Facebook’s VR Roadshow Misses the Mark

My primary goal with Tech 2025 is to engage people in discourse about emerging technologies through workshops, experiential tours (like our recent hologram/3D event), and live events (like our recent panel on technology innovation policies), where they not only learn about the technology, but where they can think critically about its impact on our society and how they can participate in developing solutions.

When I heard that Facebook’s VR Roadshow would be rolling into New York and setting up shop at Bryant Park’s maddening but ever-popular Holiday Winter Village, I had to attend. After all, the event description (posted on Guest of a Guest) beckoned me:

The Facebook VR tour kicked-off in Dallas on October 16, and is making its way to New York City and to multiple fixed locations and mobile tour stops across the U.S., spanning from airports, college campuses, festivals, sporting events and city centers. Each installation will give the public an introduction to virtual reality via Gear VR as well as the opportunity to share a GIF of themselves in the virtual reality headset.

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. Oculus is a team at Facebook that’s building entirely new virtual reality products to allow people to experience anything, with anyone.

Great. This, I thought to myself, is exactly what the giant tech companies who are developing technology should be doing — investing in educating the general public on emerging technology that is very unfamiliar to them (and on many levels, counterintuitive).

To say that the experience was disappointing would be an understatement. I found it absolutely baffling that one of the top brands in the world, and certainly one of the top developers of VR technology, would drop the ball on something as basic, but crucial, as introducing their customers to the new technology they are developing.

Educating the general public on new technology is tricky (especially if they are completely new to the technology the way most people are with VR). Tech 2025 recently hosted a live experiential event introducing people to virtual reality and 3D by taking them on a tour of the past (From Holograms to HoloLens: Finding Unique Ways to Engage and Educate People on Emerging Technology). The tour was sold out and a success because people appreciated being introduced to the technology in a fun, unique way that challenged them to think outside of the box. Even experienced, hardcore techies who develop technology attended the event and told me how much they liked the idea of learning about the history of holograms and 3D through the compelling story of “Dr. Lens.” This underscores that people want to experience the unexpected. They want to explore new technology in unusual ways, not just by playing with the technology hands-on (they can do that at their local mall). What people are craving is experience and context. Facebook failed to do both with their VR Roadshow.

There were quite a few things Facebook could’ve done to make the experience more engaging and memorable, but below are five ways Facebook can make their VR Roadshow more engaging and effective.

1. Make the goal of the event about the Users, not about Facebook.

After standing on a surprisingly short line (the park was packed with people, but no one ventured over to the Facebook tent), being bombarded with questions by Facebook staff and asked to sign a legal disclaimer to give away all rights to everything that I am and hope to be, in this life and the next, to Facebook in perpetuity, I was escorted into the Facebook tent. Black leather seats, big open space, a big monitor on the wall, a few people wandering around, and VR stations where people tried the Oculus Rift with the assistance of Facebook representatives. It was all fairly sterile.

I liked my Facebook representative. She was friendly, jovial, and tolerated my purposely inane questions with a big smile. The most important question I asked before putting on the VR gear was, “So, what’s this all about? Why is Facebook doing this?” Her response:

“Facebook wants the public to perceive it as more than just a social media company. So, we’re introducing the public to their VR platform to show that Facebook is doing more cool stuff than ever before!”

Now, I’m sure this isn’t the exact script she was giving to say, and bless her heart for giving her version of the Facebook VR Roadshow mission, but this response left me cold. “We want you to see how great we are!” is like being on a date with a guy who does nothing but talk about how great he is. It sets the wrong tone and unwittingly belittles the other person’s presence. Of course, at the end of the day, every brand wants you to know how great they are, but making this the mantra at a live event is no bueno.

Facebook should make their VR Roadshow mission about the USER and their experience: “Facebook wants to introduce you to the exciting new world of virtual reality and get your feedback on the types of experiences you’d like to have and share in VR.” Or: “Facebook wants to show you how VR can bring you exciting new experiences that you’ve never had before!” My suggestions may be far from perfect, but it beats, “We’re more than a social media company.” Yes, you’re a media company (zinger!).

I also asked the rep about Oculus. How much is it? Where can I purchase it? Can I get a discount? Her response was disappointing, “No, you can’t buy Oculus here and we’re not giving away discounts. We’re just here to show you that Facebook is more than a social media company.”

Dually noted.

2. Content is still king (especially in virtual reality).

The problem with the internet is not that there isn’t enough content out there, it’s that most of the content is crap. Much of what we see and read is repurposed content that does little to engage us. Virtual Reality should be our escape from horrible content in the real world and online. It should offer us content that is so compelling, that it makes wearing heavy, cumbersome VR gear worth the discomfort. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad VR content out there as well. The medium, it turns out, is far more challenging to develop content on than traditional screens and we’re only in the early stages so there’s a lot of experimenting with mixed results. Still, there are plenty of VR production companies creating incredible content that Facebook could tap for an initiative of this magnitude.

Facebook’s VR Roadshow features just over 2 minutes of content for people to view using their Oculus Rift. Two minutes is not a long time, but it’s an eternity when you’re watching bad content, with heavy gear on your head, in a room where the background noise is so loud, you can barely hear the audio being pumped into your ears at maximum levels on your headphones (Side Note to Facebook: too much noise in the tent made it impossible to hear the content I was watching).

The VR content that I saw was a dinosaur (can we retire dinosaurs for a while — Spielberg did it better without VR), an indigenous family cooking (or singing — I forget), and another short clip that I also forget. With all of the incredible things to explore in the world and in space, why would Facebook settle for uninspiring content that has been rehashed on other platforms a million times before? Getting users to understand the mind-blowing potential of the technology means creating stories that push the boundaries of our perceived realities. By showing us standard content that we can see on any other medium, Facebook is showing us the bare minimum of what the technology can do, and that is even more tragic than not showing us the technology at all.

