Many brands seem to be hopping onto the VR bandwagon in 2017, presenting themselves as trendsetters in this rapidly evolving, and sometimes confusing, space. With every new content push comes the inevitable slew of headlines in Adweek and Fast Company: “Company X,Y,Z Lets You Dive Into Their New Product In VR,” “Brand A, B, C Presents a VR Experience.” Nine times out of ten, however, when I click the article, I’m presented with an experience that is simply a 360º video being touted as VR. “But 360º video IS VR,” you say! I’m here to argue to you that it’s not.

While I believe that 360º video is very important (read more about us designing in UX and UI in 360º video), and has a place in the new world of immersive media, it is its own medium, and serves a very different purpose than true VR. Given how convoluted the immersive media space is at the moment, I thought it would be helpful to give a quick summary of the types of immersive content that we are starting to see brands using to engage with consumers.

Basic 360º Video

This is the content that you’re seeing often touted as VR in news headlines, and the type of content that Facebook is embracing with its 360º (not to be confused with the content generated by/for their subsidiary, Oculus).  Essentially, 360º video uses a camera with multiple lenses to capture a full 360º view of a scene, stitch it together, and present it to the viewer as the camera saw it. Where basic 360° video falls short as an immersive media is that it lacks true immersion and direction. Often, basic 360° video simply sits in a scene and allows the viewer to look around, thus limiting any true immersion or autonomy.  That being said, it can be a fun and interesting way to introduce a space to a consumer, and it’s very inexpensive as you can just take the input from the camera and upload it to a headset (assuming you’re using an inexpensive camera).

Pros – Very Inexpensive. Extremely short production time.  Greater immersion than still images.

Cons – Almost complete lack of user agency, doesn’t attempt to create personal immersion

Directed, Immersive 360º Video

This is a more immersive form of 360 video that actually directs the scene as if the camera were the viewer. For example, during filming, the actors talk to the camera as if it were a person.  The camera is placed at a height that corresponds with a person’s eye level. What this allows for is a better sense of “there-ness,” as the action is happening around you and directed at you.  Additionally, this form of immersive cinema can begin to include interactive UI elements that actually push this towards true VR (see below), as it allows for the user to have agency around what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.  That being said, while the user may be able to interact with UI elements in a scene, the scene itself is still a collection of previously recorded images, meaning that user agency is still very limited.  While I would argue that this is the next frontier for cinema, and for cinematic, immersive storytelling, I feel that the term virtual reality is improperly used here, as it isn’t enabling a story for the user to craft that is unique to them. They are separate but related media, and they accomplish different (though both wonderful) things.

Pros – Inexpensive, Short production time (but longer than basic), greater immersion than basic 360º video, allows for some directed guidance through UI elements, can include linear story elements, adding to experience

Cons – Still very little to no user agency, often story on rails, still led by story teller rather than user

True Virtual Reality – Directed

This is an experience that involves actual user agency and user choice.  It is typically created fully digitally and rendered in a 3D game engine by an experience design team, though it can also include an amalgamation of immersive cinema and 3D elements.  The key is in the ability for user agency. If there is a large amount of autonomy, it enters the realm of true VR, as the user is the one in control. This (and exploratory VR) are where brands can engage with consumers in new and unique ways that go beyond telling stories, and allow users to craft their own experiences that connect them to the brand.  Unfortunately, this output is more labor intensive, and therefore is more expensive and takes longer to produce.

Pros – very immersive, allows for user decisions and agency,

Cons – Moderately expensive, longer production time, still lacks complete agency

True Virtual Reality – Exploratory

At its most extreme, the user (no longer a viewer) can participate fully in the scene, and choose to do whatever he or she desires. Stare at the ground for 20 minutes, pick things up and throw them around, interact with the environment in a way that substantially alters the path of the message/story: all of these things are the mark of a high degree of autonomy that enables a truly immersive experience.  Though we are limited by technology as of the writing of this, the extreme realization of this exploratory VR would be something so immersive and so autonomous, that a user feels completely transported to another world entirely.

Pros – extremely immersive, significant amount of agency

Cons – expensive to very expensive, much longer production time, hardware limitations prevent massive scope and scale (as of this writing in 2017)

Which types of immersive content are you using to engage with your consumers? Leave us a comment below!

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