Virtual reality is at a funny time right now. As it grows from a promising artistic medium to a fully fledged industry, us creators are waiting with baited breath for the rush to happen – for people, en masse to buy headsets and avidly consume the content we’re making. Sooner or later it will hit the mainstream, and people who aren’t early adopters will dash out to buy a headset. They’ll hungrily download VR experience after VR experience, because VR is awesome, right?
I am increasingly realising that this assumption that I’ve held for a while, well, might not work out quite like this. There’s a lot of thought and graft that goes into a new technology moving along the tech adoption curve, from the early adoptors to the early majority to the late majority. Most of the general public, while they may be curious, have a lot of other things going on in their lives – they are not hungry for new things just because they are new. VR will take some time to become a part of our culture; to be a natural part of our day-to-day lives, to have a time and a place and to become second nature. Moore’s Law might apply to technology, but it certainly doesn’t apply to human culture.
And this is why, when you are making your first few VR projects, you must not ignore distribution because right now it’s more than percentage splits and sales figures. It’s working out how to create a context and motivation for you audience to sit down and strap a screen onto their face, losing their awareness of what’s going on around them and potentially feeling like a bit of a dork. Only 16% of the UK population have tried VR, so the likelihood is that it will be your audience’s first time. It won’t feel ‘normal’ for them. Making something feel ‘normal’ is a fun challenge, but I can tell you, from my experiences with VR at the BBC it was hard work for my colleagues and I!
So, how to address distribution? At brainstorming stage it is important to identify your audience, how you will get to them and what their motivation will be to do the experience you present them with. This is as important as your creative concept. Next, test your hypothesis with a sample of your target market – ask them as early as possible, ideally in person, if they would go out of their way to do your proposed VR experience. Take on board their feedback and continue to refine your distribution hypothesis until you feel super confident in it.
The Virtual Reality Cinema, Amsterdam
Assuming that your audience are not early adopters, and don’t already own headsets, I’ve noted below a few ideas for your VR distribution to get you going on your brainstorm:
1. Partner with a venue that your audience visit already
This could be an existing VR cinema, like this one in Amsterdam. VR cinemas are popping in multiple cities across the world. Or you could find a theatre, museum, library or art gallery, and partner with them for a physical event or exhibition. With Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel we partnered with the National Theatre and Imperial War Museum to get it to our VR-virgin audience. It worked well like this, as it positioned the piece within the context of the arts, enabling VR to reach beyond its potentially gimmicky reputation. It also meant the audience got to experience the piece with a high end headset, the Oculus Rift, something that requires lots of processing power, and is hence harder to get at home.
2. Make a great 360 video designed for ‘magic window’ on smartphones
‘Magic window’ describes the type of 360 video experience where users can move and tilt their phones in order to explore a 360-degree spherical video, no VR headset required. While it isn’t as immersive, and you rarely get a sense of presence from it, it is still a cool user experience, and holds a fair amount of untapped potential. ‘Magic window’ 360 video works with Youtube, Facebook video and now Vimeo. The great thing about this type of 360 experience is that you can get serious audience reach. These films regularly get views in the millions, in part because they are so shareable. While this type of 360 video isn’t VR, it still is an interesting medium in its own right and is full of creative opportunity.
3. Sell branded Google Cardboards like you would do a book, or bundled with a book
If you are a book publisher, then you have something many other industries will envy: an established physical distribution route. Google Cardboards can come in flat pack form, similar in shape and size to a book. You could provide an accompanying mini-book, with information on how to download the app and construct the Google Cardboard. It may be a bit DIY, but in one fell swoop you can get a rudimentary VR headset and the content to your audience. Bristol-based company BDH did this really well with their Hieronymus Bosch VR app, which is a trip through his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. A branded cardboard headset is available in gallery shops. For audiences, there is a certain delight that comes with realising their phone can do much more than they ever thought it could.
Once you get brainstorming, you will probably find that there are lots of other ways to solve the distribution challenge. The important thing is aligning it closely with your audience’s existing habits. While VR is so new, there’s a certain amount of hand holding you’ll be doing. In my view, this is an opportunity that should be relished. Some experts predict that VR will become as important as TV or social media. If this is the case, forming a part of your audiences’ early VR experience is an honour.