Marketing meets VR and gets creepy

In general, I believe that marketing is advertising is great for promoting virtual reality.  Marketing experiences tend to short, well-produced, and, of course, well marketed. Plus, no company wants to make potential customers sick, so they pay attention to making their virtual experiences induce as little nausea as possible. And, as a bonus, they often distribute free headsets, to get new people into VR.

But sometimes, the marketing folks go too far.

Playing with your emotions

Two weeks ago, P&G and Alibaba announced a new Chinse mobile VR app, in which users could have virtual relationships with two of China’s sexiest movie stars.

It reminded me of the season two episode of Mad About You, “Virtual Reality,” in which the show’s stars invest in a virtual reality startup.

In the clip above, Paul Reiser goes on a virtual date with Christie Brinkley.

The main difference between the fictional app and the one launched last month, is that the real app includes shopping as part of the experience.

It’s bad enough when our virtual pets ask us to buy them virtual stuff with real money. What happens when celebrities we are already in love with ask us to dip into our wallets?

Helen Hunt dips her hand into Andre Agassi's pocket and pulls out a bus token.
Helen Hunt dips her hand into Andre Agassi’s pocket and pulls out a bus token.

Say, for example, Amazon launched an app with Ryan Gosling in which you got to go on virtual dates with him. In virtual reality, when you’re watching a 360-degree video and someone talks to the camera, it does feel as though they are looking you right in the eyes and talking just to you. Now say, Gosling tells you that he’d love to see you in a particular dress, and you get a link to that dress on Amazon, and you buy it, and your avatar is now wearing that dress and Gosling is just over the moon with how great you look.

Now, I hate to be the one giving marketers any ideas, but I’m sure they’ve thought of this one on their own already: you download the app, and from that point on, all the real money you spend gives you the same amount in virtual cash which you could use to buy furnishings for the virtual apartment where you and your celebrity crush live, or to take them out on virtual dates, or to buy them virtual clothes that they will model for you. And if you’re not spending enough, the virtual boyfriend or girlfriend will give you gentle hints, like, “Wouldn’t it be great if the couch was bigger? I’d love to snuggle on it with you.” Or, “You know what would be romantic? A walk through Paris. Wouldn’t you like to do that?”

Is this evil, or what?

Who wouldn’t spend their retirement savings to get Jennifer Lawrence, even a virtual Jennifer Lawrence, anything she wants?

Reading your mind

Gesture control is so old school. How about mind control? The technology is already there, typically used for toys like this Star Wars Force Trainer or the Mindflex Duel Game. And there are mind-controlled drones, such as the MindDrone. There was even a mind-controlled drone race in mid-April.

Which is all good. I’d love to be able to control my avatar’s in-world movements with my mind.

However, marketing companies are using this technology as well.

A team calling itself VR-ify recently posted the details of a project in which the Oculus Rift headset was using in combination with the Emotiv brain wave sensor to learn which version of a product customers are most interested in.

“With this information the company behind that particular product can significantly increase the revenue potential of their product and decrease the risk that it will become a flop,” they wrote.

Watch the video below.

They’re looking for a company that wants to test this out. I’m sure they’ll find one.

But the implications of this are pretty darn creepy.

Say I’m wearing a virtual reality headset with a built-in brainwave sensor. I’m sure they’ll all have them, soon enough. I’m walking past a virtual store, and the headset notices which products in the window attract my attention. If there are advertising billboards around, it can tell which ones I’m looking at, for how long, and how I feel about them. Does the ad make me want to buy something, or is it just a distraction?

We’re going to have to get really careful in reading about the privacy settings of each device and application we use, and each virtual environment we visit.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the first virtual reality ad blocker. Say, one that replaces ads with funny animal pictures.

Maria Korolov