Virtual Reality Bites

April 23, 2015

Recently, I was in Indianapolis working on a project at the 2015 NCAA Men’s Final Four. One of my duties included coordinating an in-person interview between a client and a reporter from a well-known sports business publication. Following their interview, the two struck up a conversation about one of the most perplexing questions in major sports: How do sports organizations confront declining spectatorship?

Both at a loss for an answer, the conversation pivoted, and the reporter shared his excitement for the future of virtual reality. He described an experience not so far in the future where he might be able to strap on a headset and feel as though he were sitting at the 50-yard-line with Marilyn Monroe seated to his left and Vince Lombardi seated to his right. How could the reality of the modern stadium-going experience compare to the virtual version?

In its recent issue dedicated to the 100 most influential people in society, TIME featured the predictions for the future from past honorees. Two-time list-maker Miley Cyrus (2008 and 2014) offered this prognostication:

“I have fans all around the world, but I can only do so many concerts. So to be able to have more people experience them through virtual reality, to make someone feel like they’re with you — that would be epic. Or even to put someone inside a music video or a song. God, I wish I had that s— during the ‘Wrecking Ball’ video. That’s something I’m super looking forward to.”

Virtual reality is having a moment — again. The Verge recently published a must-read feature (“The Rise and Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality“) in which the promise of VR was laid bare. After Facebook purchased the VR technology company Oculus for $2 billion earlier this year, it became clear: mainstream status is no longer a matter of if, but when.

Skip ahead to the part where Oculus Rift headsets are as popular as Blu-Ray players. Imagine: We as consumers have the choice between attending a college basketball rivalry game, traveling to see Machu Picchu or even, God forbid, turning up at a Miley Cyrus concert. Or, we can stay at home and experience these things in virtual reality from the comfort of our living room. If ever the latter option seems more compelling, we are doomed as a society. I mean it. Willfully tricking our brains rather than seeking complete sensory experiences would seem enough to usurp mankind from the top of the food chain, wouldn’t it? This is how global bear domination begins.

As a marketer, I question the judgment of relying on VR-based tactics to promote clients, even if these experiences prove buzzworthy in the short-term. Can a virtual Ferrari test drive up Pikes Peak truly top the real thing? Should marketers really be among those helping to accelerate a technology that aims to provide an alternative to paying the price of admission?

At the risk of minding the lawn a little too closely, I wonder if I’m the only one who fears the unintended consequences of VR going mainstream. Feeling things? Hash it out in the comments section below.