Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America, announced at the CES 2017 technology show in Las Vegas last month that the company topped five million sales of its $100 Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headsets since launching them 13 months ago.

Also at CES, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich held his company’s press conference in virtual reality with 260 media wearing Oculus Rift headsets.

VR is moving into the mainstream consumer mindset in 2017, and travel brands are leveraging that to engage them in new ways using 3D immersive technology. Brands are also discovering the power of VR to drive higher conversion rates.

“Virtual reality is changing the game for a variety of industries including health care, agriculture, manufacturing, and business,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES, in a Reddit chat. “Doctors are using VR to enhance traditional therapies, architects use VR to design stronger buildings, and travel agencies are using it to simplify vacation planning.”

For example, the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA) reports that its Vegas VR app, showing experiential videos ranging from helicopter rides over the Strip to bartenders mixing drinks, has been downloaded over 19,000 times since March 2016, and the videos have been viewed more than 17 million times.

“We were relying on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat to tell our story, but we felt that VR and 360 video really helped us improve our connection with consumers, and move them down the path toward conversion,” said Nick Mattera, senior director, digital engagement at LVCVA. “We’re also looking to partners to help us on the conversion side, and really begin to quantify how Vegas VR can not only get people excited about Las Vegas, but ultimately book.”

The meetings and events industry is now moving in on the action. This month, the Freeman event company, which handles logistics and production duties for CES, among other large shows, announced a new slate of virtual reality products and services. Coinciding with that, the company also published a white paper on VR event applications.

Freeman’s new offerings include a VR Product Explorer for event planners to create immersive simulations of equipment too bulky for trade shows; a VR Design Explorer that provides a virtual walk-through of meeting and exhibition spaces; and VR Live Streaming where anyone with a VR headset can view live events from anywhere simultaneously within a 3D environment.

“VR is a platform for dynamic and highly engaging storytelling, so there’s a whole new class of interactions in the experience design process that are far more powerful than any videos you can create,” said Wilson Tang, VP, digital experience for Freeman. “When you put the headset on, there’s a dramatic increase in the level of empathy and connection because you feel like you’re actually in that space.”

Demetrius Wren, a Freeman digital experience designer, also emphasizes the capacity for VR to drive higher conversion rates. Wren, who previously worked with the United Nations, supplied Skift the following UN data:

During the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in 2015, the “Clouds Over Sidra” VR film was shown to top donors. Commitments were originally projected at $2.2 billion but the conference ended up raising $3.8 billion, which was $1.2 billion more than the previous year.

UNICEF is now pilot testing “Clouds Over Sidra” with face-to-face fundraisers on the streets of 40 countries to measure the effectiveness of VR as a fundraising tool. According to Wren, one in six people viewing the experience have made donations to UNICEF, twice the normal rate of giving.

Furthermore, as described in this Venture Beat story from August 2016: “Emeryville, Calif.-based Immersv has a platform that tracks whether someone is viewing a particular ad embedded within a virtual reality experience. It found that click-through rates, or more correctly “gaze-through rates,” are nearly 30 percent on Immersv’s platform, compared to industry averages of 1 percent for mobile and 0.4 percent for desktop, according to the Innovid 2016 Global Video Benchmarks. And Immersv said that VR drives 12 new installs for every 1,000 video ad views, compared to 0.5 for mobile and 0.2 for desktop. Video completion rates on Immersv videos are over 80 percent.”

Pop-Up VR Event Experiences

The Gear technology holds a Samsung phone in place for users to watch web- and app-based VR videos, as does the Google Daydream for Android phones and Zeiss VR One goggles for iPhones.

For serious tech users who want the most immersive 3D digital experience possible, a mobile phone VR platform is not true VR. They instead gravitate toward headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which have a cable tethered to a powerful computer and wireless handheld devices. They provide a much higher resolution experience, and they also allow users to manipulate their movement and objects within the VR environment. Lenovo and Intel announced at CES that they’re bringing similar new headsets to market as well.

Following CES 2017, however, more than a few reviewers panned the level of innovation across all VR platforms at the show, with media like CNET decrying: “Virtually Boring: VR Really Disappoints at CES This Year.” The Wall Street Journal posted, “CES For Marketers: Alexa Wows, Virtual Reality Underwhelms.”

