When Wall Street analysts had a chance to pepper the top brass at Facebook, Apple and Google with questions on earnings conference calls last week, they asked repeatedly about just how immersive digital life might become.
“Any high-level thoughts on the virtual reality theme?” asked analyst Gene Munster of Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook. “Do you think this is more of a geeky niche or something that could go mainstream?”
Cook said that he didn’t consider virtual reality “just a niche.”
“It’s really cool and has some interesting applications,” he said. Some analysts predict that one day, Apple will debut a “mixed-reality” headset that would ultimately replace the iPhone.
Later, analyst Ben Schachter asked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s VR effort: “How are you going to work with retailers to show consumers the power of Oculus in-store and in person?”
Virtual reality — which often uses a headset to simulate reality with sights and sounds — has been on the collective radar for some time, and in an age when fashion is being democratized and multimedia content is surging, the two seem a natural fit.
Even though the world of gaming is getting a lot of VR attention, Google’s Aaron Luber, who leads partnerships and business development for Google’s VR and 360 videos on YouTube, said that “fashion is certainly one of those things that we have gravitated to. You can draw a lot of parallels for things that would be exciting.”
In the short term, Luber said the most immediate and obvious application in the fashion world would be, for example, letting fans experience a 360-degree fashion show. Using a 360 camera (Google worked with GoPro to create a 360-degree, 3-D camera called Odyssey), the video could be uploaded to YouTube and viewed using Cardboard, which is a relatively simple and inexpensive virtual-reality headset that works with a smartphone.
In the past couple years, a handful of retail brands and media companies have set their sights on making VR a reality: Topshop shared a live-stream of its runway show; Elle and InStyle created virtual reality experiences of a photoshoot; Westfield brought virtual reality to a mall in London; Toms created a video that took consumers along on a trip to Peru, and Richard Chais is working on a virtual reality documentary. Labels such as Dior and Rebecca Minkoff have customized the actual VR hardware.
But with VR seeping into popular conscience, why isn’t it more visible?
According to Luber, it’s about content. What a brand would need, he said, is Cardboard, a way to distribute it and content. The tech exists, he said, but it’s the implementation that is lagging a bit behind.
“Right now, what we are seeing is an amazing explosion in tech, but the biggest challenge is the content,” Luber said. “The tech is moving at a rapid pace, but people are still trying to understand what people want to watch. The tech has truly done amazing things in the past months, but the content has to push itself.”
There’s also the issue of technical know-how. Although the technology exists, the adoption process can be slower for those who are unfamiliar with it. And it’s not always easy (or worth it) to make an elaborate multimedia experience that only a few customers can easily access. The VR experiences that Toms, Tommy Hilfiger and Topshop created, for example, were only viewable in retail stores.
“Part of our job is educating the fashion world about what you can do in VR,” said Jess Engel, executive producer at Virtualize, a VR content agency.
Virtualize just created a VR project with stylist Victoria Bartlett, creative director Ruvan Wijesooriya and post-production by The Endless Collective. “You can go backstage at an editorial; you can do a live-action, fully immersive lookbook — there really isn’t a lot of it going on right now,” Engel said.
“The tech is there, but it’s still expensive to create,” she said. “In VR, the post-production software is still being developed and that’s where it gets expensive.”
Plus, she said, the ecosystem isn’t fully built out yet. “Fashion brands are starting to engage with VR, but most people still don’t own headsets, so how will people experience it?”
Facebook bought Oculus Rift in 2014, and Zuckerberg has often talked about his interest in expanding what Facebook can offer using VR.
“The reason why we’re interested in this as a social company is that we think that this is going to be a new way that people interact,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s going to be a big area of investment for us. And it is ultimately, I think, going to change the way that we communicate and live and work in addition to how we play games. But I think we’re off to a good start.”
Google is rumored to be working on a more extensive headset, but Luber declined to comment on that.
For now, he said, “These brands have to try new ways to demonstrate new immersive ways — they’re not looking to make [customers] purchase a new pair of pants in VR. That is much further out, but that probably will happen — in the future.”
For now, the message seems to be to wait and see — what brands will do, what customers want to watch and what hardware will be most agreeably adopted.
As Google’s ceo Sundar Pichai told investors, “It’s still incredibly early innings for virtual reality as a platform, and Cardboard is just the first step.”