Programmatic VR? That’s Where OmniVirt Is Looking To Play

vrheadsetsVirtual reality may have a way to go before it hits mass scale, but it’s just had a big week.

Last Tuesday, Google unveiled Daydream View, its lightweight, low-cost answer to Oculus Rift, and announced its Daydream View-compatible Pixel smartphone.

And on Thursday, Facebook followed with its own series of announcements at the Oculus Connect developers conference, including a VR web browser and the ability to create 3-D avatars to virtually interact with friends.

“Everything people complain about – that the hardware is too clunky or slow or not powerful enough or too expensive – is five times better than it was last year, and it’ll be five times better than this next year,” said Michael Rucker, COO and co-founder of OmniVirt, an ad platform for VR ads and 360-degree videos.

The company started life in 2012 with $500,000 in seed funding from a number of investors, including Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator.

It might seem premature to launch a distribution platform for such a nascent form of media, but OmniVirt wants to get ahead of the trend.

“Our thesis is that VR is the next computing platform, and Facebook, Google and others seem to agree that this is a good bet to make,” Rucker said. “And every major new media needs an ad platform. Just look at mobile and companies like AdMob and now AppLovin. Big companies are built off the backs of new platforms.”

OmniVirt is programmatic VR. The platform allows users to upload VR and 360-degree video content, customize the creative, generate ad tags and distribute it across ad networks and exchanges like DoubleClick, Sizmek, MoPub, Smaato and OpenX.

Inventory comes courtesy of publisher relationships with CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Vice, Bloomberg and others. The content appears as pre-roll or within an IAB-compliant OmniVirt HTML ad unit. Recent campaigns include a 360-degree execution for Samsung on Vice and a GE campaign that ran on The New York Times’ site.

“Right now, VR has a distribution problem,” said Rucker, who spent more than seven years in marketing and product roles at Google and YouTube. “We’re trying to solve it by plugging into existing buying channels and inventory.”

AdExchanger caught up with Rucker during a free moment at Facebook’s Oculus event on Friday.

michaelruckeromnivirtAdExchanger: What was your major takeaway from Facebook’s Oculus 3 event?

MICHAEL RUCKER: Avatars are big. Putting on a headset could be a lonely experience. The launch of avatars lets you see your friends and interact with them. It makes VR social.

But the main things that get me excited are high-quality wireless experiences that aren’t tethered to a computer and lower price points. As the price gets lower, people will have more access – and it’s all about getting people access.

Has VR exited the shiny object stage yet? It seems like something that’s still very experimental for brands.

It’s still in the experimental phase, for sure, but people see how much investment in happening in the space. It’s been more than $4 billion so far between Google, Facebook, Samsung, HTC, Sony and venture capital. There are some very smart people saying that this is going to be the next big platform. The same was said about mobile and social. Brands realize how important those things have become to their marketing efforts, and now they want to be early here.

But mobile and social make sense for brands right away because they need audience and scale, and everyone has a phone in their pocket that they’re using to browse Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat. VR is still limited by a lack of distribution and scale. Samsung, for example, says they have 1 million devices on the market, but I’d be curious to know how many daily or active users they have since they’re basically giving those devices away for free right now.

Where does OmniVirt come in?

Brands and publishers that want to do something with VR need to create the content. Then they need to create a Google cardboard app or something just for Oculus or HTC Vive or upload 360-degree content to YouTube. But it’s all restricted to that specific platform, which means that even after a big investment and spending a lot of money on content, you can’t get the distribution and the eyeballs you need.

That’s what we’re looking to solve for, the ability to upload content once and make it available through any platform. We also built a layer that works on the mobile web so people don’t need to download an app to experience VR content.

Speaking of VR content, do brands actually have any to distribute?

We do see brands and agencies starting to invest, and a lot of the publishers we work with, including AOL and The Wall Street Journal, have built out or acquired VR production studios. But we know we’re operating in a new space and that some clients need content, so we do help produce it through partnerships and by working with freelance videographers and production companies.

In the long run, we’re not a creative agency, but you often have to facilitate that sort of thing early on.

It’s a bit like during the early days of YouTube. I was involved with launching TrueView and we had a lot of brands come to us and ask if they could just put up their TV commercials and promote them. But we realized that wouldn’t work so well with a skippable ad product, so we worked with a lot of the brands and agencies and in some cases even paired them up with early creators to develop YouTube-specific content.

What results have you seen?

The standard click-through rate for a static image is about .3% and we’ve seen 10 times that amount, so about 3%. You could argue that people are engaging because of the novelty factor, but we’ve found that they’re spending more than a minute and 15 seconds with the VR content once they’ve clicked on the unit.

But hey – what about people with glasses? VR headsets are very uncomfortable if you wear glasses (which I can say with experience).

That’s true. But if you can believe it, one of the biggest barriers to people putting on a headset right now is because they don’t want to mess up their hair.

But look at the first PC, the first mobile phone – those devices were heavy, cumbersome and hardly usable. Phones were as clunky and giant as something you’d see in “Night at the Roxbury.” But that actually gives me confidence. The hardware will get better, without a doubt.

Who’s doing VR better, Google or Facebook, and why?

It’s hard to say because they have very different approaches. Facebook made an enormous investment in Oculus and Google is basically saying, “Yeah … we can power that same experience with a piece of cardboard.”

Google’s DNA is as an open-source platform that’s free to use, and that’s going to be an advantage to them in the short term because they’ll have scale, and scale is what’s going to help this thing become mainstream. But Facebook has the social layer, which gives you the ability to be in an experience with anyone from anywhere in the world, and that’s an advantageous spot to be in for the long term.

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