Follow the current gaze of big business, and in a vast number of cases you end up at Virtual Reality, or “VR”. That is, the three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. Back in 2014, Facebook spent $2 billion buying Oculus Rift, the VR startup, and has just announced it is to invest another $250million (having already invested $250million) to develop its VR content. Google, Sony, NVIDIA and GoPro are all pursuing VR in their own way and according to Trendforce, the VR market is expected to grow to $70 billion by 2020.
Unsurprisingly, big brands are starting to see advertising opportunities in VR. Traditional advert formats are being integrated with VR, such as Nike using it to allow fans to steps in to shoes of football star Neymar with its interactive and immersive content, and more recently, Mountain Dew partnering with Google to create an experience featuring NBA stars painting in VR. The experience picked up around 150 million views, numbers described as being on a “Super-Bowl scale”. Other companies are taking a newer approach. Vincent Cacace, founder and CEO of ad-tech company Vertebrae believes that advertising should not be interruptive, and promotes what he calls “native” VR advertising. He gives the example of product placement in a VR context, for example, placing a coke bottle on the table in a VR scene. If the user picks up the bottle, they will then be transported in to a “World of Coca-Cola”. The overall user experiences of adverts will be down to the publisher, as in traditional 2D advertising, but according to Cacae, advertisers should be looking beyond just enhanced brand interaction. Whatever format is being used, the audience themselves need to be measured. This, he says, is where VR comes into its own.
Cacae predicts that the next 3 years will see large developments in “gaze-tracking” and “eye-ball tracking”. Using the position and orientation of the headset, gaze-tracking assigns a metadata tag to an advertising object that exists within the VR environment. If a consumer is looking at some Nike trainers 10 ft. away in a VR environment, analytics can tell, among other things, how far they are from it, how long they look at it, if they engage with the product. Alternatively (and more impressively) headsets can start “eye-ball tracking” as was demonstrated by Viaccess-Orca on its IBC stand last month. By using multiple sensors in a VR headset, eye movements of the user can be tracked in order to, quite literally, track a consumer’s gaze. This can create “hot-spots” in areas that a user has looked at most frequently. For example, at a VR broadcast of a football match surrounded by advertising banners, tracking watchers’ eye movements will make it possible to immediately identify which adverts caught their eye the most, and for the longest amount of time. This could have a large impact on advertising, making it easier to more accurately price and market advertising space, and resulting in a new exposure-based measurement system to measure ad impact.
Advertisers aren’t necessarily jumping to adopt this technology just yet. The world of VR, though growing, is still small. Currently only around 1% of PC’s are VR-capable, and while Facebook has one billion users, Ocultus its VR operator has less than 1 million. Costs of a headset and production costs are still high. The VR market needs to reach sufficient mass to attract markets large enough to interest advertisers, and industries such as the TV industry are still waiting with baited breath to see if VR really does take off.
It may be that it is the eye-tracking technology that really gets VR, and VR advertising, off the ground. Though eye-tracking itself is not new technology, it is yet to have found its niche, and it may be that VR is now making it relevant. Google bought eye-tracking company Eyefluence last year, fuelling rumours it is set to release an unannounced VR standalone headset which will use eye-tracking technology. Apart from its advertising potential, eye-tracking technology is supposedly improving user experience of VR in general, helping to fight some issues like motion sickness and improve the overall immersion and interactivity of the experience. By ironing out some of the existing wrinkles in VR user experience, and radically improving the way advertising impacts can be measured and monetised, this eye-tracking technology could make all the difference.