They say that everything old becomes new again, and virtual reality developers seem determined to prove that adage true. VR was supposed to change the world in the 1990s, but neither the technology nor the demand for it was there. The hardware was clunky, the graphics were dizzying, and the overall quality of the experience wasn’t great.

The idea of sharing helmets, goggles, and glasses with family members — let alone strangers — was a huge hurdle in public spaces. People soured on virtual reality, so it remained the stuff of science fiction.

Now, VR is hot again. Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR in 2014 signaled that virtual reality is on the radar of some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley. Google, Sony, and Samsung are also creating VR products — this has many people thinking that the technology’s day in the sun has finally arrived.

That’s because the technology has improved significantly, and it has applications that could eventually span multiple industries, including marketing. For example, in event marketing, VR could one day become an integral part of event planning, allowing attendees to participate remotely but feel like they’re immersed in a live experience. It might even present unique ways to engage live audiences through virtual keynote speakers and other such novel experiences.

But blind optimism would be premature. I worked in simulation and VR in the ‘90s with many of the industry’s pioneers, and I see many of the same themes reemerging. People are so caught up in the “cool” factor that they ignore the basic limitations presented by a technology in which the hardware, applications, and experience have yet to progress past the larval stage. VR storytelling isn’t where it needs to be for general audiences yet, and that’s going to be crucial for widespread adoption.

If you’re going to use VR in events, it must enhance the brand story, not act as a shiny, distracting toy. It should complement the experience in a seamless, compelling way — and engagement should be short and effective. Time frames longer than three to five minutes are inadvisable due to eye fatigue issues and general physical discomfort caused by the apparatus.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic demonstrated VR savvy recently with its Van Beethoven project, in which it used a rented van and Samsung Gear VR headsets to give music lovers the orchestra experience, complete with a 360-degree panorama of the musicians as they powered through the composer’s thundering “Fifth Symphony.” A similar immersion, the NBA has also designed VR sessions that allow sports fans to “play” basketball alongside professional athletes.

These experiences work well because they’re engaging and memorable, and they entice people to the main event, whether that’s a basketball game or an orchestra performance. They complement the live experience and don’t make an attempt to replace the in-person show, and that’s key to using VR well. People want to participate, not sit passively next to other people wearing headsets all night.

Until the technology is more stable and integrative, marketers who plan events to showcase their brands as part of their overall campaigns should focus on perfecting these proven alternatives to VR:
1. Wearables: Marketers named event wearables the trend of the year in 2015 for good reason. As people increasingly embrace Fitbits, Apple Watches, and GoPros, marketing teams can use these devices not just as part of conferences or shows, but also as part of data-based storytelling.

A GoPro live stream — perhaps over the recently announced update to the Periscope app — injects excitement into social media feeds, and promotional clothing items that employ navigation software can create holistic experiences.

2. Immersive Sound: The next frontier in event planning is 3D audio. Immersive sound systems will enable you to engage remote audiences, which expands your reach globally. Sound in 3D creates a vivid storytelling experience that makes people feel as though they are on the conference floor, listening to keynote speakers and performers alongside everyone else.
3. Mobile Devices: Hashtags and branded apps allow you to stay in touch with customers and potential leads, and Snapchat’s Live Stories feature is a fun way to connect in real time. Audience members of experiential marketing events will enjoy seeing snaps from other attendees and speakers, and they’ll want to add their own commentaries. Geotargeting technology allows for personalized experiences by tracking people’s arrivals through their phones.

Companies are creating interesting VR applications right now, but we’re a long way from living in and enjoying virtual worlds. You’re better served focusing on a mixture of existing technologies complemented with VR than putting all of your eggs into one headset. There’s a lot of potential, but virtual reality isn’t real enough — yet.

Eddie Newquist

Eddie Newquist


EVP and Chief Creative Officer at GES.