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virtual and augmented Reality
ILLUSTRATION: MARK FISHER
Q.
How can I customize virtual- and augmented-reality experiences so they reflect our brand and products, as opposed to being a technology stunt? And how much can I expect to pay for these activities?

A.
These are critical considerations when you're trying to create an effective, interactive brand experience. The first step to developing any branded activation is to know what story the marketers want to tell within the physical space. The story line, then, should always drive the technology, not the other way around. But before we dive deeper into the topic of customization, let's talk about the actual technologies. For augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have very different value propositions, and selecting the right technology for your objectives is fundamental to effective customization.

VR immerses a user and occludes everything else happening within a space; in effect, it completely transports the participant to another world. If the experience you want to offer is intended to be futuristic or somehow provide a vantage point unattainable to the average guest (e.g., it places them inside the human body to witness a drug interaction), then VR makes a lot of sense, narratively speaking.

By contrast, AR builds upon and enhances the real world, often integrating physical objects and environs into the experience. As such, it's an excellent tool for, say, moving people through an exhibit or product demo or telling a deeply immersive story about a product, person, or location while the guest is actively looking at it.

Once you know which technology best fits the story you want to tell, it's imperative that you develop a partnership with a digital-interactive provider, assuming neither you nor your exhibit house has a robust in-house digital team. An astute digital partner will help make the platform work for your objectives, rather than you working to bend your story to the platform.

After you've located a few digital-interactive providers that can deliver on your needs, it's time to vet them by determining how they can tell your story and how willing and able they are to customize content. After all, customized content is the most effective way to keep technology from feeling like a shoehorned element or a box that was checked to satisfy a real or perceived requirement.

And it's especially critical given the technologies' commoditization. AR, for example, has been driving ubiquitous consumer apps such as Pokemon Go and Snapchat. So people are already ultra-familiar with it, which means if you do it right, customizing content in a brand-centric experience can foster a genuine sense of exposure or loyalty to your company.

The collaboration process to create an AR or VR experience, then, should truly be just that: collaborative. Generally, the exhibitor should provide objectives, pain points, and measures of success to the digital-interactive partner, which should liaise as both a creative think tank and a subject matter expert on the technology, aware of what works and what doesn't in practice. In addition, the process from ideation to execution of an AR or VR experience should be highly iterative and agile but, like any other activation, should also be battle-tested at the quality-assurance level so that it is stable and reproducible.

That brings us to the matter of cost. In my experience, the worst activations often arise from amazing concepts that, if executed properly, would bust their budgets or time constraints. Rather than tweak the idea, exhibitors cut crucial corners that affect the guest experience. So in addition to determining a provider's ability to customize content to meet your needs, it's important to secure a partner that's honest about what's possible within your budget.

AR and VR installations are not necessarily six-figure projects anymore, and they can scale indefinitely while being cost-efficient. Their success has much less to do with the technology than it does with exhibitors' ability to keep their eyes trained on the guest experience, as opposed to being distracted by shiny objects such as the Vive and the HoloLens, hardware that's currently generating about as much buzz as an agitated hornet nest.

Regarding cost, however, there is a positive correlation between level of interactivity and price tag. The largest cost drivers are often production shoots for footage-based experiences and animation for computer-generated experiences, the complexity of the logic necessary to give users choices and unique outcomes within the content, and the scale of the project over space and time. The hardware itself is rarely a nonstarter, as headsets can be rented or purchased.

As a general rule, if you're doing an apples-to-apples story-line comparison, AR tends to be less expensive than VR because the developer doesn't have to create a 360-degree world, as past work or existing templates can often be leveraged to save on costs. In addition, both AR and VR can be amplified beyond a booth space by being offered as downloadable apps accessible on consumer app stores, although it is much more cost-effective to provide dedicated headsets or tablets on site because then the developer does not have to account for every viable version of Android or iOS devices on the market. WebAR, for example, is an online platform that allows guests to access relatively inexpensive AR experiences without using an app at all, but it has some creative limitations.

So just as a movie budget can range from less than one million to hundreds of millions, custom AR and VR can range from below $30,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. A solid tech partner can help navigate that sea and optimize your spend.

At the end of the day, AR and VR platforms are not dissimilar to television in that they are wholly dependent on content to stay fresh and exciting. There is as much room and demand for "The Avengers" as there is for "Juno," and for learning as there is entertaining. Plus, there are just as many guests looking to be emotionally swept away as there are those hoping to be thrilled, surprised, and educated. Thus, as long as exhibitors stay diligent about their storytelling, AR and VR will enjoy longevity and continue to evolve as viable platforms to meet exhibit-marketing needs.

— Elizabeth Jean Poston, senior business development director
Helios Interactive (a Freeman company), San Francisco
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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