Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: VR and AR: The Business Reality

Five tips for creating virtual reality product demos

If your company has a product you want to show off with virtual reality, start with these five tips before committing to expensive tech and inexperienced creative partners.

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Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

There's a budding relationship between virtual reality and marketing. In 2016, one of the first ways that many people will be introduced to VR will be through product marketing, and as an extension, marketing will be one of the first reasons companies will dabble in VR.

At CES 2016 in January, there was an entire section of the showroom floor dedicated to VR companies, but VR also cropped up elsewhere as not only a means of showing off a product or service, but as a way to attract attendees to booths and trigger engagement.

As virtual reality picks up more attention, more companies will start to wonder if there's a way they can capitalize on this new tool. A word of caution: Be sure that if you're going to pursue virtual reality, it's because there's a real benefit to using the technology. If your company feels that there is a real benefit, there's plenty of reason to be excited about VR -- but also to be cautious about execution and distribution.

We spoke to Jason Latta, director of emerging technologies at advertising agency Power, and Layne Harris, vice president of innovation technology at digital marketing agency 360i about the dos and don'ts virtual reality product demos--since they've already built them.

1. Know your story

The kind of story you want to tell will shape what kind of VR experience you make. If you've just got something to show off -- a facility, a location, a product -- 360 video might be the best way to do that. If you need to control the experience, including where the viewer is looking, you might end up with a more complicated demo. Do you need a guide in the form of a voice over? Are you changing locations? How will you teach the viewer to navigate? You might need to replicate a menu or a button in several locations in case the viewer isn't looking in the right direction.

"Really, it always starts with story. What are we trying to tell and will this technology help us explain something better?" Latta said.

2. Target the VR hardware

There are a few factors that should influence your decision about which hardware platform(s) to target for your VR experience -- Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and/or others.

The first and most obvious is that the headset you pick to target depends on how in-depth your experience is. If you're just looking to showcase a 360 video, using a Cardboard unit or a Samsung Gear VR is probably a good move. If your experience is more interactive, it may require the sensors or computing power of a higher-end headset.

You also have to consider the price. Cardboard units are very affordable ($30 or less, even for customized units), and if you're looking to give them away as swag, there are options for getting branded versions printed in bulk. The View-Master VR, which is essentially a Cardboard unit, is $30 plus a smartphone. So, if you know you need three HMDs, you might consider that three View-Master VRs cost less than one Samsung Gear VR ($99), and of course, both of those will cost far less than the $599 consumer Oculus Rift, when it's finally available.

Another spin on deciding how your experience will be used has to do with hygiene. At a tradeshow, hundreds, if not thousands of people might stop by your booth to try out your demo.

"After 100 people those things get a little gnarly," Latta said.

Using a VR headset means sticking your face in the same place as however many people have already been there. Cardboard units actually made of cardboard (versus a glossier cardboard) easily show stains from the sweat, oil, or makeup on people's faces. Even the foam padding around a Oculus DK2 starts to look questionable after a while. Using a headset like the View-Master VR, which is essentially a Cardboard unit made of plastic and rubber, is a good bet if you're looking for something that can easily be wiped down with an antibacterial wipe.

Also, consider how accessible you want your experience to be -- it's a distribution issue. "You don't want to create an experience that only a small fraction of your consumers are going to be able to experience," Harris said.

One advantage of 360 videos is that if they're housed on YouTube 360, they're viewable by everyone, regardless of whether they have a headset. And it's good to have multiple channels where people can consume your content. That might be a good option if the experience you're designing is for a broader audience, especially people consuming at home.

SEE: Virtual reality in 2016: The 10 biggest trends to watch (TechRepublic)

3. Decide on a length

The length of your VR experience should depend, once again, on the intended audience. If your demo is meant for marketing to a mass audience, for people stopping by your booth in the middle of the madness of a trade show, for example, keep it short. Latta suggests 3 to 5 minutes. Most likely, these people want to engage quickly and move on to the next booth.

"It's just about getting people into the booth, get them excited, and then get them interested and asking questions and about the actual product. VR is the hook. It's to get them in and get them excited, but it's not necessarily the entire tool," Latta said.

If your audience is a group of executives at a meeting, you can probably afford to take longer. You might need to go more in-depth to explain what you're doing, and in that case, 15 to 20 minutes could be reasonable.

Similarly, an at-home experience can lend itself to a longer running time.

SEE: Research: Virtual and augmented reality in the enterprise (Tech Pro Research)

4. Pick your partners carefully

Whether you're hiring a developer or an agency, it's good to be picky.

"Go with someone you feel comfortable is going to be able to create a comfortable experience and deliver quality," Latta said.

Working with inexperienced partners, or deciding to wing it in-house can lead to some negative results. A poorly-designed VR experience can make viewers sick, and that's a lasting association you don't want to make with your brand. Latta remembers being at a tradeshow where a company's VR experience moved viewers from one spot to the next too rapidly, and that movement was inducing motion sickness.

Creators need to be knowledgeable about the rules for what makes a comfortable VR experience, Latta said. And that includes making sure that those partners know how to achieve an optimal performance, like an appropriate frame rate.

It's also worth noting that the process of vetting potential partners may not be as straightforward as for other media.

For example, Harris talked about an experience where his agency worked with more traditional filmmakers who didn't understand that it takes more than just having all the fancy equipment to create a good VR piece.

"It was a very tough, expensive lesson for us, because at the end of the day, we were stuck with a bunch of footage that was not really watchable," he said.

Make sure your potential partner has successful VR examples to show.

5. Don't invest in equipment just yet

When it comes to VR, people are fond of saying "it's early days." That's because it really is. The tech is at the beginning of a long period of improvement, with many iterations ahead, and that means not just the headsets, but the equipment used to create VR content.

So, don't sink a ton of money into VR production equipment just yet.

A rig with a few GoPros can cost $3,000 to $5,000. The Google Jump camera array costs about $15,000, and Nokia's new, professional-grade OZO camera will run you $60,000.

"Let that shake out a bit before you make heavy investments, or go with video production companies that rent their experience, and their talents, and their equipment for making your projects," Latta said.

Otherwise, you might be left with equipment that's very expensive, and nearly obsolete within a short time.

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