Does virtual reality have a role in corporate communications?

Scott Payton straps on a pair of goggles to review three multinationals’ ventures into VR.

There was a lot of noise about virtual reality last year. A raft of new VR headsets went on the market, including Sony’s PlayStationVR, which sold out in many places before Christmas. Visit Amazon.com today, and you’ll find scores of different VR goggles for sale – many for less than $10.

A few companies are putting the technology to use in their corporate communications efforts. Does it make sense for others to follow?

Let’s start by looking what companies have done so far.

ExxonMobil

The US energy giant offers a ‘virtual reality app’ on the Apple and Google Play app stores.

This is promoted in the ‘Multimedia’ sub-section within the ‘Company’ area of ExxonMobil’s corporate site – though users must then go off and download the app before viewing anything in virtual reality.

If they do bother to do this, they’ll find a choice of short computer-generated 360-degree videos showing interesting environments in which the firm operates, from ‘one and a half miles beneath the surface of the sea’, via deep jungles, to icy tundra. Users can put their smart phone into a VR headset for the full experience, or simply watch directly on their mobile, moving the device around to look up, down and sideways.

Either way, a narrator describes the environment and the impressive things ExxonMobil does in it.

The videos are much more effective if you do strap on a pair of VR goggles – you get a decent sense of the scale of the company’s endeavours in various far-flung locations.

But there three drawbacks to ExxonMobil’s VR effort:

First, the fact that you must download an app before viewing the videos is likely to be a hassle too far for many people. It is technically possible to provide VR videos embedded within a (mobile optimised) website – and this approach is likely to be better here. Best of all would be embedding the VR videos in parts of the site where visitors are most likely to find such material useful – such as Careers and About Us – with users given the choice of viewing the video in normal or VR mode.

Second, the fact that ExxonMobil’s VR videos are computer-generated rather than real diminishes both their impact and sense of authenticity. US broadcaster Discovery and the New York Times have both created apps offering VR videos of real people and places, which is a more engaging and effective approach.

Finally, as with other VR offerings, streaming ExxonMobil VR videos via anything other than a very fast internet connection can be a frustratingly juddering experience. My 9Mbps home connection struggled, for example.

Touring a facility in a computer-generated jungle in ExxonMobil's VR app

Touring a facility in a computer-generated jungle in ExxonMobil's VR app

Dong Energy

Unlike ExxonMobil, Danish firm Dong Energy doesn’t force people to download an app to view its VR video. Instead, a promotion page on the firm’s corporate website directs people to a page on YouTube, where they can watch a video tour of an offshore wind turbine in VR ‘mode’. Another version of the YouTube video is provided for users without a set of goggles. Here, users can move their cursor instead of their head to look around.

Interestingly, German conglomerate Siemens published a rather similar 360-degree, multimedia tour of a wind turbine on its website three years ago – though true virtual reality technology was not involved in that.  

Another difference between Dong and ExxonMobil’s offerings: Dong’s video is of a real rather than computer-generated wind turbine. More interesting and credible.

A further improvement over ExxonMobil: the narration of Dong’s video is far more detailed and informative. Prospective employees and others can genuinely learn things from this video beyond bland corporate spiel.

But, again, the separation of Dong’s video from related company information on the corporate website is a weakness. Jobseekers and other visitors to Dong’s website may not find the VR video in the first place while they browse. Indeed, the VR version of the video currently on YouTube has been viewed just 1,225 times since January. The version for users without a VR headset has been viewed just over 8,000 times since it was published in September last year.

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Dong's VR tour of a wind turbine on YouTube

Commonwealth Bank of Australia

When it comes to finding subject-matter for VR videos, ExxonMobil and Dong have the advantage of building interesting things in exciting places. What about companies that don’t?

The Careers landing page of Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s corporate site has a large banner promoting ‘Our Virtual Workplace’, an Apple and Android VR app. There is a standard YouTube video on the site extolling the virtues of the app – though users must visit the Apple or Google Play app stores to access the VR material.

The app’s designers have assumed that people will be using a pair of Google Cardboard VR goggles, even though many VR users own a different kind of headset. A weakness.

The app itself is very different from ExxonMobil and Dong’s linear video tours. It’s a computer-generated management simulation. Users get to meet a denim-clad virtual team in a computer-generated office, with the job of creating a new app for the bank’s customers (see the screenshot below). At different points in the simulation, users must make a series of business decisions - whether to delay the launch of the app due to security concerns, for example – by looking at one of a set of text options.

As a training tool, it’s very basic, though the technology itself is quite impressive.

'I didn’t expect a bank to be at the forefront of innovation. But they actually are, and it’s really cool,' said a jobseeker after trying out the app at one of the bank’s careers events. The bank’s communications team were obviously proud of this comment: they put it in a YouTube video on their corporate website.  

Indeed, I suspect that this is the true motivation behind all corporate communications teams’ early VR efforts – because, for now at least, they do a better job of conveying the message ‘Look! We’re innovative!’ than they do at providing a genuinely useful service in their own right.

Meeting your virtual team in Commonwealth Bank of Australia's VR app

Meeting your virtual team in Commonwealth Bank of Australia's VR app

- Scott Payton