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 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.


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




Do we need corporate websites anymore?

The corporate website has so far avoided a widely predicted extinction at the hands of social media. Yet its supposed imminent demise because of newer technologies like virtual reality and chatbots is never far from the digital conversation. In a Q&A with David Bowen, the veteran commentator explains why declaring the death of corporate websites is (still) premature.

Q. The world is changing so fast. Isn’t it a big mistake for digital communicators to concentrate on old-fashioned technologies like websites?

David Bowen: It is a mistake for them to concentrate on them without looking at the things that are changing, certainly. But of all the digital communications tools that will still be around in 20 or 30 years, I would put my money on good old-fashioned websites as the safest bet.

Q. Why?

DB: Three main reasons:

·      First, websites were born out of the technology of the late Eighties and early Nineties – particularly the limited internet bandwidth. Unless you had your own fibre cable network, it was all very narrow band. When I first started looking at how things were going, about 1992, lots of people were talking about virtual reality – and assumed that in a few years we would be doing our shopping sitting in an armchair with headsets on. But meanwhile the things that worked had to be technically simple, which is why the rather basic idea of the website was invented. I can’t program but I have managed to build a simple website. And simple things tend to survive; think of the bicycle, or even the wheel.

·      Second, although websites are technically simple, they are extraordinarily powerful. Their ability to hold vast amounts of information makes them like the biggest books in the world, full of words, pictures and now videos. Clickable links mean they are much easier to get around than a book – we take hyperlinking for granted but it is a brilliant idea. Websites can incorporate a mass of clever interactivity, which will turn them into shops, helplines, travel agents, whatever. You have to remember that they were invented by Tim Berners-Lee as a way to make sense of a vast amount of information held by CERN; they’re still unbeatable at handling complexity.

·      Third, they are owned by their owners. That may sound silly, but what I mean is that companies do not rely in any sense on other companies for their existence. That’s really important, especially in a crisis when they need to keep absolute control of their messaging. Websites give companies an almost universally accessible platform where they can say what they want, in the detail they want and with minimal fear of being shouted down.

So that’s why websites have kept going, despite predictions that they will be swept out of the way by new, more exciting technologies.

Q. Such as?

DB: Social media is the obvious one so far. When it first came along it was called ‘Web 2.0’ – with the obvious implication that it was going to replace the old ‘Web 1.0’. There was a period a few years ago when there were plenty of ‘corporate website is dead’ stories based on the presumed dominance of social media. Its huge promise was that it would turn an essentially one-way communication tool – the website – into something based on conversations. And every marketer knew that a conversation was the best way to sell.

Facebook (and some other channels) have indeed become a massive conversation factory, and in some ways have pushed websites out of the way. But not when it comes to corporate communications. The sad truth is that people want to have conversations with each other; they don’t want to have them with large corporations. It has taken years for companies to really understand that, and some of them are now using social media successfully for corporate communications – but it is always an addition to the website.

Facebook pages can’t hold loads of information, they tend to be quite inflexible, and most important they are not owned by the company. When Nestlé got into trouble over palm oil some years ago, it was driven from its own Facebook page by Greenpeace activists; pirates over-ran the ship and the crew had to jump overboard.

We are now seeing worrying levels of hacking of websites, but they are not by their nature open to attack as, say, a Facebook page is. That is why it is useful to think of corporate websites as being the sun, with social media channels the planets that circle it. The same sort of thing happened with apps – they turned out to be brilliant at what they are brilliant at, but attempts to create corporate apps that replaced websites have pretty much all failed.

Q. So does that mean we should forget about any new technologies that come along, and simply concentrate on our websites?

DB: No, that would be very risky. Although websites are likely to maintain their importance, other technologies and devices will continue to burst forth. We will undoubtedly see some innovations that we can’t even imagine (could you have imagined Snapchat 10 years ago?).

Before I start future-gazing, I’d like to go back rather on what I was saying a moment ago. Yes, in general social media has not proved much of a boon to corporate communicators, and yes in general apps have had even less effect. But there are parts of the world where that is not true. In Latin America, Facebook has in places become a more important communications and marketing tool than company websites, and companies operating there who don’t know that will get into trouble.

In Asia, apps are huge because mobile phones are so much more important than computers (see next question). There are even big differences between the US and Europe in the way websites themselves are used. The Europeans are way ahead when it comes to using corporate websites to get their company messages across but the Americans are still better at ‘selling stuff’ online. If you want to be a ‘global-local’ operator, you have to understand such things.

Q. WeChat in China seems to be huge. Do we all need to know about that?

DB: Yes, of all the new technologies corporate communicators need to be studying, messaging apps should be at the front of the queue. I have been increasingly using WhatsApp, Facebook messaging, Skype messaging, even the chat bit of my game of internet Scrabble. Always for messaging , maybe with pictures added. My daughter uses Snapchat – I still don’t quite get that, but it is pushing the format.

WeChat in China is moving to a different level, right into website territory. There are several reasons why apps have taken off so strongly in China, but the result is that companies working there have learned to use them as substitutes for email, websites and social media channels – all rolled into one. One big European B2B company says WeChat is more important than the web. It can be used to display product details (though the functionality is much cruder), to provide customer service, to communicate internally; all sorts of things.

This multi-function ability should in itself make WeChat interesting, but the real reason companies everywhere should be interested is that it is designed for mobile users. We do not believe that in most countries corporate sites will ever be viewed mainly on small screens – simply because they are complex and so fiddly to use. But mobile use is growing fast, and it may well be that messaging apps will be more useful for many mobile users than, say, small screen versions of responsive websites. They won’t replace them, but they may well complement them especially if, as we believe they will, the borders between corporate communications and marketing become increasingly blurred.

