Virtual reality's success depends on immersive ads, Brandwidth's innovation chief says

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Streaming video-friendly technology, particularly wearables and virtual reality, are in an “uncomfortable middle ground” right now, according to Brandwidth’s head of innovation, Dean Johnson. And how brands and advertisers respond to the current opportunity could make or break the market potential of both these device realms.

At Brandwidth, a digital advertising firm based in London that lists major brands like Apple, Disney and Microsoft among its clients, Johnson advises clients on current and upcoming consumer technologies, and how, when or even if they should incorporate those devices or platforms into their ad strategies.

At an IBC panel session in September, Johnson surmised that the two gee-whiz technologies are in a kind of middle phase, trying to attract consumers but not yet in optimal form – he pointed out the extra step required to lift and flip a smart watch on the wrist just right so one can actually read the time, for example.

Instead, Johnson told FierceOnlineVideo in an interview this week, apps will go well beyond what’s currently on smartphones and smart watches, and play a key role in more convenient consumer devices – products like “hearables,” for example, that give audio notifications, translate spoken languages directly into your ear like a true babelfish, and even, daresay, stream music.

“The platform for the majority of content will be an extension of what sits on your phone,” Johnson said.

Current smart watches don’t fit the bill as an extendable device. “I’m quite disappointed because I thought they would really do something with form factor and etc. They’re almost taking a step back -- you look at Apple Watch, they’re not really pushing those boundaries. They’re pushing the health focus (in advertising). … beyond that it doesn’t offer a lot else. Unless it’s opening your garage door, I suppose. It’s something that still sits in the middle. … Which is why I say hearables will supersede today’s wearables.”

Likewise, virtual reality has caught the public’s attention, but a poor experience could easily turn them off, especially since it’s “another lump of plastic” that users must carry around.

“Virtual reality is interesting because, at the content end -- you put the best headset on and have the best content and it is phenomenal,” Johnson said. Unlike 3D TV, “It’s something that can’t possibly die this time around unless … the content makers and the press kill it. They’re the ones that will do the damage.”

If content creators don’t offer high-quality VR content, “consumers are not going to keep giving us the benefit of the doubt. … And the press is throwing out all kinds of acronyms, thinking they’ll be clever, and they’re just confusing the consumers.”

Studios and video distributors are going to have to make VR an unmissable experience, and that’s going to cost money to accomplish. That’s where advertising comes in – but those ads need to be created and deployed with care, Johnson said.

“(The audience) has to be taken somewhere; it has to be your aim -- if (a VR experience is) meant to make them uncomfortable you have to take them there. … The opposite of that is ‘this is the most incredible thing ever, it gave me something I can’t get anywhere else,’” he explained.

That goes for ads as well as content; a poorly thought-out ad campaign for VR will turn off consumers, spur more ad-blocking, and threaten the VR industry’s growth. And in the rush to get VR off the ground, lousy ads could quickly become an issue. “There are already brands out there doing a bad job with VR ads, because a (client) wants something right away,” he said.

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