Market Trends

What Facebook sees in Virtual Reality

Written by
2 Feb, 2018

Facebook has generally been pretty successful with it’s acquisitions over the years. Instagram and WhatsApp are the classic examples, bought by Facebook in 2012 and 2014 respectively. A quick peek at the phones of any of your friends, family or colleagues and you’ll probably find they have either one or both of these apps (and use them regularly!). Instagram last year hit 800 million monthly active users, and has been growing at an incredible pace.

Facebook (and probably more specifically Mark Zuckerberg), seem to have a way of spotting the next-big-thing just before it becomes a ‘thing’.

But that begs the question: what happened with Oculus and VR? When Facebook bought Oculus for US$2 billion in 2014 the promise was huge - VR was set to take off, we were all going to buy a headset for at home and this was going to become the way people chose to consume content and interact on social media.

That vision hasn’t become a reality quite yet.

Perhaps the fact it cost Facebook US$17 billion less than Whatsapp was a sign that people aren’t yet ready for VR. But perhaps this is based on bidding. The second anyone found out Facebook was looking to poach VR, they didn’t bother entering the auction. Whatever the case Zuckerberg certainly seems to think he’s stuck gold, announcing Facebook’s ambitious goal for VR growth: 1 billion users, at Oculus’ Connect conference in October.


VR, not AR

Before we go on, let’s make it clear that we are not talking about Augmented Reality (or AR) here. Often VR and AR get lumped in together but they are really separate topics. AR refers to the integration of digital information with the user's environment in real time. The difference boils down to this: AR uses the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it, whereas VR creates a whole new reality.

And it’s clear that AR is hot right now - from IKEA to Pokemon Go, businesses left and right have been successfully finding use cases for AR. Operating usually through the users smartphone, and not requiring a clunky headset like VR, we’re seeing more and more AR-related technologies popping up. In terms of social platforms, Snapchat leads the way in this space with features like their innovative lenses.


One of Facebook’s rare flops?

But now back to VR: has Facebook’s foray into VR been a flop? Or is there more to come? And more specifically, should you as a social advertiser keep VR on your radar?

Facebook’s vision for VR is that it’s the future of interaction on social media. At the time of the acquisition of Oculus, Zuckerberg said, “This is really a new communication platform...By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.” The launch of Facebook Spaces, carrying the tagline “VR is better with friends”, is the culmination of Facebook’s efforts so far to ‘make VR social’. Spaces is Facebook’s social world in VR, featuring the ability to turn yourself into an avatar using your previously shared Facebook photos. It’s sort of like you being a Sim or a “live-action” version of that Bitmoji you created. All in VR, you’re then able to do things like make and receive Messenger video calls, go-live on Facebook and express your creativity by drawing 3D objects. It's basically the ability to do social events without getting funny looks for wearing your pajamas.


The problem is, at the moment, people don’t seem to want to ‘be social’ in VR. The trend might change, but many people still see it as a gaming tool and not much more. Adding to that, uptake has been slow on headsets (a crucial element of VR, obviously) with Facebook selling less than 400,000 units of the Oculus headset last year. 


Or is VR a growing opportunity?

In response Facebook recently hired Rachel Franklin, former GM of The Sims, as the new head of their Social VR team. Alongside Facebook’s other Social VR leaders, Michael Booth and Lucy Bradshaw, she has been tasked with creating a product that creates intimate social interaction for geographically separated people, whilst making the experience feel familiar and accessible to Facebook’s 1.71 billion users.

As of late January 2018, Oculus Research was one of Facebook’s fastest growing departments, with a record high number of job openings (check out this promotional video Oculus recently released). On top of that, Facebook recently announced a major partnership with the University of Washington to start a research center into VR

It seems that when Facebook mentions VR or Oculus these days, the word ‘research’ is never too far away. That might give us an insight into where they see this technology in its lifecycle - maybe it’s still budding and, as marketers and social advertisers, we should view it that way. The fact that use cases aren’t springing up left, right and centre may not be too worrying at this stage - after all, who would have thought 30 years ago that the internet would turn into a place where you can shop, video chat and trade virtual currency? Who would have thought, even at the turn of the millenium, that a huge proportion of adults in the western world would be carrying around the equivalent of a fully functioning computer in their pocket? The next step is in Facebook’s eyes, VR.


Facebook makes VR accessible for everyone

We're now eagerly awaiting the release (supposedly early 2018) of Facebook's Oculus Go, an all-in-one VR headset with breathable fabrics, adjustable straps and the "best lenses yet". Priced at just $199, the Oculus Go is Virtual Reality made accessible for everyone. At CES 2017, where Facebook announced Oculus Go, they also released information about the Mi VR, a stand-alone headset built by Oculus partner Xiaomi, targeted exclusively at the Chinese market. Stand-alone VR headsets make VR technology more accessible for the average consumer, as they don't require additional hardware to function, effectively lowering the barrier to entry for broader adoption of VR.


VR and Social Advertisers

As well as having broader humanitarian-type missions and a vision to “bring the world closer together”, Facebook’s business model is predominatly focused on advertising.

The fact that Facebook is heavily invested in VR logically means they see advertising playing a major role. They see it as a potential goldmine and a place where advertisers can drive value and ‘fit in’ more seamlessly that ever before.


What could make advertising in VR different? What opportunities does it hold for social advertisers. Here are two quick points:

1. It’s completely immersive

Unlike scrolling your Facebook News Feed, watching TV or walking past a billboard on the street, VR is completely immersive. VR transports you to another world that you are fully ‘in’, and can’t escape without removing the headset. Logically, that means ads within a VR experience will be a lot harder to simply ignore.

2. It could be completely non-interruptive

Depending on how Facebook controls advertising in social VR, it could be completely non-interruptive. Imagine this: you and a friend go white water rafting in VR and begin by choosing the boat and other equipment, all of which is subtly branded. You float down the river and out of the corner of your eye see that new car driving along the road beside you...the same one you happened to have been researching online yesterday. VR makes these kinds of advertising experiences possible.


To sum up, at this stage we see social VR as a maturing trend. A lot of work has to be done for VR to be adopted by the masses and thought about as a ‘social experience’. Having said that, if adoption does increase dramatically, the implications for advertising are huge. Social advertisers - stay tuned to everything happening in VR!

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About The Marketing Team No matter where we are or what we’re doing, we’re always listening to office gossip… And by that we mean blog content! Innovative features on the platform, clients’ feedback, the latest social ad tech news, we’re a sponge for knowledge. We’re constantly striving to produce unconventional content relating to our social ad tech solutions in order to educate our readers on all the latest in the social-media sphere.

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