This year is poised to be the year of Virtual Reality (VR) for brands. In fact, it’s predicted that this will be the VR industry’s first billion-dollar year – with the potential for market growth of up to 150 billion by 2020. And VR isn’t just for gamers anymore – brands of all types and sizes have watched heavyweight innovators like Google and Red Bull experiment with the platform – successfully driving deeper, more meaningful experiences for their customers. It’s only a matter of time before broader, more widespread adoption takes place across the enterprise.

As the greater market is poised to broaden, applications that directly address business challenges will be springing up across all industries. Right now, VR is still in the early-adopter phase – which means the timing is right for brands to begin to evaluate and better understand the technology and how it could be applied to both their user experience and customer engagement strategy. So, how can businesses navigating the ‘new frontier’ of VR, better understand and leverage the technology?

Leveraging The ‘Empathy Machine’

Over the next few years, new and more compelling virtual and augmented reality content will help propel the adoption of VR from the narrow innovator audience to a broad early adopter audience. Technology companies are already in an arms race to be the pioneer and go-to manufacturer for VR experiences ; notably, Google partnered with The New York Times to ship out over a million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers, and additional wearable displays have launched or are nearing launch from Oculus (Facebook), HTC and Samsung. Experiments in virtual reality have been met with great excitement and eagerness from users – and that’s no surprise given mass consumer adoption of wearables, the Internet of Things and rising smartphone dependence. All of these trends underscore consumer demand for the immersive technology experience that their favorite brands can provide using VR.

I believe that VR and AR are the future of user experience design for businesses because they provide the most natural way humans can engage with information – immersing the user into a simulated environment that enables a brand to connect emotionally on a deeper level with their audience. It is why VR is commonly called the “empathy machine.”

This is directly in contrast with present mass computing, which is confined to two-dimensional rectangular surfaces. The screen and cursor that we use today are a proxy for sight and touch in a digital environment. As adoption rises, the paradigm will evolve across all digital media to a dimensional experience that feels more like the real world. In this new VR world, users have a more tangible relationship to the brand offering , making it more personal. With these capabilities in mind, what should brands consider when deciding if VR is right for their business?

The Business Case For Virtual Reality

The first step for brands tackling the question of ‘why VR?’ is to understand the platform’s capabilities. An immersive experience may mean developing a completely computer-simulated environment that can resemble the physical real/imagined world, or using video to immerse the participant into a space, and give a sense of depth in every direction, so you feel like you’re actually there. Transport lies at the heart of both methods – essentially taking your audiences to a different place. The key for businesses is to find purposeful uses for these kinds of experiences.

For example, why rely on text to describe the benefits of the latest car model when one can sit inside it, look around, try out the features for themselves as they would in real life, and take it for a test drive on any type of terrain? As an opportunity to create a stronger connection between the product and brand story, Volvo created a 360° video on Google Cardboard to take users on a picturesque test drive through the Swedish countryside. The journey gives users a sense of presence and complete immersion to feel as though they are in the driver’s seat. It provides an experience that a computer monitor, touchscreen or mouse simply can’t do. The experience visually connects Volvo’s design beliefs, which are grounded in space, quietness and nature as core influences in their products. The brand’s offering – a luxury car cabin and a smooth, exhilarating drive – translates effectively to VR.

In the education market, Google created Google Expedition, a journey-based experience that brings classrooms on virtual reality field trips. Students can travel around the world, from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef, without leaving the classroom. The program leverages active learning behavior where instructors and students can control and interact with the subject. This, in turn, reinforces classroom lessons that result in better retention of knowledge.

For both Volvo and Google – each company matched the capabilities of virtual reality to their project mission. To do this, they likely asked themselves: “If our goal is to communicate ‘X,’ how can we provide an experience that demonstrates this like never before, embracing VR with a full immersion into our brand and offerings?”

This is what businesses today should be asking themselves as they consider virtual reality. In a crowded market, companies must consider if providing an immersive experience to demonstrate its offerings or bring information to life in a new way would provide a competitive advantage. Brands interested in engaging a VR strategy should consider the following questions:

  • Will VR enable my business to make its offering instantly interactive and nearly tangible, demonstrating what’s truly unique compared to its competitors?
  • Can being the first to show off a product or service through VR differentiate my marketing strategy, beyond traditional advertising and digital tactics?
  • How will my brand develop this technology? Can we innovate in-house or do we need to seek a strategic partner?
  • What will ROI look like for a virtual reality project? How will my business evaluate outcomes to measure success?

The Enterprise Application For Virtual Reality

The potential of virtual reality doesn’t stop at the relationship between a brand and its consumers. There’s no question that virtual and augmented reality (AR) will completely transform the desktop experience for business applications. AR/VR allows the enterprise to move beyond the four corners of the common screen. Documents and data may be called upon when and where they are needed to perform business tasks. No longer will business users have to sift through file upon file to find the document, or be constrained to the size of a computer monitor. A “boundless screen” will allow you to see all data at once, to perform common tasks such as comparing and reviewing data. As businesses grapple to manage, streamline and leverage big data – virtual reality may be the perfect platform for visualization and manipulation, identifying insights not clearly visible through conventional desktop experiences. This has the potential to increase workplace productivity and increase employee engagement.

Virtual Reality Is The New Tech Frontier for Brands

Right now, virtual reality is an open canvas with infinite potential for brands. Now is the time for businesses to learn and experience the medium and explore new applications and experiences that can drive consumer engagement, showcase products and services, and increase workplace productivity. It’s only a matter of time before this new frontier of technology is commonplace (and potentially expected by consumers) and brands that don’t experiment and innovate now could miss the opportunity to make the biggest impact – or achieve the highest ROI.