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The Good and Bad of Being Trapped in the Headset

When someone demos a great piece of VR content for you, the feeling can be transformative. You leave the world for a few minutes, and when you come back, you’re full of praise for the creator.

But when someone demos terrible content, the feeling is horrible, because you’re literally stuck in the headset. If you take the headset off before the experience ends, it’s a pretty clear signal you’re not enjoying yourself — and unlike other mediums, you can’t glance at your watch or phone and feign an emergency test to get out of it. I was stuck in a demo a few weeks back with someone droning on and on, and I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t check email, or stare out the window, or even take the headset off, because the experience would stop and the other person would know. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life.

But what sucks for users is arguably amazing for brands. Creatives can talk about making magical experiences, but eventually someone at the top is going to ask about the bottom line, and all that talk of exploring new worlds doesn’t mean anything. However, there’s literally no looking away in VR.

Your brand will be in front of everyone, because it has to be. Want the experience to keep going? Gotta sit through the ad, or look at the branded content. There’s no fast-forward, no mute, no clicking to another tab to avoid pre-roll, no looking at something else to not see a banner ad. While VR can offer plenty of choices as to where a user can go, the one place they absolutely can’t is out of the headset.

Add to this the ability to track a user’s gaze in VR, and the deal is even sweeter.

Until now, there was no real way to tell whether a user was actually watching something when it was playing on a screen — how many people get up and use the bathroom during the commercials to any show, or simply hit the mute button during online ads? There’s also no way to tell which part of an ad people are most interested in or attracted to, save for conducting cumbersome surveys.

But with gaze-activated technology, not only can brands tell when someone is watching an ad, they can tell where they’re looking and what they’re responding to, even if that response is subconscious. That data can be used to make ads better and more interesting for users, keeping their attention — despite them being “locked into” the experience, so to speak.

Because the intent here is not to give brands license to create terrible VR content because people will have to watch. It’s to press brands to think about interesting ways to engage a captive audience in a new medium. Serving terrible content that people are forced to watch will only generate negative impressions for the brand and result in blowback. But if brands serve fresh, interesting content, it won’t be a chore to sit through at all.