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The Virtue of Virtual Reality

August 26, 2017

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Virtual reality. Clearly it’s one of the most promising technological advances of our generation, offering endless potential in countless areas of our lives. Or, if science fiction has any say in the matter, it’s the next step in our eminent demise as a civilization. So yeah, I’m on the fence when it comes to VR. And here’s why…

Don’t get me wrong… VR is undeniably cool. Like, super cool. VR systems like the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, HTC, PlayStation, or even Google Cardboard represent what’s possible with VR at any price point.

And the content! The games completely redefine what an immersive experience can be, and the possibilities for virtual operating systems and interactive tools are endless. We’re clearly witnessing the evolutionary phase of a technology that will become ubiquitous and reshape how we interact with the digital world for generations to come. Like I said – cool!

We’re witnessing a technology that will reshape how we interact with the digital world for generations to come.

So the “cool factor” clearly isn’t my hang-up.

There’s the cost component, but I can get beyond that pretty quickly. “Cost” in the early adoption of tech usually works itself out… eventually. Plus, you can currently get a Google Cardboard for not much more than a Venti Latte. But if you (and three of your friends) want to play a completely immersive Star Trek game and have your mind completely blown apart (literally) by Klingons, then you’re going to drop upward of five thousand dollars on multiple Oculus Rifts (or would that be Oculi?) plus the hardcore gaming PCs required to handle the graphics heavy lifting. Regardless, cost isn’t my issue here either.

Then you’ve got the “extra gadget” factor. Tolerance for incremental gadgets has waned a bit since we started putting digital Swiss Army knives in our pockets, and minimized mobility became the default must-have. None of the VR solutions currently available are portable by millennial standards… unless Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine can turn this into the next techy fashion craze. God help us if VR headsets end up being the next “bling.” But I digress, because this also isn’t my main sticking point.

No, where I get stuck, like most other things that I take umbrage with, is in the practicality of it all… because, let’s face it, people usually default to a mindset of practicality, whether conscious or not, driven by laziness or in what it costs us… in money or in time.

What’s impractical about VR? Let’s start with the impractical nature of being removed from actual reality for extended periods of time. Time spent in corporeal reality is what builds and maintains our skills at interacting with people, honing our interpersonal skills to benefit ourselves and/or society. It’s bad enough that we count our Facebook “friends” as a unit of measure of our digital credibility… people that we haven’t seen, spoken to, or truly interacted with in 20+ years, even though we’re completely “in the know” on their recent relationship exploits and family vacations by way of a website. Or the effect that smartphones have had in usurping our attention spans and general consciousness. Above and beyond social networks, smartphones, and all technologies that have come before it, VR represents a quantum leap in even further removing us from the physical world (and reality), whether it be with our inter-personal relationships or sensory experiences.

VR represents a quantum leap in even further removing us from the physical world.

I’m also not sure that we have evolved our own subconscious defenses against paranoia, claustrophobia, or self-protection to the point of accepting that the world isn’t going to implode around us as we “check out” into virtual space. Or maybe that’s just me. But how many other examples can you cite where people willingly cut off all contact with their immediate surroundings and the sensory gratification attached to them, inanimate or not, without concern that something bad could potentially happen to them… whether it be a proverbial kick to the head or somebody stealing their keys?

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Again, VR is nothing short of awe-inspiring, both in its current state and the promise of what’s to come. The potential for us as marketers is infectiously exciting. Whether it be virtual marketplaces where niche audiences can converge (Facebook will undoubtedly be a huge player here) or the creation of immersive brand environments, the potential for brands of all shapes and sizes to engage, excite, and convert is off the charts.

Possibly the most exciting promise is also the slipperiest slope: the potential for a level of behavioral data collection and analysis beyond anything we’ve ever seen or measured. Imagine the possibility of recording every granular micro-touchpoint from somebody’s “stay” within your branded virtual world, in both a qualitative and quantitative measure. We’ll see data-driven personas that become eerily predictive of consumer behaviors, far beyond our current ability to do so. That’s just one reason why now is absolutely the time to heed caution regarding decisions made, and rules defined, within this rapidly growing space. We need to stop to think and reflect on the potential ramifications that today’s actions may have. It’s no mistake that science fiction consistently utilizes the imagery of entire societies “hooked in” to virtual worlds as part of their attempt to paint a bleak, dystopian picture of our eminent fictional future. Those dystopian futures had to start somewhere. We’re there. Now.

Imagine the possibility of recording every granular micro-touchpoint from somebody’s “stay” within your branded virtual world.

The moral of the story is this: Technology has a habit of moving exponentially faster than our ability to know how best to use it responsibly. It lures us in with the promise of what is possible and excites us with new experiences that we previously couldn’t fathom. And although we can’t and shouldn’t get in the way of technological innovation, we absolutely can and should have a firm grasp on our ability to scrutinize its application for the good of society at large. I believe this has never been more true than with the advent and advances of virtual reality.

Now, augmented reality on the other hand… that’s a whole other thing entirely. More on that next time.

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