Connecting virtual with reality

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This post originally appeared in the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Today, ‘virtual reality’ has become nothing more than a token buzzword, plastered across online marketing forums and populating the inboxes of CMOs claiming to be the saviour of all brands, everywhere.

This is unhelpful for many reasons, not least because it renders the term utterly meaningless: what does ‘virtual reality’ mean anyway? Isn’t it an oxymoron? So we’re dealing with not-real reality? You can see where the confusion lies, followed closely by tedium. Surely this is the stuff of science fiction, a technology that after its moment in the sun will fade into obscurity without long-term impact on the world.

It is accepted that VR will change marketing, advertising, and branding (and already is): there are immersive product experiences like Volvo Reality, which enhance the possibilities of meaningful interactions with products and services. Taking you from a flat piece of cardboard to a fully immersive test-drive experience in less than a minute enabled by your smartphone. Then there are engaging storytelling VR devices, creating a more magical platform to invite people into the brand, exemplified by the artisanal exploration by Patrón Tequila with The Art of Patrón, which celebrates the unwavering artistry of the brand brought to life via a digital hub. VR is a tool that works well in these scenarios, and presents a fun and creatively connected opportunity to tackle some marketing challenges. But there are more fundamental reasons why we should be paying close attention to VR developments.

Normally, the brain only takes what it experiences to be the categorical truth. This – in a crude line – is the philosophical theory of empiricism: that true knowledge is held in sensory experience. VR technology interrupts that natural system by presenting new scenarios for the brain to process and react to, without ever having to experience them in the real world.

The power of this is exponential. It means that on the one hand VR can democratise many experiences (I can now go skydiving from my living room, for example) but in return these virtual experiences will have a lasting effect on our brains by shaping and re-wiring us in the same capacity as our real world experiences do. Taken to a dystopian conclusion, if we start to experience more things in VR than in the real world, the technology will literally re-wire our brains, changing how we perceive, react and feel: this is a technology that will for the first time prompt an evolution in how our brains work.

The most prevalent change being triggered by VR is that our brains are becoming more empathetic. When immersed in VR spaces, people feel involved in a story that is relevant in the most essential way – sensorially. When we are interacting with real human stories through a VR medium therefore, we are far more disposed to feeling sympathy and empathy because we are implicitly connected to the content. You cannot ignore or miss the point.

This is a rich tool specifically for non-profit and community organisations, for whom a major challenge is creating communications that provoke strong feelings and ultimate action. A research project being run by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab called ‘Empathy at Scale’ is proving that VR can have a deep effect on human behaviour. It is exploring ways to design, test and distribute virtual reality projects that teach empathy, for example does viewing the world through the eyes of a colour-blind person make you more willing to help them? So far conclusions have been that these experiences do drive empathy.

Another use of the technology is to change perceptions of people and situations through journalism. The CEO of Emblematic Group and former correspondent on Newsweek, Nonny de la Pena is working on integrating VR with traditional journalism to put the audience inside the story through evocative experiences. She worked on a commissioned piece that showed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Syrian refugee camps and the experience of children refugees, in which a young Syrian girl is singing when a bomb goes off. The piece held huge impact for exhibition goers, demonstrating the power of immersive journalism to engage and connect with people in a way that traditional media cannot.

As VR is employed in more industries, brands will need to move away from using it as a cutting edge sales tool, and start to integrate content and stories that are more human, empathetic and simple to appeal to our evolving brains. VR has the unprecedented power to make human beings more human, and as such is the technology that will have the most impact on our relationship with machines in the future. All brands can benefit from the output of empathy, to drive donation, sales or reputation – we’re all just people at the end of the day, and the sooner that our connected technology adapts to that fact the brighter the future is going to be.

Simi Nijher is an Associate Strategist in London. 

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