Jacob Loewenstein is basically that kid in college you loved to hang out with but were secretly pissed at for being such a badass. He’s a co-founder of VR at MIT, which aims to connect those interested in VR with those leading the industry. He’s also an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Before that he was an Ad Strategist at BuzzFeed (emphasis on tech), and before that he was probably an Astronaut or Supreme Court Justice or something insane. His work now focuses on the intersection of media and technology and helping companies figure out new ways to tell, distribute and monetize stories. Dude knows his shit.
So, of course, Jacob was the perfect person for Tank to sit down with and discuss our growing interest in VR and designing in context to experiences.
Have a look at Tank’s first video interview above and read his expanded answers below.
Tank: So, Tank’s been around for 22 years. We’ve evolved into an agency that’s fundamentally driven by design communications, but more so, designing experiences, content and strategy. VR can really take you into another realm and create a deeper contextual resonance for a brand. Today’s conversation will certainly give us a deeper understanding of the context of VR. So we’re happy to have you here.
Jacob Loewenstein: Happy to be here.
Tank: Tell us how you got into VR and how you got here today?
Jacob: At the time I was at BuzzFeed the major disruption we were seeing was that people were increasingly discovering information in stories and in a social context. Also, increasingly consuming those stories not necessarily at home and not during a block of time they had set aside, but in a mobile way throughout the day. That’s a very different context than sitting down and reading the paper or going on a desktop. It’s a huge change. Then Oculus gets acquired and there is this new push in VR. I dove into VR because I recognized that historically, every thirty to forty years, there were huge shifts in how we consumed media, and I just felt that given the shifts happening, VR was the next big. It’s the first time we see a big step forward in immersive-ness.
Tank: Based on some of our earlier discussion, it seems like you think VR still has some ways to go to reach its full potential? Perhaps it’s missing an essential grammar?
Jacob: Yes, but, we’ll figure it out. I think most of what can and will work can actually be learned from things that have already been done. The most intelligent, productive historical example is probably looking at immersive theater and drawing lessons from that. I think most people are drawn to compare it to narrative film or television, but it’s much more similar to theater and video games. I bet a lot of the more conventional narrative stuff we’re seeing in the early days of VR is just going to die out.
Tank: Right. Similar to TV and film, if the story is shit no one is going to remember it. It follows the same principles of retention.
Jacob: I think that’s right. Things that make it to the big screen usually have a good story. There’s a filtering process. It’s hard enough to find a good story; it’s even harder to tell a good story. That’s especially interesting in VR. I mean, what does it even mean to tell a good story in this context? How many of you have put on this thing [points to the VR headset] for some period of time, and felt kind of tired after doing it for, like, seven minutes?
Tank: Yeah, I see your point.
Jacob: Part of why that happens is that this is a very active experience. With TV I can literally just lie back and be a potato. You curate the experience for me; very powerful opportunity for a creator. But with VR, the audience is being asked to explore actively. You’re asking the user to look around and do it – you literally have to do VR, do the experience. You don’t do TV.
That’s an opportunity, but a risk. If I’m asking for an expenditure of energy for a story and not really giving something worthwhile in return, not only may the person take the thing off and saying screw this, but I think there is actually a greater opportunity to breed resentment. If you give them a crappy story – it’s like if you invite a friend out to a museum and it sucks, your friend is going to be a lot more annoyed than if you put on a bad movie. This is what I worry about for brands. It’s super important for them to get in there and experiment. But if you’re a brand that just puts out some boring, crappy experience where I’m in the car with, like, a model or something, I think people will be like, you’re wasting my time.
Tank: Exactly. It’s the right experience for the right brand.
Tank: We’ve been looking to ways to sync up an e-comm component to a deeper, richer VR experience. What sort of experiences have you had linking a shopping experience to VR? Is it possible?
Jacob: It’s possible. Lots of people are getting interested in this. Much like on the phone or on the computer, we can all imagine what it feels like to go from being in an experience to buying something. In some ways it’s the extension of what we’ve already seen on YouTube add-ons or sponsored posts with links out to things. There is that version already.
