Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

In an industry where AR is king, should we be dismissing VR?

By Sam Cox, Senior Creative Technologist, We Are Social 

Snapchat recently ‘painted’ London’s Carnaby Street with fountains of graffiti and murals, with a little help from AR. Meanwhile, Google quietly announced that its Daydream VR platform is confirmed dead – another nail in the low-end VR coffin.

There’s no doubt that while AR has taken off in 2020, VR is still struggling to gain mainstream traction.

So what sets the two apart? The most commonly discussed reasons are usually accessibility and affordability – in that AR is both, and VR is neither. But dive deeper and it’s a little more complicated.

The rise of AR 

Social networks have given AR the perfect environment to flourish. Applications like Spark AR and Lens Studio have given creators the flexibility to produce ambitious AR projects. Facebook and Snap are in an arms race to add more features, allowing creators to make as diverse a range of content as possible. Creation has been democratised by the platforms, reducing the barriers to AR production so that almost anyone with an idea has the potential to bring it to life.

The second key aspect in AR growth is distribution. For many years AR was limited to native iOS or Android apps and call-to-actions were needed to inform users to download an app to experience AR. This is a hard sell, especially as this was a technology that, for the most part, was unknown by many. Social networks changed this by embedding AR inside their apps, with CTAs like ‘swipe up to view’ enabling quick and easy AR access.

These two points have created an epoch in AR. With greater exposure to technology, we’re now seeing people understand what AR actually is. With this, usage metrics rise and greater value is unearthed, marking the acceptance of AR as commonplace in digital and social tools.

The troubles of cheap VR

While AR is on a roll, VR has hit a roadblock. Tech and social companies have piled research & development money into this sector to varying degrees of success. 2014’s Google Cardboard was hyped as a cheap, accessible way of accessing VR, where people could insert their phone to enable VR interactions. It proved successful enough for Google to develop a better built version, “Daydream” which added more functionality. But this year, it was dropped.

Another no-frills VR headset from Samsung, the Gear VR had a similar concept – Samsung would provide the content platform and produce a phone powered VR headset. The fate was similar, with Gear VR being discontinued in September.

So why has the cheap VR headset movement come to a screeching halt? There are two core reasons.  Generally speaking, tools to make VR are more complicated than the friendly nature of Lens Studio and Spark AR. This limits production and creativity to a select few who know the production tools of VR. Once you’ve experienced the initial content on VR, you need a stream of good quality content to follow, otherwise, usage is going to inevitably drop for the average user.

More democratised tools for VR are needed for it to go mainstream – for example, taking the simple user design experience that Lens Studio and Spark AR offer (along with the copious amounts of tutorials) and wrapping them up into a development platform to ease newcomers into VR development. Tools such as Unity aren’t a million miles away, but can still feel daunting to beginners.

Secondly, the requirement of additional hardware in the form of the headset further results in limitations. AR is more accessible as a result as all you need is a smartphone from the last four years. That’s it. This means that brands who are aiming to reach a specific audience will find VR a limiting option.

The exception: Premium VR

There is an exception here. Away from the cheap VR world aside, the more premium VR market is doing well. Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 and they achieved relative success. Starting around the £300 mark, Oculus are making inward strides into people’s homes.

Sony has skin in the premium VR market game, releasing their Playstation headset a few years ago. Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan stated that he “believes in VR” and that it will be a “meaningful component of interactive entertainment” in the future.

It’s worth noting that premium VR like this tends to be driven by gaming, this is an area currently undergoing significant growth. According to our 2020 Global Digital Report, more than 4 in 5 internet users around the world play video games every month, which would equate to a global gaming community of more than 3.5 billion people. And gaming has had a boost in popularity since Covid-19 shook the world; more than a third of internet users have been spending more time playing video games since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s too early to tell whether this growth in gaming will filter through to a rise in VR, but the hype around the forthcoming release of Facebook Horizon suggests that avatar-based escapism is a big attraction right now. Widespread adoption of headsets reminiscent of Ready Player One may not be an unrealistic prospect.

What’s next for VR?

While every digital and social agency is probably working on an AR lens or two right now, it’s unlikely many are as focused on VR. While AR has seemingly found a sweet-spot living on smartphones, VR still needs to find its feet in the mainstream. Lessons learned as brands have tested VR up until now will be a useful starting point in any new project, but the landscape is quickly evolving. As VR has plaudits from games, this seems to be one of the strongest paths-to-entry for brands, particularly as it’s a growing area of interest. Collaborating on a meaningful integration with a social VR game, such as Horizon, could lead to unique opportunities. For now, brands should keep track of VR’s path and experiment when an opportunity arises. Only by testing new waters will innovative projects develop.