Getting VR to mainstream audiences: what we learnt from our partnership with local libraries
Head of Audience Research, Emerging Technology
Anyone who has tried an ‘immersive experience’ (XR – Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality) can attest to its incredible potential.
With our content here at the BBC, we’ve seen first-hand audiences’ responses. Teenagers inspired by tales of Universal Suffrage; audiences who are unable to travel enthralled as they come face to face with primates in the Congo; veterans (and those decades removed from conflict) humbled by the bravery and sacrifice in the two World Wars; and the sheer unadulterated delight of Whovians as they’re hurtled across the universe with The Doctor.
The promise of XR is immense. But the challenges of delivering it at scale are equally large.
In light of that, earlier this year we announced that we would be wrapping up the production and commissioning of our centralised team, the VR Hub, recognising that now the focus needs to be on helping the audience access content.
As part of our effort to share our learnings with as many people as possible, in this blog we reflect on the challenges and successes of getting our content into audiences’ hands, and how some unusual partnerships have helped us in that journey. We hope it’s useful!
The BBC is always on the hunt for better ways to inform, educate and entertain our audiences. That’s why we’re interested in XR. XR can be more memorable, emotionally resonant, and impactful than other media.
With the industry pouring billions into XR, new waves of creativity have been unleashed. However, key questions about the audience are often ignored.
What content would audiences like? In what moments? On what devices?
For VR, why strap a headset to your face, rather than binge your favourite TV show? For mobile AR, beyond a filter or game, what would make you hold up your arm and peer through a screen to see an augmented world around you?
In our 2017 research, we found that whilst audiences loved their first VR, the barriers were too great and quality content too scarce to form a habit. After three months, research participants returned headsets, with little intention of buying their own.
Sad, but not surprising for a technology and content market which was so young. Creating a new media behaviour is hard: it must be easier and more attractive than the incumbent one (which for most was watching TV or browsing social media). We wanted to understand if we could do more to make XR more compelling.
What we did: a small team focussed on the audience
We decided to focus on understanding what experiences audiences would respond to; and then, how to get it into audiences’ hands.
Our small centralised team coordinated a small number of pieces exploring audience preferences, learning how to distribute and promote, finding what worked, and what didn’t. Our reflections are published here.
What we learnt about where to put our content
We experimented with a range of distribution – on mobile, in-home VR headsets, and out of home. Here we summarise our findings on mobile and in-home, and share in more depth our thoughts on out-of-home.
Distribution – mobile (360 video, VR, AR)
Whilst mobile experiences clearly have a large potential audience, reach was still challenging. Not only were we reliant on the curatorial algorithms of third party platforms, but the range of occasions where audiences would engage with XR on mobile were very limited.
Distribution – in-home headsets (360 video & VR, via VR stores and other platforms)
We knew our audience would be limited, and given the fragmented landscape of headsets, that each individual platform would only generate a small amount of consumption. However, even with that caveat, reach was challenging. Consumption on VR stores required significant marketing, comms, negotiated prominence, and association with existing potent brands.
Distribution – out of home, location-based experiences
This is where it gets interesting. Location-based VR experiences have grown significantly in last year – 1.4m more people claimed to have experienced VR out of home compared to a year ago. So, we wanted to explore whether this could be a low-cost and scalable way to help audiences get access to our VR content.
In 2018/19, in partnership with Libraries Connected, we put pop-up VR installations in 175 local libraries where visitors could try BBC VR experiences. The pop-ups ranged from a couple of hours to a couple of days, and were promoted and managed by library staff. More details about the partnership can be found in this blog.
We asked visitors to fill out a short survey after the experience (>1200 responses) and we followed up 3 months later with 20 telephone interviews.
The feedback was overwhelming.
Of the 1200 people surveyed, 96% told us they found the experience enjoyable; 92% wanted to try more VR and also said they would talk about their experience to other people; 70% were inspired to learn more about the subject they’d seen.
