I stand in the center of a backyard trampoline. It’s snowing and I’m not wearing a jacket, but I don’t feel the cold. On the trampoline near me sit two foxes, a badger, a hedgehog and a squirrel. I face the badger, raise my hand and he jumps. I turn toward the squirrel, perform a quick gesture and he leaps up, spinning in midair. One by one, I make each furry companion spring up from the trampoline. I turn and reach out to the fox behind me. He turns his head away as I stretch my hand toward him – he’s not quite sure about me, yet.

Had you not read the title of this post, you might have thought I was describing a dream. In reality, I was standing in the Technicolor suite at the Consumer Electronics Show donning a virtual reality headset, participating in the “Buster’s Garden” VR experience, which accompanied this year’s popular holiday commercial from UK retailer John Lewis. Customers visiting the flagship store on Oxford Street during the holiday shopping season would have had the chance to participate in this immersive experience. Since I haven’t crossed the pond in the past few months, I felt lucky to try it at CES.

Technicolor was one of many companies displaying their VR feats at this year’s gathering of tech enthusiasts, as VR remained a predominant topic. What struck me this year, however, was that the unbridled enthusiasm for VR that permeated CES 2016 was tempered by an open acknowledgement of the challenges and risks of VR. Experts know that if VR is going to take off, it has to accomplish a lot.

Challenges for VR

One challenge for VR is episodic content. VR has to compete for a sliver of consumers’ free time, which is already largely saturated by activities such as binge-watching Netflix and online shopping. Content has to be compelling enough to draw consumers away from their current activities and then keep them coming back again and again. One media executive at the show asserted that she’d like to see consumers coming back for at least 10 minutes every day after work. So far, there are very few games or other high-quality interactive narratives consumers can enjoy in their homes, with affordable equipment, that will inspire them to come back daily.

In addition to compelling, episodic content, Technicolor emphasized the importance of VR being social, which cannot be overstated. It’s a very isolating experience to put on the mask and headphones and block out the world, unless others can share the environment with you.

Growing interest

Only 8% of
US adults owned
a VR headset,
but 36% were interested in
owning one.

As the tech world grapples with the challenges presented by VR, interest in the medium is growing among consumers. Mintel’s Digital Trends Fall 2016 report found only 8% of US adults owned a VR headset, but 36% were interested in owning one. These percentages will have undoubtedly jumped after a holiday season that saw strong sales for VR hardware. Post-holiday, Samsung says it has now sold 5 million Gear VR devices. During a CES session, Jaunt VR VP of Marketing Communications Miles Perkins said usage doubled on Christmas Day.

Brands and VR

So, what does all this mean for brands? According to Greenlight VR, 71% of consumers say they think virtual reality technology makes brands seem “forward-thinking and modern,” so just the association with VR can be positive.

Additionally, VR captures attention like no other medium. It requires a degree of mindfulness that you don’t get when watching a video, or even in real life, where other distractions vie for a consumer’s attention. Inside a VR headset and headphones, consumers block out other stimuli. It can be incredibly powerful to capture that kind of attention.

Right now, brands have a choice to get involved with VR, be on the cutting edge and help create the kind of compelling use case that will propel VR adoption forward. Who knows, the best case for VR could pop up in someplace completely unexpected.

The other option is that brands can sit back and wait until VR has been figured out, becomes more popular and is driving more engagement before dipping a toe in. However, let’s not ignore what could happen to VR if that killer content doesn’t emerge soon enough. If it doesn’t, many of us will never get to float through space unencumbered, or travel back in time, or jump on trampolines with wild animals. And that would be a shame.

For more analyst insights from CES 2017, check out the second post in this series here.

Emily Groch is Mintel Comperemedia’s Director of Insights, Telecommunications. She provides omni-channel marketing analysis and competitive insights to wireless, TV, internet, over-the-top, and home security service providers across the US and Canada.

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