Is VR the Next Disruptor for the Superyacht Industry?

Posted: 6th November 2017 | Written by: Rebecca Whitlocke

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Virtual Reality (VR) isn't a new concept, but the yachting industry is awakening to the shift in the digital landscape and looking beyond predictable sales and marketing campaigns.

The days of miniature scale yacht models in brokerage offices, brochures, fly-over videos or renderings with PDFs are changing; VR is quietly waiting in the wings as the rise of new technology shapes expectations among luxury yachting clients seeking experiential products and services.

In a world where mobile, video, AR and VR have already changed how companies do business and deliver content to clients, their significance across a range of functions cannot be ignored. 
 

What is Virtual Reality (VR)? 

The first thing is to define the difference between 360-degree videos, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) because a fair amount of confusion exists in the yachting sector. In layman's terms, 360-degree videos allow the viewer to see a panoramic view of a scene from the perspective of the photographer who shot the panorama. Cylindrical panoramas capture the whole field of view in all directions around the photographer, but not up and down, while spherical panoramas allow the viewer to also look up and down. 

Augmented Reality (AR) allows storytellers to overlay the real and digital world, where physical and virtual objects co-exist. This type of technology has been used by Google and Microsoft for years. 

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Virtual Reality (VR) is a 3D computer-generated immersive media experience that includes use of hand controllers, voice activation or head mounted displays (HMD's, most commonly, headsets). VR headsets use a system called 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) that refers to the freedom of movement a body has in a three-dimensional space.  In simplistic terms, a headset measures head movements and this head tracking technology can increase our normal field of vision, which results in the immersive sensation with the virtual world. 

There are a few companies professing to offer ‘marine VR video production’ when in fact their product is 360-degree so do your research first. 

A Brief History of Virtual Reality (VR) 

The concept of VR experiences first originated in the 1930's with a short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum called Pygmalion's Spectacles, about a goggle-based game where you could watch a holographic recording of virtual stories including touch and smell. Almost 30 years later, the first VR headset was created and used military software and motion control for the purposes of training.  

The 1980's saw the launch of the Reality Built for Two (RB2) system and NASA refined head tracking technology. The 1990’s welcomed the ‘world wide web’ phenomenon and gaming companies Nintendo and Sega released their first home VR systems as the online world kept growing under the dotcom bubble . Major VR revolutions didn't surface again until 2009, when Oculus launched their Kickstarter campaign for the Rift Development Kit before Facebook bought them in 2014. 

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Today, VR technologies are currently used in a variety of industries including entertainment (particularly gaming and sports), military, medicine, education, architecture, tourism and aviation. 

Marine VR Examples 

Within yachting, a few companies are emerging into the world of 360-degree and marine VR technology.  

v360marine visualize products, spaces and places using VR, 3D object recognition and configuration, interactive screens, gesture control and mapping. Sea&Style is a custom yacht simulator that aims to create links between shipyards and their customers. Singapore-based SW Interactive offers immersive visual technology for luxury yachts in a retail and sales-driven package. 

Yachting Partners International was one of the first yachting companies to innovate in the VR space after they partnered with Netherlands-based Bricks & Goggles for their RAPTOR project. They soft launched it at METS in Amsterdam in 2015 to great success.  Gulf Craft has also launched a VR app where you can view their Majesty 100 using Google Cardboard or Gear VR by Oculus. 

There are a multitude of simulators within the marine sector including Nautical Simulation, ARI Simulation and REMBRANDT, however VR opens opportunities for training institutions to embrace the progression of technology to immerse crews into variable scenarios, all from the comfort of a classroom.  

Warsash Maritime Academy, in conjunction with Southampton Solent University, is currently developing a number of virtual and augmented reality training projects which will include a VR-based app for crew. Consequently, training next generation crew has huge potential with VR. 

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Marine VR applications aren't restricted for use in the superyacht sector, the technology has been used in competitive sailing for a few years. The crème de la crème of the America’s Cup teams has utilized VR for shoreside training since the 2013 America's Cup, in the same way as an aircraft or F1 simulator. 

The Challenges for VR in Yachting 

Currently, VR in yachting is not a fast track solution to solving thorny marketing problems for little expense. The true cost of VR is not yet apparent to many yachting companies – software development, research, content creation and hardware such as headsets all mean nothing if customers don't have VR-ready devices or can't use the technology easily.   

For many clients there may be a learning curve with VR tech, therefore you must ensure they spend their time enjoying the VR experience, rather than pre-configuring devices. Smartphone-based headsets are increasingly popular, however Google Cardboard wasn't created nor intended to fit the premium profile of a superyacht sales model. 

The technical specifications for VR to 'work' are also complex. For example, to avoid stuttering or users feeling nauseous, minimum frames per second must be achieved and a low latency of 50 milliseconds or less to avoid users detecting the lag between when they turn their head and the changes in the VR environment. For near-eye displays, whereby a user focuses their vision through two lenses such as those in a headset, the technology lacks a critical aspect of 3D vision in the natural environment; changes in stereoscopic depth are also associated with changes in focus. 