Ideally, Facebook should’ve created VR content especially for this initiative cross-country roadshow (from behind-the-scenes footage of the team rolling in and out of towns, to creating other worlds with aliens, to showing us another time period). The full potential of VR is limited only by the content that’s created for the platform. Showing people uninspiring content gives them little reason to believe this technology will add substantively to their lives, much less change the future.

3. Talk to Stanley, the Security Guard.

As I stumbled out of the tent (fairly underwhelmed) with my Facebook Like magnet in my hand (a parting gift from the Facebook team!), I bumped into one of the security guards standing dutifully outside, named Stanley. Stanley was, like my Facebook representative, friendly and chatty. He offered to take a photo of me next to the Facebook sign. Um, okay, I guess (not really something I wanted but I’m was there for the full Facebook experience so, sure, I let Stanley take a picture of me next to the Facebook sign — and he let me take a picture of him next to the Facebook sign).

I asked Stanley his thoughts about the Facebook VR Roadshow, “What do you think? Do you like it?” He smiled politely and looked away. That look said it all. Still, I pressed him for a more detailed answer. He thought the Roadshow was a great idea, but wished there was more pizazz put into the event. He suggested that they should use media to draw crowds and to educate them (as in big screens showing various people experiencing VR for the first time and demonstrations on the various types of VR experiences). Bingo! Larry has a future in marketing and PR.

One thing that has proven to be entertaining and educational is watching other people try VR for the first time on a monitor. That I can recall, there was only one monitor in the Facebook tent and the only thing it showed was the Facebook logo (surely, they could’ve thought of something more engaging than their own logo to show).

Aside from other forms of media (3D and AR), placing monitors inside and outside of the tent showing people of all ages trying virtual reality for the first time would be great. It breaks the ice and it’s funny to see how people acclimate themselves to the VR environment for the first time and it adds a social layer to the event that was woefully missing (considering Facebook is a social media company), which leads me to my next suggestion…

4. Make it social!

For some odd reason, Facebook decided to make this experience very unsocial. They assigned one person to each station with one Facebook representative. Why not do small groups of 3-5 people and have them experience it together with 2 or 3 Facebook reps assisting, offering quick tutorials and guiding them?

I was also shocked that the army of staff never once suggested that we post our experience on Facebook, or do Facebook Live videos. Of course, they didn’t HAVE to do this, but it seemed odd that they didn’t even suggest it at any point in the experience. It seemed like a wasted opportunity. I don’t even remember seeing a hashtag for the event (though I’m sure there must’ve been one somewhere). Facebook could’ve created a Facebook Group for the event and had signs asking people to join the VR Roadshow FB group with they can meet each other and discuss their VR experiences.

But ultimately, making an experience social has to do with creating spaces where people can engage with each other as well. The design of the space, and the focus of the staff, fell short of this by far. Again, this is a wasted opportunity that could’ve served Facebook well (people like to share their experiences in real life too Facebook!). Part of the problem was that we were sort of shoved in and out of the tent very quickly to process as many people as possible.

5. Up the Takeaway

When I took off my VR gear, I was shuffled toward the door where a big monitor on a wall blinked questions at me. I was asked to take the questionnaire by another Facebook rep. I remember approximately five questions, none of them designed to gain an understanding of what I thought of the experience or of VR. I completed the questionnaire and was handed a Facebook Like refrigerator magnet by another Facebook rep (yes, there were that many) before being shown the exit.

For my time and effort, all I got from Facebook’s VR Roadshow was this lousy Like magnet. I wasn’t expecting a bouquet of roses, but that magnet felt like a slap in the face and left me wondering how a multi-billion dollar company could be so cheap, and so unimaginative with their takeaway gift for customers who have been with them for years. I watched other people get their Like magnet with the same bemused expression that I had. “What am I supposed to do with this?” one girl asked her boyfriend. He shrugged. Exactly.

The parting gift Facebook gave us from their VR Roadshow perfectly underscores the problem with the entire concept of the roadshow to begin with, as well as the problem that I believe tech companies are having with introducing emerging technologies to the general population.

The parting gift should be about the person and the experience you want them to leave with, not just about the brand. How many times a day do we see and click on the Facebook like button? Do we really need a physical manifestation of the like button? How about giving us interesting information about Oculus Rift? A behind the scenes photo of the team building the technology? A discount to buy the gear (yeah, I’m still stuck on that — it’s the holidays, would’ve it have killed them to give us 10% off). As a parting gift, anything would be better than the Facebook Like magnet.

My best suggestion regarding Facebook’s VR Roadshow is that they should try to create experiences for people in real life that are in-line with the experience you want them to have with your VR gear (and nothing less!). That’s what makes live events so special. We have a unique opportunity to engage people on all levels, with all of their senses, in ways that we can’t in digital. Let’s embrace that as we embark on a new era of innovation that requires us to introduce the general public to entirely new physical and virtual experiences.

Find a VR Cafe or Cinema Near You

The good news is that if you really want to experience virtual reality, but you don’t have the gear to do it, virtual reality cafes are sprouting up everywhere for you to get your VR fix. Here in New York, Jump Into the Light is a new VR cinema and play lab where anyone can try a variety of VR gear (Vive, Rift, HoloLens, etc.) in a fun environment for a fee of around $30. It might seem a bit pricey, but they’ll have a ton of gear for you to try, you’ll see better content, and you’ll meet and talk to other people who are interested in learning about the technology.

Don’t let anyone diminish the first time you try VR (there’s nothing like experiencing VR for the very first time).

Founder and CEO of Tech 2025 and Served Fresh Media. Unapologetic instigator of provocative discourse.

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