In his 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s spectacles”, Stanley G Weinbaum described a pair of goggles that allowed people to experience a virtual world. Many consider this to be one of the first fictional models for VR. Much like Weinbaum, in his early works, Philip K Dick created vivid pictures of augmented reality as early as the 1950s. The fascination with altering time and space has been a common theme for sci-fi writers for generations.
What was science fiction less than a century ago is now a 150 billion dollar industry. The terms AR and VR are often used together in common parlance, creating a perception that they are related or complimentary technologies. That is not really the case, one augments the physical space around the user while the other replaces the physical space of the user with a simulation. What they do have in common is the fact that they have the ability to alter and expand our reality and will have a profound impact on both commerce and culture in the not so distant future.
Much like sci-fi writers, even experiential marketers have been obsessed with ways to break through the constraints of time and space. The physical restrictions of space determine the kind of engagements that can be planned and executed. Once the space constraint is addressed, one has to contend with the constraints of time. Time not only creates limitations in what can be executed, but also influences how and when people engage. And unlike a writer, experiential marketers need to come up with very real solutions to their problems. Now, as AR and VR become more mainstream, experiential marketers can finally break (or at least bend) the shackles of time and space.
When space becomes the canvas for engagement, one can create experiences that are much more compelling. No longer are we limited by mundane details like ceiling height, length and breadth. No longer is the fact that the experience needs to be recreated across multiple locations as daunting because technology allows for unprecedented scale. And finally, technology allows us to address the Achilles' heel of experiential marketing, measurability. The introduction of tech platforms to create experiential engagements allows us to monitor and measure and subsequently learn.
To understand the profound impact these technologies can have for modern marketers, let’s just look at a few spaces we are all very familiar with. Consider the modern trade environment. While the word “modern” is used to describe it, there is little that is modern about it. AR is driving a lot of innovation in this space. The ability to augment traditional spaces has become an invaluable tool for brands struggling to ensure that the retail environment remains an engaging touchpoint for consumers. A passive shopping aisle or an end cap can now become a touchpoint for active engagement. An all too familiar product can come alive and engage with the consumer, literally ensuring that the product comes alive on the shelf. Brands who have experimented with AR in the retail environment have found very high levels of shopper engagement which has a direct and immediate impact on sales. In most cases, the deployment of AR has been strategic in nature, but now more and more brands are exploring how they can use AR as a more omnipresent tool in the retail space.
Much like modern trade, auto dealership too has remains largely unchanged. Almost all automobile manufacturers are seeing a significant drop in engagement at dealerships as more and more car buyers opt for the convenience of digital to conduct their research. Automakers are now relying on experiential marketing to re-imagine the dealership and enhance the experience of the customer. Many are now deploying a combination of mixed reality experiences and re-imagining the auto dealership more as an experience centre and less as real estate to display cars.
These are just some of the many developments that are taking place, both in India and globally. Large scale deployment of AR and VR may still take a little time because the experience one creates is only as compelling as the content that is built on these platforms. While we may argue about timelines, it is very clear that as brands and marketers, we ignore this technology at our own peril. Today, we finally have access to tools that enable us to tell stories and create engagements that are not just rich and immersive but also inherently measurable.
Pygmalion’s spectacles are real, the question is how long will we take to change?