Electronic empathy: meet the next wave of virtual reality

Electronic-empathy-meet-the-next-wave-of-virtual-reality

Brands are experimenting with immersive technology to create electronic empathy – blending digital and experiential marketing to bring shared experiences to a wider audience.

This year, virtual reality (VR) headsets including Oculus Rift and HTC Vive hit the consumer gaming market, while Google Cardboard offers a limited VR experience via the smartphone. Augmented reality (AR) adds a virtual digital layer to our smartphone screens and mixed reality blends physical and digital elements.

Immersive technology creates empathy by putting the individual at the centre of every experience, and it has broadened its reach from gaming and entertainment to news, documentaries, education and healthcare. Jane Gauntlett’s In my shoes project used VR to make a first-person perspective short film about her experience of epilepsy. And now it is giving brands new ways to foster electronic empathy by linking virtual, physical and emotional realities.

The viral AR game Pokémon Go uses smartphone geolocation to present digital creatures on our screens as if they are interacting with our physical environment. Although the game appears as an extra layer on top of our environment from the personal perspective of our phones, the location element helps Pokémon Go create electronic empathy in the physical world, as shops and restaurants set up in-game location-based features to attract players.

This ‘real world’ AR opens new brand opportunities, not only for sponsorship, real world retail gamification and foot traffic, but for the creation of segmentation tools to interpret the massive datasets of user preferences and behaviours which Pokémon Go encourages, says Martin Hollywood, lead creative technologist at Razorfish London.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One is played out in a future virtual universe, where brands have their own planets. Cline sees this happening for real as VR hardware becomes mainstream. We should think about what happened with the internet. Suddenly companies had to have a website, he says. It may be that brands will have a virtual space where you can try on clothes or test drive a car, he says. This is already happening, with in-store retail experiences incorporating mixed reality.

Experiential marketing is about intimacy at scale, says Jason Alan Snyder, chief technology officer at Momentum Worldwide. The danger for brands is that the algorithms we increasingly use are pushing us into ever-narrowing information silos and connecting us with tribes of people we agree with. Empathy is about understanding different perspectives and VR can alter perceptions. My hope is to leverage VR into a connective tissue by creating empathetic groups. Snyder and his team created the blended reality American Express fan experience at this year’s US Open which includes the Pro Walk, a holographic replica of the locker room and walk on to the centre court, as well as a shared VR experience where groups/families can play tennis like the pros.

The smartphone is the centre of our digital world; it’s how we communicate and shop. How long will it be before we can touch what we see in AR in the same way as we can in VR with a headset and haptic gloves?

The answer may be semi-immersive mixed reality. At MIT, Abe Davis’ research into interactive dynamic simulation blurs the boundary between augmented and physical reality so that instead of layering over the real environment, the AR appears to be interacting with it. Davis uses video to virtualise physical content so that it can interact with virtual content, so that when you see – on your smartphone – a Pokémon interact with a flexible object, you also see that object react.

While VR brings you closer to people who are far away and separates you from people who are close, AR makes you part of the environment and helps you discover your own version of the content. The fact that everyone has their own perspective on it brings people together, says Davis.

However, although the potential is far reaching, there are significant challenges around building Davis’ research into a robust product that works on a smartphone. We are still some way from producing real-time dynamic AR, which conveys reactions and behaviours as well as experiences and interactions.

Mark Brill, mobile strategist and senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University, recognises how touching an object virtually could engage customers with brands We already augment mobile communication with emojis and filters, he says. However, there are challenges. People will only use it if it fits their lives or adds something useful or desirable. So brands need to highlight what it brings that’s new and different, otherwise it is just a gimmick.

One reason to electronically break the fourth wall is to convey product information. Victoria Buchanan, executive creative director at Tribal Worldwide London created the Volkswagen Passat Invisible made Visible campaign using VR and AR to project the car’s invisible data and sensors on to a film showing how its advanced features (like assisted parking and braking) worked. Rather than layering AR on to our world, we effectively stepped into the VR, using LIDAR scans to recreate different environments to showcase the car’s invisible features. she explains.

Immersive technology needs to focus on connecting humans to humans in a profound way

Another example of shared VR/AR experience is the hyper-real Lockheed Martin Mars experience bus, in which the windows of a school bus were replaced by screens to create an immersive field trip to Mars.

A recent Virtual Futures Salon highlighted that electronic empathy is about emotional involvement and does not require hyper-realism. The key is to establish an emotional connection between the consumer and the experience – it is not about the technology, says Los Angeles based digital content adviser Scott Nocas, adding that Tamagotchi has sold over 76m units. Brands need to make themselves into Tamagotchi – or Pokémon – so that we keep them alive.

Ultimately, electronic empathy comes down to the human factor – the emotional engagement that has always been at the heart of successful branding.

Immersive technology that engages multiple senses is expanding the creative space, providing more intense and personal experiences that can bring people together in multiple dimensions, sometimes simultaneously. But, it will only be effective commercially if it is widely accessible and focuses on shared human experience, rather than reinforcing a particular perspective.

Empathy is about discovering things that we share and engage with emotionally, says Snyder. Immersive technology needs to focus on connecting humans to humans in a profound way. It can change people’s perceptions, and if used properly it has the potential to change the world.

Joanna Goodman is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaMG22

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