Q. Is there anything else on the immediate horizon?

DB: Artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots will become increasingly important for people who want answers to specific questions. So they will have an effect on one aspect of websites, and will probably be increasingly incorporated in them. The obvious place is in the search engine, which is notoriously the weak spot of corporate sites. I have to say that there is little sign yet of great leaps in the effectiveness of website search, and AI has been a promising technology for so long we probably shouldn’t hold our breath

Q. Cars have the internet and we can talk to our fridges from our smartphones. Could this affect corporate comms?

The ‘Internet of Things’ is worth digital communicators applying their imaginations to. We have a presentation at our conference in June by the head of digital communications at Bosch. I won’t try to guess what he’s going to say, but it is all about the fact that the internet now gets everywhere, and there will be things that could well affect your jobs. He says the Internet of Things will transform our jobs as comms directors for corporates – how we do ‘content and communication’. 

Q. You started by talking about virtual reality. There was lots of publicity about it last year. Should communications people be studying it?

DB: I think so. When Second Life was hyped, then dropped out of sight a few years ago, there was lots of experimentation, some of it coming within the communications orbit. People experimented with press conferences – an advantage of the VR format is that you (or your avatar) could chat to the person ‘sitting’ next to you, while also listening to the main speaker; just as you could in real life. Human resources people got excited by the possibilities – virtual careers fairs seemed to make a lot of sense. It failed because of technology limits, but maybe they have now been overcome. I would be talking to your HR people in particular – they often have good antennae for new things coming along.

Q. Those are all positive things. Anything bad?

DB: Hacking, cybercrime – maybe one day someone will manage to bring down the internet. It was designed to withstand a nuclear war, but will that be good enough? On the other hand, it is hardly worth basing any sort of strategy on speculation like that. Just make sure you still know how to write with a pen. 

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When will websites go virtual?

There was a piece in the Financial Times last week about virtual reality (may be behind a paywall). The author had been at a dinner for innovators given by Wired magazine in the UK, at which they were asked what the big thing for 2016 would be. Almost all of them said virtual reality.

Virtual world games like Minecraft are massive, 3D films are now normal – as are 3D televisions, and Facebook has spent $2bn on buying the company that makes Oculus Rift headsets, which are apparently wonderful. One of the odder fashions in the last few years is to have ever bigger headsets and mobile phones; wearing a VR headset won’t look quite as nerdy as it used to. 

What, you may wonder, has this to do with websites, corporate communications and the sort of things we concern ourselves? Well, whenever I hear about VR resurgent, I think about a little book I wrote in 1993 called Multimedia: Now and down the line. I had talked to future thinkers and technologists about the ‘digital revolution’ that was just coming into view. Most of it was about CD-Roms, but the ‘down the line’ bit was how anything digital could be pushed down telephone lines – as was already happening with CompuServe, AOL and the like. It even had the word ‘internet’ in it (once), but the thing people were getting excited about was virtual reality.

The great thing about having a theory but lacking any way of putting it into practice is that it can be pushed to its furthest extremes. My interviewees did not have to worry about bandwidth or computer power when they speculated how we would be able to take advantage of digital possibilities. They all decided that we would be going shopping with VR headsets – traipsing down a virtual supermarket aisle, picking up our virtual shopping and putting it in a virtual  basket. When we were in a meeting at work, we would sit opposite people who were geographically thousands of miles away and try not to put our hands through them (that would be rude). And when we were in bed – well, there was some stuff on teledildonics I’ll gloss over.

But of course what actually happened was that nice Mr Berners-Lee thought up the World Wide Web, which actually worked with then current technology, and we set about shopping and meeting using only two dimensions. It has worked rather well; so do we need a third one? Does it have any business, as opposed to entertainment, value? 

If you watched the rise and falling back of Second Life, which was 2D but still virtual, you may well say no. But one of the main things that stopped it taking off was practicality: few people had the computer power or bandwidth to make it work properly. It’s still going, and I’ve been playing with it – it’s certainly a lot less frustrating than it used to be, with better equipment.

There is some business activity on it, though most if it seems to be about Second Life itself – I found myself at the Justitia Legal Resource Village for lawyers ‘interested in issues around Second Life’. In its heyday, I recall, Reuters had its own reporters on it and BNP Paribas had a recruitment centre. No more. It is in a niche, well out of the main stream.

But if, as the FT and all those clever innovators say, VR will be the big thing for 2016, it’s surely worth pondering how companies and organizations might be able to use it. 

Here are some thoughts:

  • Second Life, or something similar, could once again attract the interest of corporates. I did like BNP Paribas’s virtual recruitment centre. You could go up to someone else on the site and ask what they thought of the company – anonymously (more or less). There are ways to do that on various forms of social media, but being able to ‘see’ the other person was, I thought, quite powerful. 
  • Facebook buying Oculus Rift says more about the linkage of social media and VR; watch this three dimensional space.
  • What can we do with games, the big earner now? I plead total ignorance here. I am told there is product placement in games, but that’s about all I know. But I couldn’t get into my own living room for several years because my son was murdering monsters. Maybe he could be looking for a job now instead?
  • Websites could go virtual. Bits of them already are, we might say, with ‘virtual tours’ – I quite like Queen of England’s tours. I’ve seen a few ‘campus tours’ in Careers sections. Surely opportunities for more.
  • Research and development could be another area ripe for potential – virtual spaces where partners from across the world could work together to create sophisticated 3D prototypes, for instance. 
  • Set up a virtual supermarket. Let people traipse down a virtual supermarket aisle, picking up virtual shopping and putting it in a virtual  basket. Back to 1993. You never know.

- David Bowen