Mixed Reality (MR) Marketing: Getting with the Program

Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.

ReadyPlayer One, Ernest Cline.

Ready – Launch

In the spring of 2018, Steven Spielberg ignited the world yet again. Like previous times, the rabbit he pulled out of the hat for this occasion, so to speak, had been waiting to make its big appearance to the world. It had been a topic on many lips for quite some time, but not enough to explode into a full-fledged public discourse.

The sensation was the “metaverse,” or, as defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, “a network of always-on virtual environments in which many people can interact with one another and digital objects while operating virtual representations – or avatars – of themselves.”

Ernest Cline, the author of the novel Ready Player One, which Spielberg adapted into a film, came from an established line of American sci-fi writers, renowned for devoting their ink to substantiating imaginations far beyond the realms of possibility—or so it seemed.

The created metaverse operated on an elaborate cybernetic system that could handle real-time transferring and rendering of information at high volume, and visually immerse the user in a distinct reality. Much like in a good film, the viewer forgets the world beyond the screen; a good metaverse would make the user forget their physical selves and the tangible world around them.

Similarly, the world of marketing is abuzz with the possibility of communicating brand experience using the concept of an ultrarealistic metaverse—a sort of immersive marketing. This is a lofty idea; however, the technological challenges to its realization remain. Consequently, an ilk of moderate alternatives to a full-fledged metaverse has emerged, and one of them is our focus for this piece:

Mixed Reality (MR).

A Matter of Nuance

Simply put, Mixed Reality (MR) is a combination of Augmented Reality (AR) – familiar to those who hopped on the Pokémon Go frenzy a few years back, and Virtual Reality (VR), an almost household name in topical memory. In a more technological speak; AR relies on the offline world as a platform onto which fictional elements are projected, whereas VR operates in a stand-alone fictional world, interactable via external devices such as headsets. MR takes from both and relies on either the real world, exemplified with the Microsoft Holo Lens; or a fictional one, as in the case of Windows Mixed Reality.

Image Source: abc News

The key difference between MR and either AR or VR is that while the latter are in part designed for supporting a single user’s adventures, MR suggests a more accentuated focus on connecting people. In the ideal scenario, instead of one or a few players chasing rare Pokémons across blocks within a designed apparatus, the fusion of AR and VR into MR provides elements that facilitate social interaction– or interpersonal communication – as part of its core functionalities.

With this, it is no wonder that a new frontier is quickly opening up for those who are the most in need of novel approaches to interactive mass communications: marketers.

A Quick Glance Across the Board

To date, many alternative reality attempts in marketing content creation are still referred to either as AR or VR. However, across the spectrum, it is rather unambiguous that the line separating AR, VR, and MR is not at all definitive.

Quick story from 2015:

A footwear manufacturer Merrell, in a bid to promote their new Capra hiking boots, launched a VR demonstration at Sundance Film Festival. On a stage designed to simulate a mountain hiking route (a rickety wooden plank bridge connecting narrow mountaintop trails) and equipped with motion-tracking devices and 4D mechanics (artificial wind, sound, and ground shakes), visitors were invited to don Capra hiking boots and immerse themselves virtually via Oculus Rift VR headsets into predesigned hiking scenarios.

Image Source: Framestore

To convey the realest sense of the thrills of hiking, visitor experience was enhanced by a virtual rockslide, the ensuing rumbling of the ground, the collapse of the bridge once passed, and that final sensation of relief and reward at the end of the trail; while a 360-degree magnificent view was augmented by simulated wind and bird calls.

The idea was to safely relocate visitors into an authentic hiking experience that would intrigue, interest, and eventually, motivate people to undertake that hike themselves.

Our next story is from 2017, during the Microsoft Build conference. Designers at Cirque du Soleil, one of the top theatre production companies in the world, showcased a truly intriguing experience using the Microsoft HoloLens.

