Virtual Reality is an Advertiser's DreamlandOctober 7, 2014
Advertising has been in a rut lately. Banner advertisements have long performed poorly. Advertisements for “one weird trick” for weight loss, language learning or muscle growth are everywhere. Facebook is making money, but the ads on Facebook are bad and there are doubts about whether the clicks are real.
As bad as the Web is for advertisers, the landscape for phones is even worse. Mobile phone usage has been an exponential rise for over a decade. But the phone screen just doesn’t have that much room, and after a web view’s chrome and an advertisement, you are left with a tiny bit of room for the actual page content. Here’s a relevant example - a TechCrunch article viewed from inside of my Twitter client.
The actual content on this page is 285 pixels, and the total screen contains 665 pixels, which means the content takes up only 42% of the actual screen. Of course, I’m choosing a bad example, but even if you get rid of the chrome, the ad is still going to take up a lot of the screen - in this case, 10.5% of the screen is occupied by the ad. Mobile ads are usually “heavy” on pictures or content which means they can take a while to download and saturate a bad connection.
Much More Screen Space in VR
But we’re not here to talk about mobile - we’re here to talk about virtual reality! In virtual reality, the viewer is viewing content in three dimensions. This means there is a ton of “virtual space” for advertisements to be placed. Advertisements can be placed on the floor, on walls, in the sky. Like a billboard or a poster on a wall, they’re present, but not obtrusive.
Here’s a screenshot from the racing game Radial G that demonstrates this point.
There are five advertisements visible in the screenshot, that line the racing track. Not obtrusive, but they are clearly in the field of view, and readable.
Imagine browsing CNN in virtual reality, with a list of stories visible in front of you. Instead of integrating a small advertisement in the list of articles, you can make the advertisement as large as the content, only off to the right or left.
The large amount of physical space in a 3D world that should be available for ads may make it easier for developers to find passive revenue streams for games that are released for free (think AdWords for virtual reality).
With great power comes great responsibility, and there are a lot of ways to abuse advertisements in virtual reality.
Attaching content to the screen It may be tempting to draw an advertisement directly onto the screen and fix it there so the ad moves as the user’s head moves. In “Loading Screens Shouldn’t Move With You” I discussed the problems with fixing content on the screen of a VR device, so it follows the movement of your head; it makes people sick, and violates the user’s expectation of how the world should work. In addition, depending on the input device used it may be difficult to add a mechanism to dismiss the advertisement. This is the equivalent of a pop-up ad on the Web, and should be avoided.
Interrupting the audio channel The Oculus Rift CV1 will ship with headphones attached, so audio will always be available to creators of games. If done properly, audio advertisements can help fund developers working on games, but if done poorly, they could lead to disorientation. A “poor” example would kill all of the existing ambient noise to play an advertisement, or would play a jingle at high volume that doesn’t fit with the user’s existing world.
Causing sickness It’s extremely easy to cause people to be sick in virtual reality. Any advertisement with movement, especially slow oscillation, can cause people to be sick. If an advertisement is slow to load, it might cause an application to drop a frame, which causes sickness. Other options like messing with the horizon line or causing the user’s head to move (“forcing” them to watch an ad) shouldn’t even be a consideration.
Users haven’t been happy with advertisements on the Web or mobile, with only a few exceptions, and the trend has been to abuse the properties of the medium (think pop-up ads & sound ads as the initial Web ads). Content producers and designers have a great opportunity to do better in virtual reality, because there’s so much space in a world available to place messages. I hope we can.