Virtual reality technology is ready for the mainstream, but is language standing in its way?

2016 should be the year that virtual reality breaks into the mainstream consumer consciousness. It depends on a lot of things going right (and better than the false dawns of VR launches in the ‘90s).

Oculus Rift will ship in March, with Playstation VR and HTC Vive following shortly after. Meanwhile, Google Cardboard keeps trundling along with its lo-fi innovation, and today, the Samsung Gear VR is already live in their Oxford Street store, ready for Sunday’s launch of the Samsung Galaxy S7. If you’ve got 20 mins, I suggest you take a look. I did, and so did my family.

samsung gearvr1samsung gearvr2samsung gearvr3

My son, Caspar, my daughter, Clemmie, and the real test – my wife, Charlotte.

Everyone was impressed. So what could possibly stop the inexorable rise of VR?

VR’s language barrier.

watch out for the barrier [click]

New consumer technologies have to steer between two rocks: some people consider the tech so radically different, they assume they wouldn’t understand it; others think the tech must just be more of the same old marketing hype.*

In our work with new product and brand launches, we have found 3 significant ways brand language can help the consumer and the brand navigate.

First, you want both camps of consumers to reassess, and quickly.

VR has had a couple of false starts already. It doesn’t have time for another one before the tech gets leapfrogged and Scotty invites us all on to the holodeck for a game of 3D chess.

To make people reassess something, you can start by redefining it. For example, you can raise expectations, like Apple did with the ‘Genius bar’. Or, you can soothe anxieties, like Tesla do with their in-store messaging structure around range anxiety.

What’s the equivalent of range anxiety for VR?
First, ‘content worry’ – there aren’t enough games.
Then there’s the ‘paper bag threat’ that you’ll need to throw up after 45 minutes.
There’s also ‘Battery drain’, that’s become commonplace in mobile tech.
And there’s plain old ‘headache horror’, after 3 hours spent following pixels around the universe.

Whatever it is, companies need to find a way to address it when they talk to customers.

Some companies have already started to use language to make VR seem a little less alien. Google Cardboard tells us that the future isn’t actually that scary after all because it’s made of, well, cardboard.

Similarly, ‘Jaunt’ chose a name that connotes an easy afternoon trip to the seaside, and ‘HTC Vive’ chose a name that…well, actually, I’ve no idea what HTC are ever trying to do.

‘Vive’ sounds like a Renault hatchback from the late ‘90s.

Second, use language to give a sense of an experience in a way that visuals can’t.

Virtual Reality is like Blu-Ray or 3D-TV: you can’t experience it properly without the product. (Remember those blu-ray adverts at the start of a DVD? I’m sure it raised awareness but – really? Come on, guys.)

Luckily, language has a history of being able to overcome this, stretching back to early camp-fires where the whites of the storyteller’s eyes cut through the night and their voice crackled as they told stories of gods and ghosts as the smoke from the fire climbed up into the infinite dark skies.

If the tech is amazing, the brand’s verbal identity should be, too.

Third, language can conjure the future into being.

The key for any brand is to craft the narrative. Take the iPad as an example. Yes, it was an astonishing product, and a great user experience, but that didn’t just happen by accident. People already knew what tablets were, but they couldn’t really see where to take them next. Language allowed Steve Jobs to get his design team to reach into the future and pull out something as magical as a rabbit from a hat.

And when the black-clad magician unveiled the first iPad, at the very top of his keynote speech he painted a picture of how the future would be: “[We know it has] to be far better at doing some key tasks, some really important things. Like browsing the web…doing email…enjoying and sharing photographs…watching and sharing videos…’’.

Can Samsung see something we can’t?

There is no doubt that Samsung has produced innovative technology.

But look at how it describes its new Gear VR: it talks about ‘a Super AMOLED display, wide field of view, precise head-tracking and low latency’. Better still, it’s ‘19% lighter’ with a ‘larger touchpad’** than the previous version.

The challenge for Samsung is to stop talking functional tech to nerds.

They’re not creating a narrative for the rest of us (and I consider myself 63.591% geek). Interestingly, other companies have started to address this. Magic Leap, an augmented reality startup with very serious, very smart money behind it, now employs science fiction writers to help them think big and think interesting. Hopefully they’ll have a brand narrative to slot their ideas into, because their technology is breathtaking.

Of course, Playstation VR’s narrative is tied to the eponymous console, so Sony will have to keep widening the whole brand to move the technology beyond gaming.

And to be fair to Oculus, it seems like they’re pointing in the right direction. After Mark Zuckerberg reached down the back of his sofa to pull out $2 billion for them a couple of years ago, he said that Oculus’ mission is ‘to enable you to experience the impossible.’ Big talk from the big guy.

We help brand owners to shape markets and consumer perceptions by crafting their thinking and their language. If you’d like to have a coffee and a chat about this, email Chris.


*We saw this with mp3 players, tablets and electric vehicles. Each of them were around for years before the iPad, iPod and the Model S. Cloud computing has crested the brow of the hill, and the IoT is climbing quickly.

**When Samsung talks about design, they talk about comfort, but they also use comparatives (‘19% lighter’, ‘larger touchpad’). Slow down, there, Samsung. Comparatives are only useful if your readers have some existing knowledge.  Just how many people actually experienced your first headset? Wouldn’t it have been better to say something like, ‘You’ll forget you’re wearing a headset’?