Inside The Screen: Looking Ahead To Virtual Reality Ads

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Leith Copywriter, Brian Tonner, looks ahead to Virtual Reality ads.

In 1982, David Cronenberg’s weirdo body-horror, Videodrome, came out. It’s notable for two things. Debbie Harry’s in it, and James Woods shoves his head into a telly. The message is that videotapes are evil, or something. Once his head’s inside the rest of his body follows. Technology and physiology merge. Woods slowly loses touch with reality, suffering strange violent hallucinations. Watching a screen wasn’t enough for him, he had to get inside one. And we have all this to look forward to, when Virtual Reality headsets hit the shelves early next year. VR will be mostly for games, but some filmmakers are getting in there too. And that means VR ads are coming.

They make a VR film by placing a big ball of cameras in the middle of the action. Then they stitch those sets of images together so that when you put on the big VR helmet you can turn your head any way you want and experience what is known as ‘presence’. The gadget section in the metro doesn’t mention evil videotapes or spongy tunnel televisions, but these headset devices are the next best thing. There are some available now, including the joke product that works, Google cardboard. The mass market ones made from nice plastic, due in early 2016, are the Sony Morpheus, HTC Vive, and the Facebook owned, Oculus Rift.

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Imagine being onstage with Mick Jagger and getting an extreme close up of his big mouth while he sings right in your face. Or being in the penalty box during the Tennent’s Scottish Cup Final, as a corner is flighted into the back post. Or stepping into the Honda Cog ad and looking back at all that mess. Classic ads will be remade as VR versions. Ads won’t be the same because we’ll be in them choosing our own perspective. No one will say, “did you watch it”, they’ll say “have you been there?”

The thought of getting an Oculus Rift for Christmas is troubling. While I’m supposed to be taking pictures of my daughter opening her gifts from Santa, I’ll be on a virtual Mars, partying with Keith Richards and Ming the Merciless in the new Jack Daniels advert. I won’t waste any time reading the manual either. Press the virtual play button and I’ll be in the new John Lewis Christmas ad. If watching Monty the Penguin made you tear up, imagine actually being there. It could trigger a nervous breakdown.

Christmas Day will be weirder than ever. Playing Wii Sports with your Mother in law was an odd experience. Competing with her in VR Wii Sports will be bizarre. By Boxing Day evening you’ll begin to lose touch with reality. Going back to work after the festive break will be tough and you may find that you’ve used up all your annual leave by February. Then you’ll start using sick days to spend more time in the virtual world. Home alone, just you and your headset. Strap it on and you’re in a rubbish advert for Ragu that you start to prefer over real life. Maybe take the thing back to Dixons and just get a normal telly. But there will be no turning back. Once you’ve chosen the Old Spice man as your avatar, the thunk back to reality will be harsh. Your only solution to this digital pickle will be to watch more ads. Which is good news for me and Leith because we want to make brilliant ones, like, a week long experiential thing sponsored by Fiery Irn Bru, set in Hell, with Miley Cyrus, and Satan.

The screens we watch haven’t changed much since they first came out. From the first cinema screen to your iPhone 6S+. They’re all rectangles. No matter how impressive and fresh the content is: 360 tours, 4K resolution, Gopro films and FPS games; they’re all held back by corners. Not any more.

Are we becoming desensitised from what we watch on our screens? Cronenberg thinks so. The villain in Videodrome is the television. Our daily feeds are filled with Gopro videos of people dangling off cranes in Russia, shootings from the Ferguson riots, and bright and bold Nicki Minaj bum videos. Critics say, experiencing these kinds of videos, as virtual experiences, are going to distance us further from human contact and make us less empathic. This could be a problem. Solution? VR Andrex ads. Hugging cute virtual Labrador puppies will restore our humanity.

The most positive virtual experience you will have will be inside a big TV ad. The logic adds up. Video games will be terrifying and movies don’t need to have a positive message behind them like an ad does. Would you rather go inside the Borstal in Scum or jump into a pub in a beer advert?

We get used to new tech so quickly. Mary Poppins was the Avatar of the 1950s. Silent movies to talkies. Fixed camera to the steadicam. Black and white to colour. 2D to 3D. Martin Scorsese was interviewed on Radio 4 when his film, Hugo was released. They asked him, “Should we allow audiences to step into stories and experience them any way they want?” The director replied, “Why not?”

We spend so much time looking at screens the next logical step is to go inside them. We should embrace it, but also be wary at the same time. Or we might just go nuts like James Woods in Videodrome.