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It’s become a truism that new technology can spark dramatic changes in business and society. In recent years, a confluence of new social, digital and mobile tools has totally changed how people access, create, track and share information. Communication disciplines like PR and journalism have been irreversibly transformed, though many are still struggling to adapt to the new reality. Well, the laggards better hurry because the next wave of change may be here, and it is virtual reality.
I recently had the opportunity to join a webinar by The Gronstedt Group that positioned virtual and augmented reality as a potential game changer for many industries, including public relations. The Gronstedt Group has been working with clients on the cutting-edge of technology for years, notably using 2D virtual environments like Second Life as interactive platforms for employee training and collaboration. But the emergence of new and affordable 3D virtual or augmented reality devices has changed the game – again.
There are obvious reasons why virtual and augmented reality has huge potential as a communication platform. The 3D environment is an immersive, powerful multi-sensory experience that goes well beyond 2D content like video or computer games. It’s the ultimate 360 experiential media. As such, it can carry more emotional and dramatic weight than video.
The other key development that will drive adoption and usage is the increased affordability and variety of VR tools, with the best example being the Google cardboard viewer ($15) which can be used with a smart phone and a special app. That’s a far cry from Facebook’s Oculus Rift (which requires a headset and special PC bundle) or the even more advanced HTC Vine – which allows for positional tracking. So the barriers to entry for both users and producers are getting lower every day. On the augmented reality front (which combines digital content on virtual screens with the real environment) the introduction of Microsoft’s HoloLens opens the door to broader corporate and consumer use.
Early examples of VR content demonstrate the huge potential for this technology. Though initial efforts focused on interactive gaming and specialized training (like medical training, flight simulation and even an NFL module to train quarterbacks) we’ve seen a range of exciting VR applications in journalism, marketing and entertainment. Notable examples include a ground-breaking virtual video story by the New York Times in April 2015 (distributed via free Google VR headsets) and a gruesome VR film shared at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January to dramatize the Syrian refugee crisis. (The director of “Clouds over Sidra” called his VR film the ultimate empathy machine.) In fact, the New York Times now provides a wide range of content in VR through its website, making a big play for what is calls “virtual reality journalism.”. Google’s Expeditions VR program has allowed half a million students to go on virtual field trips to global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef. It’s now possible for home buyers to visit virtual open houses through VR content. Just this week the New Yorker magazine produced its online issue with augmented reality digital cover featuring the NYC skyline.
You can also imagine some fascinating applications for VR with the employee audience – my personal passion. Imagine a virtual onboarding session featuring video interviews and 3D brand visuals, or “micro” learning sessions with Google cardboard viewers. VR also opens the door to much more engaging, immersive digital training sessions (perhaps to introduce new products) or even virtual exhibits – like a 360 corporate museum. There are of course also huge opportunities to leverage VR technology for core business applications, like product development, data visualization or collaborative brainstorming. (Check out the Google Tilt brush application, which allows users to create 3D paintings.)
Virtual reality essentially opens the door to a new art or communication form. This is important not just for the sake of creative license or technological progress, but because the virtual outcomes will be more compelling and immediate, and the communication process itself more effective and impactful. This is a new frontier for communication disciplines like PR. Let’s hope communication professionals are paying attention and proactively take advantage of the VR technology.