“I felt there wasn’t a ton of new with VR at CES this year, but there was a big improvement on the old in terms of quality,” contends Mattera. “That’s what the VR world needs because it’s moving so quickly to make it a thing. For the key players, this isn’t a novelty anymore. It’s a functional experience, and consumer demand is driving all of the investment in VR.”

Tapping into that demand at CES, multiple pop-up VR experiences around Las Vegas showcased the abilities of VR as both a sales conversion engine and community engagement vehicle.

In the lobby at MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, there was a VR installation for anyone to watch a video of the KA Cirque du Soleil show, with the view placed in the middle of the fight scene atop the slanting platform. After watching the scene in VR, it sold this writer on attending the show, which hasn’t ever happened while watching other Cirque promos in standard video.

There is another CES VR pop-up experience still operating at the Alto Bar in Caesars Palace Las Vegas through February 28. Branded as the Oculus Virtual Reality Lounge, the space has multiple Oculus Rift setups with full-time Oculus staff helping people learn about the technology. The value here is the chance for anyone to experience the more immersive Oculus VR environment, compared to the phone-centric VR platforms like Samsung Gear.

“The more we see the goliaths like Oculus investing in VR content, the barrier will break down more quickly in the consumer space,” said Mattera. “That includes the meetings and events industry where planners can hold an event in a virtual world with people manipulating the environment around them. Shows like CES are helping everyone in Las Vegas stay ahead of that innovation.”

The UploadVR media group held a VR-themed party on the top floors of The Palms Casino Las Vegas during CES, with almost a dozen different VR experiences placed around the various rooms. The event was packed with patrons paying $50 to attend, but the delivery was a little confused and random without a lot of people stewarding the crowds around each installation. A few people also learned that drinking and VR do not mix.

However, the UploadVR event showed that, during a conference filled with free parties at top-tier hotel nightclubs, people are willing to pay for VR-themed experiences embedded into a sales and marketing environment.

VR Content In 2017

Virtual reality content developers such as XplorIt are working increasingly with tourism bureaus, which Skift profiled following the launch of Los Angeles Tourism’s new Meet L.A. VR platform for meeting planners. The portal provides a good example of how planners can engage attendees in more immersive ways using VR.

“Our Meet L.A. VR experience for meeting planners is basically Google Street View on steroids, and we’re averaging over 10 minutes per view, which is almost unheard of,” said Greg Murtha, president of XplorIt. “VR allows what we call ‘self-select discovery’ because it’s interactive, non-linear experiential media. Meaning, the user is empowered.”

Meanwhile, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin announced yesterday that it’s creating a dedicated track for VR content at its annual Film Festival this year. There will be 38 projects showcasing how different industries are using VR storytelling.

“This year we have expanded our virtual reality programming, launching the Virtual Cinema and elevating the medium to its own category in the SXSW Film Festival,” said Blake Kammerdiener, VR programmer at SXSW. “We not only put an emphasis on storytelling and ingenuity, but also showcase how other industries are embracing VR with projects from the health, fashion, music industries, and more.”

The major event tech players are also increasingly promoting VR to their audiences. The latest at Event Manager Blog explains: How 360° Live Video is Paving the Way for Virtual Reality at Events.

“While we wait for full VR capability for live events, live 360-degree video is the perfect immersive experience 101 every event planner should evaluate for their event,” suggests Julius Solaris, founder of Event Manager Blog.

As expected, venue owners are launching permanent VR-themed event spaces. For example, the new mk2 VR facility opened inside one of Paris’ largest cinema complexes, located in the city’s burgeoning tech district. Bookable event venues for up to 200 people include the Le Perchoir mk2 terrace bar.

“We are bringing VR to a multiplex-like environment with the opening of the first-ever entertainment venue fully dedicated to upscale VR experiences,” said Elisha Karmitz, general director of mk2. “mk2 VR’s concept offers consumers a lively, culture-filled facility focused on VR and good times.”

Back at CES 2017, the Samsung Galaxy Studio virtual theme park was the highlight of VR experiences at the show. Thousands of people during the 4-day event lined to strap into several different installations with moveable seats. Participants were flipped upside down and jerked sideways while wearing VR headsets placing them inside virtual environments ranging from airplane stunts to luge racing.

“That’s really pushing the boundaries of experiential marketing today,” Shapiro said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Photo Credit: Brands like Volkswagen, here at CES 2017, are integrating increasingly sophisticated virtual reality tech into their event experiences. Skift