Virtually There

Text: Mitch Joel – President, Mirum & author of Six Pixels of Separation + CTRL ALT Delete.

Los Angeles, CA - USA - August 29, 2015: Guy tries virtual glasses headset during VRLA Expo, virtual reality exposition, event at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles.

I recently did a video for our Mirum Talks series called “Virtually There” about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – technologies that have created a huge buzz in the media.

And a big reason why I got involved is because of the following headline, which you’ve surely seen somewhere lately:

“Virtual reality is going to change_______forever.”

It’s a persistent Buzzfeed-type headline, and when I see it, my antennae go up: are VR and AR going to change advertising, marketing, retail, business-to-business, you name it, forever?

I’ve been involved in the AR and VR space for quite some time, and I feel that we’re at a tipping point with these technologies, to quote Malcolm Gladwell. Now is when all of us in the marketing and communications spaces need to spend more time understanding them and what the implications are for brands and our industry.

Some people chuckle at this, but one thing that made me a believer in VR and AR is that the adult entertainment industry and the gaming industry were actually the pioneers that pushed this technology, which demanded that we in marketing paid attention to what it could mean for consumers.

But what makes me a true believer are the TED Talks I’ve attended over the years that allowed me to experience these technologies before anyone else did, and enabled me to witness firsthand how transformative AR and VR could be.

Specifically, it was at a Google Zeitgeist event where I was handed a Google Cardboard VR device, which I plugged into my iPhone, and was suddenly transported to the Amazon rainforest.


The video was in HD3D, and it was like we were on an actual field trip to the Amazon. My mind was blown away by the potential the platform offers.

Another transformative event for me came this past year at TED, where they had a simulation based on a previous iteration of the VR experience called the VOID; what I experienced inside, to be completely immersed, was mind-blowing.

Once you have your first VR experience, you will be changed. And the true adoption of this technology will be when everyone gets to try it, because once they do, there’s no going back.

What’s the difference between AR & VR?

For those who may not know, AR allows you to view the entire world as you currently see it, but adds layers of information on top, usually through a device like your smartphone.

VR, like Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, is completely immersive, and as opposed to AR, you can’t see any other experience than the “virtual” one you’re in.

How will VR & AR affect brands and marketers?

Looking back at the movie Minority Report, I don’t think you’ll have the density of the messages in the film, but I think with VR and AR it’s the ability to have your environments mixed that’s very powerful.

To quote Mark Zuckerberg: “Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the Internet was also a dream, and so were smartphones and computers. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together.”

I’m not sure about the “build it together” part, because Facebook owns Oculus, and they’re going to want to own it. But the quote speaks to an emerging sentiment that we all have, and the core of what VR and AR mean for brands and marketers.

What I think is really driving the opportunity for brands and marketers today isn’t necessarily the headsets, like Oculus Rift and HoloLens, but smartphones. Our phones have many of the core things we need to get VR and AR to become as widespread as possible. Besides the processing power of mobile, gyroscope functionality and resolution, the big one is distribution: apps and the ability to download them to your phone, downloading content or streaming it. Distribution of content, apps and all of of the technology built into smartphones are what makes them very powerful.

Hardware for VR and AR is also coming to fruition, like head-mounted displays (HMD) such as Google Glass, which I think from a business-to-business perspective will come back. We’re also seeing it with Oculus Rift and HoloLens.

Why do marketers need to care?

VR and AR present a new era for the work that we do, which is telling stories about brands. And whether we’re building a website or doing a big integrated campaign, it’s all about telling a better story. VR and AR offer an exciting new form of storytelling that when you experience it, everything you had known before about stories changes.

A new era of storytelling.

That said, it’s not really about our ability to tell better stories. What makes VR and AR fascinating from a brand perspective are the types of new stories we can tell that were never possible without this technology.

For instance, at the TED conference I mentioned earlier, Microsoft and NASA did a demonstration where they took all the high-definition images they had of Mars, and reconstructed them in 3D, so that scientists and astronauts could literally visit Mars with HoloLens to experience the topography. And the participants didn’t even have to be in the same room; they literally Skyped them in to the experience. With these technologies, you don’t have to be physically present, having a conversation or a discussion; it’s a form of communication we could never have before. Just think about all the implications and all the layers we could do for brands and businesses from a communications standpoint.

For instance, with VR and AR, in an instant you can transport your customers to an entirely different part of the world; you can take users to the “impossible” place, building stories that bring people to Mars that are 100% impossible for them to visit (unless Elon Musk can figure out how to get us back on his SpaceX).

There’s also the “1-mile” story, allowing you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. A great example of this is The New York Times Google Cardboard viewer that enabled users to experience what it was like to visit a Syrian refugee camp. As a father of young kids, I tried it, and it’s truly heartbreaking.

VR and AR gives people superpowers, allowing them to “see through things and makes them incredibly strong.” There’s also 3D art, where everything is a kind of sculpture, allowing you to paint underneath and to the side of objects.

VR and AR are also good for training and presentations, especially relevant for someone like me who does a lot of events and conferences. You can put on VR glasses and have a “full audience” in front of you, allowing you to practice and gauge how interested or disinterested they are in your content. You can train people for public speaking in a virtual environment, where it feels like there’s an actual audience.

VR and AR allow us to communicate stories to people in amazing new ways. I’m inspired to share a quote from Steven Tweedie of Business Insider: “It’s a powerful thing, the ability to seemingly leave your body behind and climb into a game world or film where you find yourself experiencing a new form of storytelling.”

We’re now seeing brands and storytellers, like The New York Times, with their VR shows and VR lab, advance the boundaries of narrative. And like I’ve said previously, the history of marketing and communications has always been about storytelling.

So, we need to ask ourselves: how are we going to communicate the story and tell it? When you know that with VR and AR you have the technology to tell stories in incredible new ways, how will you use it to reach your customers and build your brand?

Get ready, because it’s going to be a great ride.


This article was originally posted on the Mirum blog.

Mitch Joel is President of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in close to 20 countries. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his successful blog and podcast, is a business and marketing bestseller. His second book, CTRL ALT Delete, was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Amazon. Learn more at: