Virtual reality Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

For those of us who grew up or lived in the 80s, the 90s and even as recent as the first decade of the 2000s, categorising multimedia platforms and devices was fairly straightforward. Television sets and consoles allowed you to view your favourite sitcoms, films or play video games.

Phones served the simple purpose of facilitating verbal and — albeit in a limited capacity — textual conversations. Radios, portable music players and stereo systems were still ubiquitous, entertaining and informing millions.

Newspapers and magazines, catering to a smorgasbord of demographics and interests, could be seen everywhere, from the corporate boardroom to the family living room.

Fast forward to 2019 and such demarcations are not so simple anymore. With the recent announcement of Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headset at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it is apparent we are edging closer to a mixed-reality future, devoid of boundaries and formal “platforms” for media consumption.

The consumer is now exposed to vast streams of information through a multiplicity of platforms at any given time. The manner in which we consume media has undergone a dramatic shift, rendering the traditional approach to media platforms obsolete.

Accompanying this wave of change is the rise of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The former immerses the user in far-flung environments, while the latter projects objects and images onto the real world. Born as a direct consequence of the interplay between artificially created objects and the real world, the term “mixed reality” has made a foray into contemporary discourse.

Even though its implications have still not been fully grasped by brand marketers, media professionals and creative agencies.

Years ago, the standard formula for brands to navigate the media landscape and engage their target audiences was quite simple. Be it a new advertising campaign, securing a press mention or booking a spot for a brand’s senior executive on a prime time news show, the avenues for publicity and messaging could be easily identified and leveraged. Print, broadcast and — much later — online platforms were the norm.

However, the emergence of VR and AR, coupled with an increasingly interconnected ecosystem of smart devices and gadgets, not to mention IoT and smart city initiatives by governments, means that we are on track to witness a melding of platforms and information. and thus redefining the conventional boundaries of storytelling.

The rise of mixed reality will herald new ways of interaction and user engagement, stripping away the need for displays and other electronic intermediaries we have become accustomed to.

With a host of touchpoints and virtually every surface acting as a canvas for audience engagement, the nature of the customer journey will be fundamentally transformed. Creative strategy ideation by brands and agencies will have to adapt to match this new reality to successfully tap into their target demographics in sensory-rich, immersive environments.

The simple approach of the past, such as booking a billboard or distributing a press release, will not suffice as various forms of content will need to be optimised for a new — and platform-agnostic — environment.

Brands and agencies need to bear in mind that mixed reality is not a passing fad. We are looking at a future with an altered customer journey, requiring marketers and creative strategists to formulate campaigns accordingly, much like how social media proved to be a game-changer for brands and PR agencies years ago.

As an example, look no further than Instagram Stories, which has enabled a new form of storytelling and engagement, and attracting greater numbers of businesses to use it as a result of its immense popularity with millennials — a key consumer demographic for those businesses.

Despite this, it is interesting — and somewhat troubling — to note that many creative shops in the Gulf still do not include a social media arm, either foregoing them completely, or alternatively, offering those services through sister network agencies or subcontracted third-parties. We should not miss the bus on mixed reality as well, when the time comes.

The possibilities that it could offer for brand content could be endless.

According to IDC, global spending on AR and VR products and services will reach $20 billion this year. At the same time, Gartner estimates that there will be 20 billion ‘things’ connected to the internet by 2020.

Although we are still at a very formative stage with the HoloLens, mixed reality could very well represent a pinnacle in connectivity, communication and productivity. Imagine visual-display and voice-activated equipment, working in concert with a range of smart devices and AI systems.

Once this phenomenon fully crystallises, the days of using screens and buttons will be well and truly behind us.

Adnan Bashir is a communications consultant based in Canada.