At the height of his comic strip’s popularity, Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes,noted that “virtual reality has nothing on Calvin.” Virtual reality systems that were available during Calvin’s heyday fell far short of his creative faculties and, at best, provided the limited world of the computer game Adventure or the CGI-infused world of Tron.

virtualrealityThe thirty years since Calvin’s comic page exploits have given us advanced virtual reality headsets and datagloves and visions of entire virtual worlds in the Matrix movie series – all culminating in Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, a virtual reality startup. In a relatively short amount of time, virtual reality has evolved from a science fiction fantasy to a technical reality that has very real potential to change the way companies market their products and services. Virtual reality is expected to be a major change in technology in 2016.

Virtual reality systems use technology to stimulate an individual’s senses while allowing that person to respond to that stimulation. With displays built in our eyeglasses and electronics woven in our clothing, virtual reality can provide a full-immersion experience. Corporate marketing departments are only now beginning to see the possibilities of this technology.

The upscale outdoor clothing company, North Face, recently jumped onto the virtual reality bandwagon with a rock climbing and base-jumping 3D film that works with Google’s virtual reality “cardboard” app. Users can download the app onto a 5” or 6” smart phone to convert that phone into a basic virtual reality headset. The North Face film allows viewers to accompany outdoor adventurers – all of whom are clad in North Face gear – as they climb and jump off cliffs in Moab and Yosemite.

For those fitness fanatics who would prefer not to jump off cliffs, Zumba’s co-founder, Alberto Perez, recently released a 360-degree video of a Zumba class that viewers can watch from multiple angles.

These nascent uses of virtual reality technology give individuals a sensory experience that shows how products and services are actually used. The virtual reality experience goes beyond standard videos that have pre-selected camera angles by placing the viewer at the center of the action with an active first-person perspective.

A travelogue might have once given viewers a uniform perspective on a cruise through the Panama Canal. With virtual reality, a travel company can now give viewers a customizable, multi-dimensional perspective on an ocean liner as it squeezes into one of the canal’s locks and is pulled along by one of the funiculars that eases the ship forward. Technology can direct sounds and create relative motion to better replicate the experience of an actual canal passing. A viewer who is enticed by a virtual experience will then be primed to commit to the real travel experience.

Marketers are only beginning to realize the many possibilities of using virtual reality in marketing and branding. Consider, for example:

  • Architects and designers can give their clients a more realistic vision of what a final product will look like. The home improvement company, Lowe’s, has already taken steps in this direction with its Holoroom showroom product.
  • Distillers and liquor manufacturers can bring their customers closer to the sources and ingredients that they use to make their products. The tequila distiller, Patron, has already released a YouTube video that integrates with FaceBook’s Oculus virtual reality system for this purpose.
  • Companies can get more out of the endorsement fees they pay to pro athletes and celebrities by allowing customers to get into their heads with virtual reality. Gatorade, for example, released a 360o video of pro-baseball player, Bryce Harper, as he faces a 90 mph fastball.
  • Real estate agents can give clients virtual tours of houses and apartments right in their offices, allowing clients to save time and to select on-site visits only for those properties that appeal to them in a virtual perspective.
  • Medical technology providers can outfit physicians with virtual reality equipment to test drive new surgical products and techniques.

Virtual reality technology has advanced to where marketers and branding experts can take a page from Calvin and Hobbes to create new worlds for potential clients and customers. The limits of this technology are currently unknown, but marketers can push the limits of virtual reality as it becomes as ubiquitous as other new technologies.