That’s right, VR is no longer merely the work of science fiction writers. Google, Samsung and Facebook have already thrust headsets into consumer hands and the response led the BBC to declare 2016 the year it goes “from virtual to reality”.

Business Insider estimates the VR hardware market will be worth around £1.9 billion by 2020, so it’s not surprising that VR companies and brands are forming lucrative marketing partnerships, because it appears that this time, VR is here to stay: we’ve already got affordable video cameras that record in 360° (and more than 20,000 360° videos have been uploaded to Facebook and Youtube content is soaring); the long-awaited high-end Oculus Rift product will finally ship this year; Samsung has rolled out integrated products; even McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes can now fold into a pair of VR goggles. It’s going to be everywhere, and “the most social platform,” according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who recently introduced Samsung’s new S7 and S7 Edge handsets, the new Gear 360 video camera, and Gear VR. He’s not wrong: according to eMarketer, not only are 80% of Generation Z Internet users interested in virtual reality, but so are 64% of Baby Boomers.

Initially explored through gaming and entertainment, VR is fast becoming the hot new medium. It’s a veritable godsend for PR teams hungry for fresh ways to relay brand messages, and a few of the more innovative PR & digital agencies are already capitalizing on its storytelling and media relations potential, demonstrating how virtual reality can deliver value to their efforts. VR is starting to be used for product announcements and releases, corporate social responsibility initiatives and case studies, for example, because soon enough it will be in every household, and smart marketeers know that VR will soon enough be in most households and both B2C and B2B buyers will naturally veer towards companies offering an exciting virtual experience. Not only will VR help brands to connect with a whole range of consumers, but it will also help them stand out in a digital environment clogged with content.

A new realm of possibilities

VR provides PR teams with opportunities on multiple levels. It transports people to another world and a different reality – a new level of ‘realness’. Incorporating multisensory VR in a campaign makes it more immersive and a more complete experience. Even the most brilliant ad campaign couldn’t top a VR headset that lets consumers experience a product for themselves without having to leave their living room. It takes ‘trying before you buy’ to a whole new level and lets brands and PR teams show things in a way never before possible, like test driving a new sports car, viewing properties for sale, soaking up holiday destinations virtually (Marriott are already getting on that, as is activewear brand The North Face, with their VR Yosemite National Park climbing experience, later downloaded thousands of times as an app), or buying a new pair of shoes or a new laptop. VR will craft a more memorable impression of a product in a consumer’s head because it’s a medium through which brand promise really comes to life.

The possibilities are endless, across all industries: from education becoming more meaningful and fun (trips back in time or a look around Mars from NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example) to NRMA Insurance recently using the Oculus Rift headset to promote car safety and simulate what it is like to be in a car crash. The New York Times also recently paired up with Google to equip readers with bespoke handheld VR headsets and a series of short hard-hitting news films such as the story of a Syrian child caught in the refugee crisis, demonstrating how VR can help build empathy by quite literally putting a person in another’s shoes. The New York Times explained that when virtual reality builds such a connection between the viewer and the environment, they are ‘”melded together… [in a] full-dress illusory world”, enabling a greater “suspension of disbelief… [the effect is] neurological, technological, relational, and psychological.” More immersive than any former digital experience, it’s fast proving to be worth the expense: Amnesty’s VR experiment, for example, received donations with 16% of people who experienced it signing up on the street to monthly direct debits.

PR people & marketeers, take note:

There’s no doubt that VR is the future of brand marketing and communications. It might not have an immediate impact, but it’s only going to get bigger, so if you get on top of it now, you’ll be at the forefront. However, don’t be lazy and assume you can rely on the novelty of virtual reality – this is an opportunity to access a new world of possibilities and really let creativity run wild; not a golden ticket to awesome, valuable content. VR without any real purpose won’t deliver any ROI but if utilised to its full potential, VR has the power to completely change the game. This next generation of storytelling is an opportunity to take consumers, journalists and influencers to somewhere they aren’t able to physically go, immerse them inside a brand story to connect to its core values and build a more emotional connection. That’s what makes VR so powerful: it renders your audience completely and utterly captive, and brands can spend a greater amount of the time with their consumers. Once the VR headset is on and they are totally immersed, they can’t get distracted by emails or check their Facebook. You’re going to have their undivided attention soon, so be ready with something spectacular.