By Eric John, Deputy Director of Video, IAB
I sometimes wonder what my medieval Welsh ancestors would have thought if transported into the future, to Las Vegas for CES 2017. My sense is they would have felt right at home at this mid-winter bacchanalia where 200,000 gadget freaks return each year to worship the latest advances in electronic wizardry. Now in its 50th year, it’s also become one of the most important venues to both promote and discover what’s hot (and what’s not) in the interconnected worlds of technology and media.
At this year’s show, more than 75 exhibitors presented new VR and AR technologies, from hardware, software, and content offerings to advances in motion sensing that’s enabling more immersive experiences that blend the real world with virtual environments.
If there was a watch word for VR at this year’s CES, it was experimentation. As one of the exhibitors said, “Eventually we’ll all be selling products through virtual storefronts in VR, so we need to figure this out and learn how to empower brands and take people on a journey with this new medium.
Samsung brought this concept to life in a Gear VR Space Race Demo that is part roller coaster, part immersive VR experience. Hundreds of show-goers — including me–lined up to experience a whole new level of sensory overload.
Marketers have also taken notice of VR’s ability to create emotion, empathy, and focus. While many of the presenters shared the difficulties of getting people into an initial VR experience — whether it be through Google Cardboard or through a more advanced headset — all of them agreed that VR will change the way media is created and consumed. As one said “We see this as a game-changing medium, fundamentally different because the consumer is the storyteller, controlling their own point of view.”
Computer manufacturer HP saw the opportunity to leverage a custom interactive VR experience to demonstrate and promote their “VR optimized” Omen computer. Their demo at a rooftop party at the Lync Casino offered guests the opportunity to strap on an HTC headset and a pair of hand controllers and be instantly transported into the “LightStrike” arena where they battled other guests with virtual neon discs. Developed by VR agency Groove Jones, the “LightStrike” experience was displayed on giant monitors throughout the space so that everyone could see the competitions unfold.
Dan Ferguson, EVP at Groove Jones, who I interviewed last year for the IAB VR Report, sees VR beginning to force organizational change in the same way that mobile has. “Brands don’t really know yet how to categorize this or even who is going to own VR in the company. Is it the marketing team? The mobile team? The activation team? It’s going to take companies three to four years for companies to figure this out,” he says.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about VR without also discussing Augmented Reality (AR). In the simplest terms, with VR you’re immersed in a world that doesn’t exist, whereas with AR, the viewer sees actual reality, but with virtual components superimposed. In a panel session called “The Connected Playground, To Infinity and Beyond,” panelists debated whether the two forms will eventually merge. Panelists referenced Pokémon Go and Snapchat’s sponsored lens as powerful examples of where AR is headed.
The one universal question about VR and AR posed by seemingly everyone at CES is “Where will the money come from?” Will it be sponsored content, advertising, or content licensing? For John Honeycutt, CTO at Discovery Communications, the most important thing is to get the measurement right. As a media industry, we’ve got to get to a point where we have agreement on “common, believable, repeatable and consistent” measurement. Until we do, it will be a game of whose numbers do you believe. If we don’t have numbers we can believe in, it will be very hard to sell content and advertising on this or any platform, he says.
Like any trade show, CES is not just about demos and panels. It’s also about the conversations that can bring some of the most unexpected insights. Between sessions, I fell into conversation with a patent lawyer and engineer sitting next to me. I asked them what they did and what they thought of CES 2017. The engineer was fascinated by both the advances and limitations of VR and AR, and was currently working to improve VR optics so that one day head mounted displays will automatically adjust to our vision. The VR patent lawyer said he’d been surprised how long VR has actually been in development.
To prove the point, he showed us a picture of what he believes may be the first example of a VR headset, invented in 1957 by Morton L. Heilig. He then showed us a picture of a Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive headset. We laughed and had to admit, they don’t look that different.
As we headed to our next meetings, I smiled and thought again of my medieval ancestors, whose astrological inventions, were in some ways not so different inspiration-wise from the early VR efforts of Morton L. Heilig, or any the hundreds of inventors exhibiting at CES this year.
They’re all looking for new ways to envision the world.
Eric John is Deputy Director of Video at IAB and co-author of IAB’s report “Is Virtual the New Reality.” He can be reached at Eric@iab.com.