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Will word of mouth be enough to get casual game players into VR?

Most people who consider themselves virtual reality enthusiasts have the same origin story as the rest — they used an Oculus Rift development kit, a Project Morpheus or some other virtual reality headset for the first time, and instantly fell in love.

For early adopters and tech enthusiasts, that type of evangelism is nothing new, but it's been particularly effective for getting folks excited about virtual reality hardware (despite how few VR sets have been released as finalized consumer products). But will that same phenomenon entice the casual gaming market — one that isn't as likely to invest in new technology based on buzz alone?

That was the subject of a panel during SXSW Interactive, in which a handful of game developers and technology creators discussed the casual implications of the burgeoning VR hardware market.

"It's like being a drug dealer"

Patrick Curry, director at Unity Austin, is well acquainted with the power of word of mouth with regard to VR — he himself owns hardware, and has seen how easy it is to get his friends excited about it.

"One of my favorite tricks is to pull out a Merge VR at a bar, and make my friend wear it in public, and it freaks them out and it freaks out the people with us," Curry said. "But then they see it, like, 'Holy cow, we're in a bar, and we're seeing in VR,' and I'm like, 'Yeah dude, next week, come over, and I'll show you the DK2.' It's a great onboarding experience."

Alex Schwartz, chief scientist of Owlchemy Labs, has the perfect analogy for that experience: "It's like being a drug dealer," Schwartz said.

Word of mouth is an effective marketing strategy, especially when the experience being sold is as new and exciting as well-executed VR. But it necessitates, at the very least, that potential converts actually know somebody who owns VR, which could serve as a major roadblock to introducing everyone to the technology.

Do something cheap, something everyone can buy

"That, for me, comes down to price," Curry said. "Nintendo is one of my hero companies, they've been doing it so well, and they almost always have the cheapest hardware. They have the lowest barrier of entry, which is dollars, for their games, and they're always kid-friendly. I think taking that route in VR would be a really great strategy. Do something cheap, something everyone can buy, plug your phone into it, then you have VR and you're an evangelist."

Schwartz has a more straightforward solution for getting VR in everyone's hands: Just include virtual reality hardware with the things everyone already purchases.

"Basically, mobile VR is going to be the future, eventually," Schwartz said. "The fact that this is getting faster and faster, eventually we won't need to tether at all. So, everyone's already signed up to this incredible ... basically Ponzi scheme, of two-year cell phone contracts, and I think when you get your next phone, you'll probably get more and more headsets bundled with the plan, and the next phone, and it'll all come together.

"I think going out to the store and making that singular, extra purchase of an additional thing that's not my phone is a big barrier of entry, just the concept of buying another device," Schwartz added. "But if you can close the rift with something you already need, I think that will be a way where a person who has no friends who know anything about VR, they'll get their first experience by receiving it with their next plan."