• Carola Epple

Forms of Virtual Reality - and why VR is nothing if it doesn't have a purpose

Aktualisiert: 30. Juli 2019

Recently, I had a discussion with a marketing expert from the travel industry: what actually is Virtual Reality? When thinking (once again) about this question, it turned out be a lot more as just an academic footnote.

“Virtual Reality” - an unhelpful catch-all phrase

First of all: Neither in practice nor in research, there is a consistent definition of what is meant by “Virtual Reality”. Spotify's Group Creative Director Mark Pytlik perfectly sums it up: “'Virtual Reality' is actually an unhelpful catch-all phrase for vastly different types of immersive experiences”.

In practice, VR is often described to create an experience of being totally immersed in a purely virtual, computer-generated world. When digging deeper, you can look at the technology and the content side of VR. In view of content, there are two types of virtual environments: computer-generated worlds, which are popular in gaming and filming because they enable developers to create unlimited fantasy worlds; and real world video environments consisting of filmed, spherical 360° video images or pictures (which is what we do at VirtuallyWow). Movement and interactivity are important differences between coded VR and 360° content: computer-generated VR enables the viewer to ultimately move through the environment and to possibly even interact with objects or other (virtual) persons. In contrast, 360° videos show fixed paths which restrict the experience to a first person point-of-view and the option to look around in the virtual space.

Content and technology: two sides of a coin

Yet, for the case of travel marketing, the goal is mostly not to create fantasy worlds. Rather, it is about to inspire and support travel planning by allowing a more direct experience of how a place in advance. The strength of 360° is its contribution to overcome the lack of physical tangibility of travel destinations during the booking process and to showcase destinations more realistically.

Complementary to the content side of things, the equipment in use for production as well as reception is like the other side of the coin: does the user wear an an eye-covering headset and possibly headphones for 3D spatial sound? Or does he/she only use a smartphone and cardboard, or - perish the thought! - a desktop PC? Are we talking about 1080p or 8k? Not mentioning odours, wind machines or other effects addressing additional human senses. Considering all these factors, there is indeed a huge range of what Virtual Realities can look and feel like. Accordingly, the effects on consumer behaviour also vary a lot. For the context of travel marketing, "simpler" options involving 360° content and cardboards can be absolutely appropriate, as they are much more accessible and serving their purpose (we will come to that one in a second). 

Virtuality creates reality - a slide of Mackevision CEO Armin Pohl during a presentation of the lecture series "Fernsicht" on Stuttgart's television tower

Virtual is real - the ultimate definition of VR Some purists argue that only coded VR is "real" VR, with 360° videos being "only" a special kind of films. For my ultimate definition of VR, I am coming from the side of user perception: if the user experiences a virtual environment as "real", if he or she is able to somehow feel how it is like to be in a place (and if only for some moments), then this is a Virtual Reality - regardless of the used technology, equipment and the content this experience is based upon. In science, this kind of experience is called 'presence': a feeling of “being there”, a form of “out-of-the-body experience” and a sense of immersion. It can also be described as the illusion of unmediated perception, so that a user fails to perceive the existence of a medium (e.g. a VR device) and responds as if it was not there. During a presentation of the lecture series "Fernsicht" in Stuttgart last April, CEO of CGI specialist Mackevision Armin Pohl made a similar point: if someone experiences something as being real, even if it is created by technology - isn't it kind of reality then?

Technology alone is never enough

Instead of arguing about what and what not is VR, to me personally it matters more why and what for you would apply it. The VR tool in use at the Schmetterling travel bureau netword that served as the stimulus for our common VR study consisted of mainly 360° static pictures. It enables the users to move around and to explore the virtual environment (e.g. a cruise ship), whereas they are not able to move any objects. Compared to what is technologically possible, this is a rather simple form of VR. And yet, there is a considerable effect on booking behaviour such as an increase in turnover by 26%! Does it matter whether this is defined as VR or not? I say: No, because it is effective, no matter how you call the technology!

However: I have to admit that when developing the approach for VirtuallyWow, I also was amazed and impressed by VR as a technology. But as I was starting to work on business models in this field during my MBA program, I asked myself which benefit it could have to use VR for travel marketing. More specifically: whether and how do 360° content and VR tools influence the booking behaviour of travellers? This is what I have analysed in our VR study. By talking to many potential clients with the results in mind, I developed the use case of conversion optimization. This is what we actually sell - a specific benefit that is enabled by the means of VR. But technology alone is never enough without a purpose.

What this changed for us at VirtuallyWow Coming back to my discussion with the forementioned travel expert: I noticed that introducing VirtuallyWow as a VR company may sometimes be misleading: we do not sell VR in the first place, but immersive experiences that enable users to dive into a place, to almost feel the sand under their feet and the warm sun on their skin - which then leads to immersion, emotional activation and finally to increased conversion rates. After thinking and chewing this over together as a team, we have actually reworked our website texts, putting immersion in front and technology second. Some weeks ago, we were developing a claim for our company, and the choice finally was between two alternatives. I liked the proposal "VR on a mission", because I thought it would express that we do not do VR for the sake of itself, but for something. But this "something" was actually missing in the claim! So we went for the second option: "Make booking 'wow'". At VirtuallyWow, we love double meanings, and this claim perfectly reflects that we want to contribute to an amazing user experience as well as to boost our customers' conversion rates.

Luckily, the name of VirtuallyWow turns out to be still the right choice: its double meaning was always not only ment for virtually experiencing a place, but also for making users feel as if they were actually (=virtually) in a place. The latter is a vital part of how our concept works, supported by techniques such as a first person perspective and a storytelling approach to support immersion and the feeling of "being there". Phew! :-)

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