Crucially, we found that the idea of ‘presence’ (a key driver behind the impact of XR – the feeling you’re ‘there’ in the experience) did not appear to be inhibited by audiences trying the experience in an out of home context.
There were also encouraging signs for the industry. For headset manufacturers: most audiences had never used VR before, and so libraries were an effective way of introducing the technology; 37% of respondents said they’d consider buying a headset as a result of their VR library experience.
For traditional content makers / marketers, 75% of the respondents said they were encouraged to watch a full-length TV programme about the experience’s subject.
We also found VR experiences in libraries tended to rate higher than other VR out of home locations: 8.6 out of 10 vs 6.9. Visitors were also 3x more likely to recommend the library experiences compared to other spaces. (It’s worth noting that there are other factors at play here. For example, visitors of other VR experiences may have had higher expectations if they had to pay for the experience, and if they had prior experience of VR).
Happily, we also found that this positive impact was sustained.
Three months later interviewees were able to recall the experiences in intricate detail. All said they had spoken to friends and family about the experience; many had shared their experiences on social media – including those from harder to reach (and harder to impress) younger audiences.
With regards to libraries as event spaces for VR, we found that:
- They were ideal for introducing new audiences to VR. For audiences who were perhaps skeptical, less familiar with technology, or even nervous, they were put at ease as the libraries were safe and trusted spaces
- There was enough space for the installations to be set up, and that the relative quiet of the library was helpful; and,
- We were able to reach audiences from a wide range of backgrounds, not just communities of early adopters.
With regards to the opportunities VR presents to libraries, we found that the pop-ups had a positive impact on perceptions.
We also found the events drove visits from less frequent users, particularly when libraries had done some light touch promotion (e.g. community Facebook pages, coverage in local newspapers or newsletters).
Given the VR pop-ups were one-off events, we didn’t see any significant shift in claimed usage of libraries amongst those we interviewed a few months’ later. However, respondents’ perceptions of libraries had shifted – regarding them more as community hubs rather than quiet places for study, a place for trialing new tech, and generally future thinking rather than old fashioned.
There were of course challenges. Occasionally the technology didn’t work, some respondents found the headsets uncomfortable, some were conscious of being watched by other people whilst having the experience, and some were concerned with coming out of it somewhat disheveled (the ‘hair and make-up’ problem).
We hope form factor problems will abate as the technology improves.
We also found that the on-boarding could be better. Ahead of going into the trial we knew that the moments when visitors were waiting for the VR experiences, and indeed the moments immediately after the experience, could be key for ensuring they got the most out of it; and this was substantiated in the feedback.
The moments ahead of experiencing VR (particularly if for the first time) are crucial in framing the experience for the user, setting their expectations, putting them at ease, and helping them understand what is about to happen. This part of the ‘on-boarding’ could also be made an enjoyable element of the entire experience. Think of how queuing for a ride at a theme park can end up being part of the experience, if planned properly.
Similarly, immediately after the visitors take the headset off, there is an opportunity to help them get more out of the experience by giving them a chance to process what they’ve seen, talk about it, and share. This enhances the experience for the visitor, and helps the creator land additional messages and calls-to-action.
Our friends over at organisations like Limina Immersive and Diversion Cinema who have spent the last few years finessing out of home experiences, have developed sophisticated insights on the intricacies of ensuring audiences have a positive experience.
There is potentially a fruitful symbiotic relationship for libraries and the XR industry (and possibly wider technology). As community hubs with high footfall, and close trusted relationships with their users, libraries represent a useful gateway for mainstream audiences to have their first experiences of VR in safe spaces.
Equally, whilst libraries seek to remain central parts of their community, introducing their visitors to exciting new technologies could be part of remaining relevant, and reaching new users.
As for the BBC, we’ll continue assessing whether there are ways we can deliver immersive experiences in a scalable way to better inform, educate and entertain our audiences.
To find out more about BBC VR go to bbc.co.uk/vr