Immersive Media and Storytelling’s Renaissance

While digital advertising has enabled a whole new scale of consumer messaging, creative storytelling has unfortunately taken a backseat. But there’s an exciting counter-revolution underway, powered by technologies like real-time 3D, AR and VR. Here are a few predictions for where that might take us in the coming years.

[Adapted from my recent Cannes Lions Live “future gazer” presentation.]

If you think about it, the last decade of advertising has been all about data. Advertisers got serious about digital, optimizing for the ability to finely target and deliver seemingly personalized messages to mass audiences. This obsession with scale and performance delivered results, but it left creativity by the wayside. Messages have tended toward the short, soundbite-y and vacuous. Similarly, the past decade of e-commerce has become efficient and transactional — streamlining buying at the expense of a fulfilling shopping experience.

With real-time 3D and virtual and augmented reality achieving mass scale, this is starting to change. There are already approximately a billion augmented reality-capable smartphones on the market today. But it’s not enough to reach consumers in droves — that’s just table stakes. Our new reality will be mediums that deliver stories and restore brand affinities in ways that are immersive, relevant, and personal. Otherwise, there’s no way to get above the noise. More importantly, in this challenging new world we’re living in, people are becoming increasingly thoughtful about their choices, and more discerning about how they spend their time. These trends and pressures are going to bring about radical and lasting disruption in the way marketers tell stories.

New social platforms like Snapchat and TikTok have redefined what communication means, with playful forms of expression, and people at the center. In fact, Snap boasts that over 100 million of its members interact with AR in Snapchat every day. Games like Fortnite have transcended play, becoming places for people to congregate in the millions and experience new types of entertainment online, such as live concerts in-game. And 3D creation platforms like Unity continue to leverage advances in mobile, AR and VR hardware — empowering creators of all stripes to tell stories in ways that previously weren’t possible.

Snapchat Statue lens by Rhonda

Consumer experience is evolving, and marketers need to develop their repertoires to meet these sophisticated needs. Brands that balance scale and efficacy with depth of experience and storytelling will win the coming decade. It’s time once again for creative to take center stage in digital advertising!

So, if you’ll indulge me… I’d like to make some predictions about where we might be in the next few years.

  1. Brands that embrace immersive AR and VR experiences in the next 5 years will find themselves in the top 25% of earners in their respective categories by the end of the decade. Someday, all physical products will have a 3D digital twin, and consumers will buy via interacting with faithful virtual representations of those products. Brands that don’t keep up will be left behind… imagine e-commerce websites today that have text only, no 2D images; that’s absurd. This will be equally true of 3D in 5 years. In just a few minutes, we’ll take a look at some examples of how 3D is already changing the world of e-commerce.
  2. Brick and mortar stores will become showrooms for upselling and product delivery. In the old days we went to stores to browse the items in stock; by 2030, the retail outlet will cease being a sales destination and will instead become a marketing venue, with infinite inventory on display in 3D. There will be a few items in stock, and there will still be salespeople on site, but the merchandising itself will largely be virtual, rendered on display walls, tablets, and in AR and VR. We are already seeing use of this type of technology in limited form in the furniture, hard goods and apparel industries: sales people use 3D applications on tablets and big screens to show available inventory not in stock in the showroom. Expect this to become the norm in less than a decade.
  3. As much as 50% of live event attendance will take place virtually. Athletes, entertainers and presenters will shift to online, immersive services to engage audiences — be it concerts, sports, or other experiences. And these virtual venues will offer massive opportunities to thoughtfully and strategically place products and messages that resonate with consumers. The current situation with the pandemic has hastened this reality; even after we get through this crisis, though, we can expect some behaviors to change permanently. In case this one sounds far-fetched, let me share a few stats with you:
  • According to a recent Covid-19 Freeman survey, 52% of marketers will add a digital component to all events going forward.
  • Morning Consult Polled 2200 Americans and found that 40% of people aren’t comfortable attending a concert for the next 6 months.

AR and VR are rapidly blurring the differences between physical and digital reality. Some enthusiasts believe they will be used as commonly as the internet within the next three years, and that we will be living our lives primarily virtually. While that’s probably aggressive — the tech hasn’t hit the mainstream as quickly as many predicted — still we are seeing significant signs of early adoption and success. Let’s take a look at some examples, all in one way or another powered by technology from Unity, of how immersive media is changing the way we tell stories today.