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With a near-eye display, the human eyes change their vergence angle to fixate objects at a range of stereoscopic depths, but to focus on a virtual object, the lenses of the eyes must accommodate to a single fixed distance. For users with normal vision, this asymmetry creates an unnatural condition known as the vergence–accommodation conflict. Symptoms associated with this can include visual discomfort, vision blurs and fatigue. Additionally, 10-15% of people have mild difficulty with stereoscopic depth perception or are stereo-blind. 

Challenges also exist for marketing VR in yachting. Since VR is immersive, you can’t direct a user's natural path for understanding your yachting product or service, compared to a video which directs the viewer with an introduction, middle and conclusion. 

The Benefits of VR in Yachting 

VR has been launched at trade shows and events and is an ongoing opportunity to assess how clients interact with your brand.  The importance of algorithms and data has been greatly overlooked by the yachting sector, therefore VR can help yachting companies unearth opportunities other competitors may miss by giving valuable market intelligence data and seeing what clients respond to. 

For advertising and marketing, VR allows companies to look beyond traditional media such as print or radio. Yachting companies are not always the quickest to understand the value of social media, but VR is bringing attention to emerging technology and businesses are seeing that headlines and VR collaborations on social media can be shared whether their company is present on that social media channel or not. 

VR means charter brokers can enhance their core product using technology and bring something new to shoulder/off season product plus promote less popular yacht charter destinations.  There are great opportunities to engage customers beyond an onboard experience and let them preview destinations before booking their charter.  VR can flip charter brokerage from a functional and emotional experience to an experiential decision-making process, therefore eliminating tangible boundaries of travel and time. 

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Unprecedented financial benefits lie with new-builds and sales brokerage. Zeca Carvalho, CEO of SW Interactive who created SWYacht says,

"VR lets you put your clients behind the wheel of their tailor-made yacht, even before it's touched the water. By simply putting a headset on, one can experience actually being on the boat, make real-time customizations, and even simulate how it behaves in open waters.  A major benefit is that geography and unavailability of showcase-ready yachts at the dealership will no longer be a limitation – VR portfolios will keep clients engaged because it is a solution that goes to the potential buyer and not the other way around." 

For maritime training, VR applications can work in conjunction with onboard training, eliminate geographic restrictions and travel costs for trainees and save time.

The Future of VR in the Yachting Industry

Will VR transform human behavior to find new source customers within luxury yachting? As more of the yachting sector's marketing strategies move into the digital world, it becomes even more important to use new and emerging technology to solve problems rather than jump on the VR bandwagon.

As yachting companies seek to out-innovate with apps, VR and remote automation, it can be easy to find solutions for non-existent problems. The benefits of VR must give value for your clients in making their lives better instantly, whether that falls across financial, demographic, geographic or social tiers. Success lies with monitoring how clients use such functionality, more collaboration among naval architects, shipyards, VR experts and yachting marketers, and a strategy for integrating the technology into the existing client relationship.

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Russell Crump, Sales Director at Yachting Partners International, agrees that VR is valuable technology,

"VR can give useful data for design where the clients preferences can be adapted ahead of time; they literally can see their yacht as it will be manufactured and go beyond just choosing the fittings, furniture and layout but virtually walk onboard. The significance to change orders will be immense for saving time and cost. VR eliminates geographical restrictions because I can transfer key data to a client in Dubai, Fort Lauderdale or Amsterdam without needing to jump on a plane. VR is progressing rapidly and future developments will reduce time to build models, cost of the technology, software and hardware."

The skill of many yachting personnel lies with knowing the market inside out therefore VR will not entirely replace the human factor. "The VR layer simply settles where the human layer cannot; in training environments when at sea scenarios are difficult or dangerous to replicate, in front of a potential yacht buyer when they aren’t physically at a port or broker's office, within your marketing department, and with the yacht owner in between visits and reminding them of their next yacht experience and loyalty to your brand." adds Russell.

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"In the future, I envisage VR being used for construction related to ports, charter promotion regarding destinations, and reinforcing seafarer training around safety and situational awareness such as emergency scenario training."

As well as reductions in the cost and design improvements of VR software and hardware, expect more innovations such as mobile gaze-tracking technology. VR and AR are relatively new kids on the block within yachting, but they will become increasingly mainstream as companies integrate new technology and a strong digital element into their content marketing strategies.

Going forward, as content marketing becomes more important to reshape or reinvent yachting companies, the ultimate goal of VR should be to make the experience so realistic that the client totally forgets about the hardware and the real world.

Whether or not some yachting businesses continue with traditional sales and marketing methods, VR will certainly be a major player in the cultural evolution of the wider industry. Regardless of the platform you choose, it's essential that storytelling for your yachting brand is the best it can be and tomorrow’s client will expect nothing less. 

And in a world where mobile, video, AR and VR have already changed how companies deliver content to their clients, those who fail to embrace the challenge may get left behind. 

*Image credits: Pixabay CCO; maxipixel CCO; SW Interactive

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