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4 February 2016

Will virtual reality be a force for good or bad in our lives?

Written by: Ciaran McCormick, Edelman Graduate 2015 at Edelman

Innovation, Life At Edelman, Technology

With the pace of technological change, virtual reality is rapidly turning from fantasy to a big feature of our own lives. It offers incredible opportunities for people to experience entertainment in a new and more accessible way and will transform industry, healthcare and the military. However, society has struggled to overcome the issues of technology in reality, let alone virtual reality.

This new frontier has the potential to be a powerful tool and a force for good that represents the next step in our connected mobile lives. But it also raises many concerns about its impact on young people and our interactions with the world around us. Hopefully, it will not face the same backlash that has been suffered by its sister technology – augmented reality.

The use of virtual reality for entertainment is slowly becoming mainstream. 360° videos have been introduced to Facebook and YouTube that let you move your phone or mouse around a full panoramic video. This is impressive enough, but add a virtual reality headset for under £100 and it becomes a breath-taking moment. I have worn an Oculus Rift in Edelman offices and been transported to the edges of space and plunged down a rollercoaster.

Virtual reality has captured the imagination of the consumer, as seen in this viral video of an elderly grandmother’s reaction to using a virtual reality headset for the first time. Developments currently in the works include tours of museums, live gigs and interactive games. Some hotels and airlines have even started to allow guests to order VR experiences to their rooms and seats.

Importantly, this space offers many useful opportunities for brands to interact with audiences. Mobile has a big disadvantage in that its users are often distracted, skimming different apps, multi-screening and giving more than a cursory interest only to the most engaging branded content. However, virtual reality could offer an entirely captive audience whose sight, hearing and movement have been entirely taken over by their media.

Brands have already begun to fill the need for virtual reality content with experiential marketing campaigns that have engaged early adopters of the technology. Nike used the 360° functionality of YouTube to put the viewer in the shoes of top footballer Neymar Jr as he dribbles past players and scores, finishing with a gallery of their products and some moments that people may have missed.

This technology should not be perceived as a gimmick. Many industries are excited at its potential for serious uses. Manufacturers have used it to develop their products, such as in Ford’s Sensory Lab where ideas are tested before expensive prototypes are produced. Virtual reality has been used in many sectors for a long time. For example, the military have used it to train soldiers before they enter the field and healthcare practitioners for almost 20 years to treat patients with symptoms of pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. The future is being anticipated eagerly across most forward-thinking industries.

Nevertheless, there are some concerns that must be addressed for this technology to be widely accepted by consumers. Price and quality will be refined over time. There are deeper concerns about its impact on the next generation. It is because virtual reality involves such compelling experiences that it could be a problem for young people. Screen time is already an issue and a survey by Action for Children found that 23.1%, almost 1 in 4, parents have struggled to limit their children’s screen time. This contrasts with traditionally difficult challenges such as just 10% struggling to get kids to do their homework and 17.5% to see them off to bed. Of course, these three issues inter-connect and more virtual reality screen time could deeply affect the other two. Indeed, researchers from Cambridge that studied 800 14 year olds found that an extra hour of screen time each day was responsible for substantial falls in GCSE performance. Whilst these concerns should not override the progress of this exciting technology, brands should use it in a socially responsible way.

Anyone who has worn a high quality headset will tell you how impressive the visual quality is. This raises concerns that violent or controversial content could have a significant impact on impressionable people and cause more problems than it resolves. It could even de-sensitise us further to impressive sights and make it harder for brands to engage consumers with their content.

There has already been a backlash to augmented reality technology. Products like Google Glass have been criticised for stealing away people’s attention from their immediate surroundings and letting technology control everyday life. This is underlined by two conflicting trends. We are increasingly connected through wearable technology, multiple devices and the Internet of Things. However, there has been a growing appetite for disconnection from technology, including mindfulness, simple offline activities such as adult colouring books and travel.

These concerns will probably erode as the technology becomes more useful and an accepted part of our everyday lives. The incredible potential for interactive 360° life could transform entertainment, manufacturing, services and education. However, it will also face hostility from people that want to detach from the images of virtual reality they saw in science fiction when they were in a less technologically advanced time. It is a force for good as long as the virtual does not replace reality.

Ciaran joined Edelman on the Edelman Graduate Scheme in 2015, and wrote about Virtual Reality following his time with our technology specialists. The image above was taken at the Edelman Graduate Scheme Launch Party, where graduates had a chance to try out VR for themselves.

The Edelman Graduate Scheme is now Edelman Beta, open to anyone aged 16+ looking to start a career in communications and marketing. Complete the #BetaHunt to make an application.

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