Dr. Seuss’s Amazing AR Alphabet

A new generation of children learn the alphabet in AR. Courtesy of Sugar Creative Studio ltd

Here’s a classic children’s property that’s enhanced its appeal to a new generation. Dr. Seuss’s ABC — An Amazing AR Alphabet!, built by Sugar Creative, adapts the 1963 book of the same name to smartphones with AR using the Unity engine. The app recreates images from the original in 3D and then projects them into the real world using your smartphone’s camera.

Amazing AR Alphabet comes with a story mode in which kids trace out letters of the alphabet and then interact with the characters for each. You can also jump directly to letters or use the sandbox mode which lets you pick from any of the characters in the app and bring them into the world to play with. It’s a pretty interesting rendition of educational AR. Importantly, it brings interactivity and excitement to the forefront of the digital bookshelf for parents — a particularly great feature when so many are sheltering in place due to the pandemic.

Fortnite Travis Scott Concert

Travis Scott, virtually in Fortnite. Courtesy of UMPG Publishing, ASCAP, BMI — Broadcast Music Inc

On April 23, players of the battle-royale video game Fortnite logged in to watch a digital avatar of Travis Scott teleport around a beach, tower against a blood-red sky, and launch audience members into outer space. It was all part of a 10-minute virtual concert, the game’s biggest event ever, where 12.3M players were reported to have tuned in. This is a great example of the “real world’ going virtual in 3D, to drive engagement and experience.

Living Wine Labels

One final example: marketing agency Tactic has been bringing product packages to life for major brands like Coca-Cola and Jack Daniel’s, using augmented reality and the Unity engine.

Working with Australian winemaker Treasury Wine Estates, Tactic created the Living Wine Labels app, which enhances bottles of some of their signature wines with eye-catching and fun AR experiences. Treasury’s 19 Crimes brand refers to British prisoners who were sent to Australia (instead of the gallows) in the 18th century. Every one of them was supposed to have violated one of the infamous ’19 crimes’ of the time — including crimes like impersonating an Egyptian, or clandestine marriage. Once they landed in Australia — if they survived the voyage — they could build new lives and adventures for themselves. Now they’re sharing their side of the story, thanks to the magic of augmented reality.

These are early experiments, and already showing some great initial success. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. In a decade, all stories will be told, and products sold, using some form of 3D, AR or VR.

I think it’s important to note here that it isn’t only about the great creative we’ve just seen; it’s also about results. While your mileage may vary, the industry is beginning to see some excellent outcomes that employ 3D for marketing and e-commerce. I’d like to share a few stats:

  • Our friends at Shopify report that customers who interact with 3D models are up to 2.5x times more likely to complete a purchase than those who don’t.
  • Trailblazing fashion brand Rebecca Minkoff has been using 3D models on their product pages since the fall of last year. They found that visitors who interacted with a 3D model were 44% more likely to add a product to their cart and 27% more likely to place an order than visitors who didn’t. And when visitors viewed a product in AR, they became 65% more likely to make a purchase.

And again, this is just what’s happening today! Now imagine the world in a few years. Maybe now that we’ve seen where things stand today, those three predictions I made don’t seem quite as audacious. This is where the world is headed: real-time, virtual, and immersive. And at my company Unity, we’re here for it.

We are on the cusp of a massive transformation in how we tell stories, fueled by new technologies, and now made imminent by societal change on a global scale. We’re living in a challenging time right now — one that is forcing us to do things differently. A lot of us are working, playing, shopping and hanging out completely virtually and remotely. It’s not clear that when we come out the other side of these crises, things will return to normal; nor what normal will even look like. Without a doubt, the world will be different, in lasting ways.

Storytellers need to be ready to embrace these changes — because they are happening fast. Real-time 3D can make a compelling canvas for a brand’s story, with provocative characters, incredible graphics and immersive environments to engage people and make them listen to every word, to feel every benefit.

While people can turn away from a targeted commercial ad, press release or sales copy, they won’t be able to ignore a properly crafted immersive story. The art of the raconteur is still as relevant as it ever was; only today, brands and businesses in particular have new tools to enhance the storytelling experience. And with AR and VR in the mainstream, we can deliver these stories at scale. It may take a little trial and error, but in the right hands, immersive technology and storytelling have the potential to take the consumer experience to a whole new level.

[Acknowledgements: many thanks to my Unity colleagues Ryan Wallace and Alana Selkowitz, and the Unity events and brand design teams for helping me pull this talk together.]

Metaverse OG. Entrepreneur. Investor. Co-Creator, VRML & glTF. Head of XR Ads/E-Commerce, Unity Technologies. Pre-apocalyptic author. Music. @auradeluxe