Image Source: CNET

Renowned for its large-scale circus shows, Cirque du Soleil often utilized huge sets and an accompanying entourage of equipment, making event planning a formidable challenge.

On an empty stage equipped with display sensors, three Cirque du Soleil demonstrators created a virtual ultrarealistic stage, added numerous props, moved and refurnished them, and ended the showcase in an impressive MR prototype. Real-case model development was likely to take much longer, nonetheless, the showcase demonstrated quite lucidly how MR technologies could facilitate real-time communication.

A brief subplot worth mentioning in this story was when a designer – who was at the time not on set – joined the ongoing showcase as an avatar, likely via a Microsoft Mixed Reality headset, and made a few inputs using controllers from the same set. The changes took effect simultaneously; suggesting that it was part of the pre-design, but also conveying how effective the collaboration between AR and VR, and by extension, the decent prospects of Microsoft’s success in their endeavor to develop wholesome MR.  

Most recently, another story excerpt from South Korea’s 2020 National Elections. Already one of the world’s most connected countries and a parallel sphere of commercial communications, South Korea saw its political aspirants turning to virtual spaces to facilitate their election campaigns.

Partly due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions, as well as an attempt to connect with young, tech-savvy voters, both leading and minor candidates used a variety of virtual platforms – including a major TV network’s metaverse – to talk and listen to voters. This gesture evidently won the attention of many young people who would have been out of reach through conventional campaign approaches.

Marketing and MR: The Convergence

From the featured instances, it is abundantly clear that notwithstanding the few explicit mentions of MR by name, marketing – especially the integrated digital marketing landscape, increasingly finds itself amid an accelerating transformation that is set to eliminate the boundary between the virtual and the actual for good.

Sooner or later, it seems, adopting MR would cease to be a mere competitive edge, but a must-have for survival in the marketing industries: both for brands and their marketing agency partners.

Image Source: France 24

In part, this reflects the general trend of consumer fascination with MR, with a global market set to skyrocket from $47 million in 2018 to $3.7 billion by 2025. This is mostly buoyed by a burgeoning attention economy that is deeply intertwined with everything digital; where ROI is measured by the second, consumer demands are forever morphing around the clock, and meaningful engagement from social communities, is the golden key to sustainable growth.

The conventional practice in marketing communications where a predesigned narrative that represents the product and the brand narrates itself to the consumer in soliloquy, hoping to elicit a curious glance could be upended.

In place of it, an MR-aided marketing approach would gamify the entire practice. For instance, as opposed to staring at an invariably uninviting 2D screen and having to imagine, in the abstract, what is behind the message, MR marketing could draw the otherwise impassive consumer into an already immersive world designed not only to tell but to be interacted with and felt.

With social interaction as a core of MR technologies, a gamified approach centered on interaction is set to change the relationship between consumer and brand for good.

To Game or Not to Game

According to a Forbes article, Gen Z is among the most coveted demographics that brands seek to win over. Nearly half of these young people identify gaming as one of the top three daily leisure priorities. At a time when younger generations become digitally literate early enough in life, this is not far-fetched.

The well-catered habit of assuming the limelight in their digital lives goes to shape demands on overall consumption habits as well. Instead of being reached out to as an insulated audience, younger consumers want to participate in the active communication process, in addition to playing a more central role in their leisure activities.

Image Source: Subspace

The rest of the world seems to be following the Gen Z lead, and, predictably, the ensuing generations will follow suit. In other words, the turn to MR marketing represents a tectonic shift in the very philosophy of marketing communications. Consequently, a brand’s ability to adapt to this transformation depends on its willingness to invite consumers to join in the making and telling of its unique stories.

Perhaps, after all, what “sucks” has little to do with just being human. Instead, being confined to being a 21st-century bipedal humanoid cut off from the ultra-realistic virtual can get quite chafing—especially at a time when we are closer than ever to accomplishing the technological means to enact our own – and countless others’ imaginations.

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