Immersive technologies are expanding creative experiences, and have a broader reach than simply Pokémon Go
Brands are experimenting with immersive technology to create electronic empathy – blending digital and experiential marketing to bring shared experiences to a wider audience.
This year, virtual reality (VR) headsets including Oculus Rift and HTC Vive hit the consumer gaming market, while Google Cardboard offers a limited VR experience via the smartphone. Augmented reality (AR) adds a virtual digital layer to our smartphone screens and mixed reality blends physical and digital elements.
Immersive technology creates empathy by putting the individual at the centre of every experience, and it has broadened its reach from gaming and entertainment to news, documentaries, education and healthcare. Jane Gauntlett’s In my shoes project used VR to make a first-person perspective short film about her experience of epilepsy. And now it is giving brands new ways to foster electronic empathy by linking virtual, physical and emotional realities.
The viral AR game Pokémon Go uses smartphone geolocation to present digital creatures on our screens as if they are interacting with our physical environment. Although the game appears as an extra layer on top of our environment from the personal perspective of our phones, the location element helps Pokémon Go create electronic empathy in the physical world, as shops and restaurants set up in-game location-based features to attract players....
From sci-fi to VR
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is played out in a future virtual universe, where brands have their own planets. Cline sees this happening for real as VR hardware becomes mainstream. “We should think about what happened with the internet. Suddenly companies had to have a website,” he says. “It may be that brands will have a virtual space where you can try on clothes or test drive a car,” he says. This is already happening, with in-store retail experiences incorporating mixed reality.
“Experiential marketing is about intimacy at scale,” says Jason Alan Snyder, chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide. “The danger for brands is that the algorithms we increasingly use are pushing us into ever-narrowing information silos and connecting us with tribes of people we agree with. Empathy is about understanding different perspectives and VR can alter perceptions. My hope is to leverage VR into a connective tissue by creating empathetic groups.” Snyder and his team created the blended reality American Express fan experience at this year’s US Open which includes the Pro Walk, a holographic replica of the locker room and walk on to the centre court, as well as a shared VR experience where groups/families can play tennis like the pros.
The smartphone is the centre of our digital world; it’s how we communicate and shop. How long will it be before we can touch what we see in AR in the same way as we can in VR with a headset and haptic gloves?
...Ultimately, electronic empathy comes down to the human factor – the emotional engagement that has always been at the heart of successful branding.
Immersive technology that engages multiple senses is expanding the creative space, providing more intense and personal experiences that can bring people together in multiple dimensions, sometimes simultaneously. But, it will only be effective commercially if it is widely accessible and focuses on shared human experience, rather than reinforcing a particular perspective.
“Empathy is about discovering things that we share and engage with emotionally,” says Snyder. “Immersive technology needs to focus on connecting humans to humans in a profound way. It can change people’s perceptions, and if used properly it has the potential to change the world.”