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Facebook Spaces: Are we ready for a social VR war?

Until the last five years, Virtual Reality (VR) was a technology seen only in science fiction movies. However, the launch of VR headsets in the last few years made this technology dream come true.

VR was also one of the biggest takeaways from Facebook’s F8 conference in April as it launched a VR social media platform Facebook Spaces, giving opportunities beyond gaming and entertainment for this technology. This move showed that Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook has placed his bet on virtual reality as one of the future trends of technology.

Mr Zuckerberg has repeatedly talked about VR being the next step in connecting with the world, since the USD 2 billion Oculus acquisition by Facebook in 2014. “There’s always a richer, more immersive medium to experience the world and after video, the next logical step is fully immersive virtual reality,” he had said back in 2015.

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

With the rise of VR devices, apps and content in 2016, there is a VR ecosystem that is looking to shape up. But is VR here to stay? Roger Graham, Senior Director, Growth & Marketing, APAC, Hootsuite explains, “Facebook has a history of making calculated long-term plays, such as its Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions, and going into mobile and video. As a market leader, the biggest challenge usually comes from looking ahead and building both demand and supply for future tech. In this case, VR is no different – it’s going to change everything we know about work environments, travel, communications, decision making and the perception of time.”

A safe bet for Facebook?
A report from IHS Markit from October 2016 showed that VR headsets sales are expected to grow to $7.9 billion while spends on VR entertainment by users would be at $3.3 billion by 2020.

Spaces looks to make social media much more immersive than live videos and opens up new opportunities for Facebook to capture a market that’s still nascent.

Alistair Bruyns, Head of Digital, Ogilvy Melbourne, said, “It is a very astute business move. Having first mover social VR advantage will attract all the technologists to the experience thus legitimising it. Having access to over a billion users also means that Facebook should cross Geoffrey Moore’s chasm easily and quickly, accelerating adoption amongst mainstreamers at rates previously unheard of for new tech.”

Preetham Venkky, Director – KRDS Singapore disagrees, “VR won’t have mainstream adoption as from a UX perspective humans have been more comfortable only with augmented devices and not with immersive ones. I suspect they’ll have their time of day five years from now, if and when the ‘form’ is changed.”

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

Facebook is looking to add the social dimension to VR with this launch and make it more appealing to buy a headgear and eventually go mainstream. “The problem is straightforward – without compelling content there’s no particular reason to buy a headset other than as a gimmick, and without wide adoption of headsets, it doesn’t make sense financially to build VR content given the limited reach. Spaces is probably not a ‘safe’ bet for Facebook, but it fits in with their overarching strategy for VR – directly finance the production of a large amount of content and use that to try to gain overall VR traction,” Amobee’s Asia SVP, Robert Woolfrey explained.

The problem of VR going mainstream lies beyond social. Sherwin Su, Associate Director, Paid Social at Essence, explains, “VR will be the new battleground if it proves to attract and retain user attention at scale as measured by time spent, but this won’t necessarily be limited to social platforms (ie. Snapchat/Facebook), but more so on OEM’s (Samsung, Sony, Nintendo). The future success of VR as an upcoming trend is contingent on the hardware manufacturer’s ability to develop and optimise products appropriately. It needs to seamlessly integrate and add value into the user’s day-to-day.”

Hanging out in VR
A report from SuperData found that though the global VR market has had a rocky start in 2016, by 2020 it will be worth 20 times its size in 2016 at USD 37.7 billion. While market research points to rapid growth, are the users ready for a VR social media platform just yet?

Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

Mr Woolfrey thinks that the users might find it difficult to take it up right now. “Facebook is obviously well positioned in the space to leverage their social network for initial traction, but it remains to be seen whether meeting your friends in VR becomes the natural next step for Facebook users. The idea that people will just randomly directly chat with their friends in VR space is as of yet untested in the short term. More long term, it’s very likely we’ll see a real social convergence into the VR space, where social events themselves (concerts, seminars, etc.) will start being held in VR space,” he said.

Even though social VR opens up a host of opportunities, there are many questions that arise on how it will shape users lives – much in the way smartphones and tablets have done in the recent years.

Tim Devine, Executive R&D Director, DT also thinks there will be few takers for Spaces just yet. “We’ve come to expect our devices to be so many things in a wide variety of contexts. Spaces and VR in general seems like it’s only comfortably useable in a private space. Would you use it on a train? How do people create great content for it? Only brands have access to high end 360º gear, so this means Spaces will remain niche for a while yet,” he opined.

The marketing perspective
Interest in VR is definitely increasing as GlobalWebIndex’s data from 2016 shows that four out of 10 in the 16-34 age group are interested in VR. The youngest consumers are the most excited while men lead over women by 12 points. Should marketers then be looking to leverage Spaces as a platform to connect with the consumers?

Some advertisers do think that it’s time now to start planning ahead for VR and how it can help connect with the consumers. Penny Chow, Head of Society Hong Kong said, “Brands may consider shifting their focus from ‘consumer experience’ to ‘people experience’. At the moment we focus on creating targeted, relevant and useful social content delivered at the right moment to enhance consumer experience. In the future, this experience will become more multi-dimensional. As many of the virtual environments in Facebook Spaces are generated from 360-degree photos and videos, pulled right from a user’s Facebook Photos, it’s a great incentive for brands to start investing in 360º content now, and getting it in the hands of their customers.”

virtual reality vr 1

Josie Brown, Director of Digital, APAC, J. Walter Thompson concurs, “Marketers should absolutely be testing experiences in VR now in two key areas: firstly, building immersive VR experiences for brands, putting consumers in a space or story which delivers memorable moments worth talking about and sharing; secondly, providing interactive services through augmented reality content – from augmented labels and instructions, to personalised tips and recommendations or simple directions to find your way to real world products.”

However, Tom Robinson, Head of Content Strategy & Distribution, MediaCom Beyond Advertising feels VR still has a long way to go to prove its viability. “It is just a tactic however, one of many, and as with all tactics shouldn’t be discounted or considered before due diligence is done on understanding its application to a brands marketing strategy. VR has enormous potential to entertain, inform and inspire but is yet to achieve this at scale and marketers should be wary of investing with much credibility beyond a stunt, activation or partnership,” he stated.

Greenlight Insights’ 2017 report predicts VR revenue to reach USD 7.2 billion by end of this year. Mr Woolfrey also emphasised that VR is here to stay. “The marketers that look at this now will be well positioned to lead the industry. The unique immersive quality combined with the latent interactive potential is a huge shift in the digital space, as it represents both a new way to both present and interact with digital media. Brands are already using VR for on-site tent-pole executions and incorporating VR storytelling. It’s up to the early adopters in the space to develop standards and best practices in order to define KPI success metrics,” he stated.

In conclusion, if we go by what Mr Zuckerberg says, “VR is going to be the most social platform. The best is still to come.”

Shubhi Tandon

Shubhi Tandon is the Assistant Editor at Digital Market Asia. Fascinated by the evolving digital media industry, she has focussed on tracking developments in the Asia Pacific market since 2014.