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VR and Venice -- Coming to a Gondola Near You if the Tourism Industry Has Its Way

"People always say, 'Where are you?' and not, 'What are you looking at?'"


It has long been contended that virtual reality would open new doors for marketing. Find people with VR headsets, the line of thinking goes, and you can make them believe they’re in the ad, rather than just passively observing it.

The hitch: Very few people actually own VR headsets right now. Oculus has shipped about 175,000 of its developer prototype headsets since 2012, according to numbers announced in June. Google claims to have “shipped” about a million of its Cardboard VR headsets, but give that number some generous padding; the company hands out free Cardboards like hotcakes at conferences and trade shows.

That will presumably change, as consumer-aimed headsets start to go on sale at the end of this year and early next. But for OnlyInVR CEO Michael Hodson, there’s no reason to wait.

“That consumer market that everybody’s waiting for — it’s a huge bonus, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do business now,” he said in an interview with Re/code.

Hodson’s company shoots videos for the travel and tourism industry, which he claims have already proven to be a big hit at trade shows and on sales calls. Clients such as STA Travel and the Aspen Chamber of Commerce can acquire a headset — he currently recommends the Samsung Gear VR — and tour it around to potential business partners and customers.

“It’s such a new environment for [OnlyInVR’s] clients, the trust factor for what we’re doing is really high,” he said. “The general sales pitch is, we just strap goggles on their heads and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve done. Here’s what we plan to do.’ Everybody right now is just wowed with VR in general.”

I tried watching several of OnlyInVR’s videos on a Gear VR loaned to me by Samsung: One was a tour around New York City, in which I made “eye contact” with a disturbing number of New Yorkers (they were, of course, checking out the VR camera in reality). Another was a water tour of Venice, a place I’ve never been in real life, which was very pretty.

Last up were two videos shot in Las Vegas, which were important preparation for a personal upcoming trip. My hot take was that the Bellagio fountains are nice to look at and that there is a giant fire-shooting bug at downtown Vegas’ Container Park.

Despite my general obtuseness to the beauty of these locales, I did briefly feel like I was there. And Hodson asserts that that is proof that VR is doing something different to the brain than traditionally filmed 2-D videos are.

“After trying the experience, when they’re talking to friends who have the headset on, people always say, ‘Where are you?’ and not, ‘What are you looking at?'” he said. “You talk about being in Venice, even though you’re actually in a bar in New York City.”

Longer term, he hopes to get more creative with editing, filming (coming soon: Drones and underwater shots) and maybe digitally inserted product placement.

“You could have a virtual tour of Venice, Coca-Cola wants to sponsor it, and can put Coke billboards along the canals,” Hodson said.

(Which is not exactly what the Italians meant by La Dolce Vita — the sweet life.)

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