headset takes them into this virtual world where the real world doesn’t exist for a brief period.

He was making the point promotional content works incredibly well when given the VR treatment, but the same principle applies equally to news content. Reading about the terrible conditions in a war zone is one thing. But putting a headset on and experiencing them for yourself is quite another.

If you need convincing about how convincing good VR can be, let me relate a VR experience I enjoyed/endured a couple of weeks ago at the hands of an advertising firm called Vibrant Media.

The company was exhibiting at an Internet Advertising Bureau event focused on native advertising and content marketing. During one of the breaks, I noticed its VR experience, which had been plugged as we left the auditorium, had no takers, so it seemed like a great opportunity to grab another enjoyable VR session to add to those I had experienced previously.

There was a TV screen, as there usually is, so that bystanders can see what you see, even if they don’t experience it to the same degree. In front of the TV screen was a plank around 14 inches wide, comfortably wide enough to put two feet on, which will become significant later.

I stepped up and asked if I could try it out. I stood on the plank. The guy in charge of things — let’s call him Jim — asked me to step off it and stand just behind it. At that point, he put the HTC Vive VR headset on me and asked me to take one more step back as I was in the doorway of the (virtual) lift.

One step back and I was “in” the lift. A button was pressed and I got the sensation of moving swiftly upwards. There was a slight gap in the doors so I could see a skyline that I was gradually rising above. After maybe five or six seconds, I arrived at my destination and the lift doors opened.

That brief window had given me time to think about what might come next. There were only two things I could think of that could come next: I would be at the top of a very tall building with great panoramic views of wherever we were. Or maybe it would be in a flying adventure where I wouldn’t move but, thanks to the beauty of VR, I would feel like I was moving.

What happened next, however, was totally unexpected, and it completely spooked me. As the lift doors opened, I found myself standing on the edge of the tallest building you can imagine, looking down on the city below. That 14-inch, real world plank had turned into a virtual one, stretching out a few feet from the building. Jim, deadpan, said, “OK, so in your own time, can you walk to the end of the plank?”

Walking the plank was not simple, despite the fact the author knew he was experiencing a VR situation.
Walking the plank was not simple, despite the fact the author knew he was experiencing a VR situation.

And at that point, something in my brain just went AWOL. Yes, I knew that the plank I was being asked to step out on was the one on the floor in front of me, only two inches off the ground. But still, it took me 30 seconds to put my right foot on it.

One issue was — and I’m not sure how key this is — the virtual plank seemed about half the width of the real one, so I had to ask Jim if the plank was wide enough to put one foot next to the other. He assured me it was, so I dragged my left foot toward the plank at floor level until I could feel it against my instep.

But despite thinking about it for what felt like 30 seconds, I couldn’t bring myself to lift my left foot onto the plank, even though I knew I was in a room in the British Museum and the worst that could happen was I would stumble a couple of inches.

And at that point, I ripped the headset off and sat in the nearest seat and asked for a glass of water. I felt seriously nauseous, as if I might faint, be sick, or both. Fortunately, I avoided both, but felt decidedly rough for the next few hours.

Now this raised a number of issues. While my experience sounds like a negative one, you could argue that if VR is this convincing, it could help people overcome a fear of heights, a fear of flying, or a fear of almost anything else by simulating the thing they are afraid of in gradual installments.

For the record, I’m not great with heights but wouldn’t say I have a fear of them. I think it was the narrowness of the virtual plank and the unexpectedness of what I was confronted with that did it for me. Also, Jim’s deadpan delivery didn’t help.

I was interested to know how many people react like me and how many realise that it’s all a set up. I put this question to Vibrant’s vice president of global marketing, Helen Mussard. She told me that, of the approximately 50 people who tried the experience at the IAB event, around half could not put even one foot on the plank. So, my reaction was not unexpected.

Looking back on the experience, I wonder if I would be able to walk the plank if confronted with it again. Logic says of course I would, but I’m not so sure.

The key takeaway from the experience for me, however, is that if a VR headset and a two-inch thick plank can mess with someone’s brain to that extent, then VR really is a force to be reckoned with and something all media organisations would be wise to explore.