But here’s where things get a little more interesting. There are two categories. First, how do we take stuff that already exist and put it in VR? Here we should ask ourselves to what degree that offers a real improvement over not doing it in VR. And second, what can we only do in VR? The other thing is how do we get people do buy more in VR than they would have already not in VR? The first category is this idea of creating or replicating shopping experiences that already exist in real life. But in many ways it’s more interesting to shop for things in real life than in an Internet setting, though it’s easier to search for things online, compare things, but there’s room for an in-between. So to what degree can we allow people to actually see themselves in the clothing or undertake experiences?
Tank: You mentioned gaming earlier. What we’re seeing in the gaming industry is the concept of free to play with advertising. In the middle of the game if you want a new weapon you have to click a button to a thirty-second ad. Could we see the same ad potential in VR?
Jacob: The short answer is yes. I believe that almost every business model will move over to VR. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t. But what type of content will they build that they can only do in VR that can influence users in a new way? The other potential is eye tracking technology. I think it will be in the next generation of headsets. It’s important, partly because it’s functional. If you know where people are looking you only need to render graphics where they’re looking. It means less computing power to give great VR experience. The other part is analytics. Then you can say, are people actually looking?
Tank: And that, I’m assuming, can be measured.
Jacob: Yes. You can see if people are actually looking, are their pupils… now you’re getting in to deeper biometrics as a normal part of analytics, which I’m pretty confident is the direction we’re going, unless there is an uproar and people demand the option to opt-out. Most of the analytics we have now are not great. But with eye tracking it might be the first time advertisers have a reliable measure of cognition. For instance, this person looked at this for this long and potentially reacted to it.
Now, back to what will advertisers be able to do in this medium? I think VR might make more popular a category that’s hasn’t been as popular yet, that’s metaverses.
Jacob: Yes, just another virtual universe. I think we often think of it as a cinematic thing where I’m removed and doing this thing passively, or it’s a game where I’m active in it. A third category will emerge that’s literally just going into a different world. Period. People want to world build. It’s funny though. It will probably bring about a whole economy of fairly conventional advertising that just mirrors what you already see in real life. I bet there will be a billboard industry and stuff.
Tank: To help people feel that the virtual reality is their currently reality?
Jacob: Oh totally.
Tank: Like pre-roll advertising might take them out of that mind space, that place. So I guess the advertising needs to be more akin to product placement in movies where it continues the illusion.
Jacob: Absolutely. I think that’s likely.
Tank: The way Tank works with brands is that they may come to us with an idea and we’ll do a deep dive into the landscape. We’ll do research, analysis, interviews, and look where the opportunities are for this specific brand and then develop the brand’s persona around these thoughts and workshops we do. The output of this exploration is what now, what’s next, and finally what if? This conversation is inspiring because it’s that next piece, the what if? We want to find new, visceral technologies and incorporate them into our world, then say, how does it impact our work of what do you want to be? We want to leverage these technologies that bring greater depth and resonance to the brands we work with. So, from that, my question is what markets do you believe are in place right now that could benefit from using VR experiences that haven’t even potentially thought of using VR yet?
Jacob: That’s an interesting question and it’s really pragmatic. It depends, from a distribution strategy, what you’re willing to do. If the desire of the brand is to create an experience and then push it out on whatever VR platforms are out there, and that’s the distribution, you would have to ask which consumers already have VR and what products are they already buying or could they potentially buy; from an outbound perspective that would enable you to build your framework. For example, the people who already have VR headsets are the early adopters – I think you’re probably getting into the millennial demographic and skewing male. That narrows what those products looks like. It might be a lot more packaged goods, food, and certain apparel.
On the flip side, there are opportunities to do a lot of push strategies, you just have to pair it with physical outreach. If you do that and can set aside budget, you are no longer hindered by who already has VR. You have the opportunity to play around with more high-end VR because people could just use a common unit. You open up to all sorts of markets. You could be talking about literally anything. It could be premium goods. I think travel is a super interesting one. The idea of experiencing something where you are about to go is amazing. I’m less bullish on B to B advertising in VR.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.