Facebook Gets Real About Virtual Reality

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Virtual reality (VR) has been an area ripe with potential for marketers for some time, yet with hefty price tags on even the most affordable VR hardware, the technology was a novelty with limited adoption. That could all change with the launch of Facebook's Oculus Rift, a wearable VR headset that was one of the hottest devices at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

From a marketing perspective, the technology is more than just a cool gadget, and 2015 could be the year that VR becomes a worthwhile marketing channel.

Research firm MarketsandMarkets predicts that in 2015, the VR device market will top $66 million. The modest revenue isn't what has analysts buzzing, however—it's the growth rate. In 2014, virtual reality posted year-over-year growth of 164 percent from 2013, and with the technology becoming cheaper and more attainable, the rate—and the revenue—will skyrocket, MarketsandMarkets predicts.

Google has already taken the first model of its much-hyped VR device, Google Glass, off the market to develop a new, cheaper option. And Google Glass now has some serious competition; with Facebook behind it, it's the Oculus Rift that has marketers excited.

"Facebook has immense reach. Immense. When it comes to advertising, it's the most powerful social network out there. Google is powerful in terms of advertising, but when you think about how people use Google and Facebook, and how often, Facebook might take the cake," says Terry Block, author of Klout Matters and the former chief enterprise blogger at Skype.

Because of the advertising power that Facebook brings, marketers expect that the Oculus Rift might eventually become another device through which marketing and advertising content is consumed. And according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that expectation is not far-fetched.

"It's pretty easy to imagine that in the future we will have something that we can...wear—and it'll look like normal glasses, so it won't look weird like some of the stuff that exists today," he said at a public town hall event in Bogota, Colombia, in January. "And you'll just be able to have context with what's going on around you in the world and communicate with people and not have to disrupt your conversations by looking down."

If Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in March 2014 is any indication, Zuckerberg's vision of the future is near, and marketers should begin thinking about how VR could enhance their marketing material. When smartphone adoption sped up, marketers had to redesign their content for smaller screens and shorter attention spans. When VR device adoption gains traction, marketers will again have to rethink their content, this time with a richer, more interactive experience in mind.

"VR is the ultimate tool for customer engagement, and it's light-years ahead of any current brand engagement touch points. It's the ultimate way a car company can showcase their latest car, a retailer can provide a view of their Fashion Week event, a travel destination can showcase activities, or any advertiser can truly take a thirty-second spot to the next level," says Alex Lirtsman, cofounder of digital marketing agency Ready Set Rocket. "Just imagine walking through IKEA or Home Depot without the crowds and being able to browse and purchase at your leisure twenty-four/seven. The technology is already here; all we need is user adoption."

So far, Facebook has been fairly quiet about any specific plans for Oculus, but because the gaming industry is a major proponent of the virtual and augmented reality markets, experts say games could be a logical direction. Still, this leaves a number of unanswered questions for marketers. It's unclear exactly when the Oculus Rift will hit the market, and it's also not known how advertising will be incorporated into the Oculus interface. One thing, however, is almost certain. "When Facebook is involved, you know advertising is going to be a big piece of the picture," Block says, and marketers need to prepare for the "next level of content."

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