With a few quick strokes of his digital paintbrush, a man scrawled a basketball hoop in the air and then a large bird cage he could sit in. Later, a woman stood in awe in the middle of an “underwater” shipwreck as a blue whale swam by.

Both people had dived into the world of virtual reality this week as they tested out the new HTC Vive headset at digital ad agency Space150.

As a series of virtual reality (VR) devices is released to the public this year, many Twin Cities marketers are helping clients gauge how they can use the technology to interact with customers and possibly employees.

“I think there’s a lot of talk about VR right now,” said Space150 CTO Marc Jensen.

Early adopters have access to a lineup of virtual- reality headsets this year from Facebook-owned Oculus Rift to the HTC Vive, which was available for pre-order this week.

While Jensen does not go as far as to believe virtual reality will be a mainstream staple this year, he said the new product introductions provide a “big enough sample where we start to understand what works well, what doesn’t and what VR is really going to be good for.”

Space150 has already dabbled with virtual reality for its clients. Last year, it launched a promotion of Polaris’ Victory Motorcycles that used the Oculus Rift to give bike enthusiasts at trade shows the chance to ride through the Black Hills of South Dakota on one of the bikes.

Jensen leads the firm’s engineering and experience teams and focuses on educating staff as well as clients about technological opportunities. With virtual reality, seeing is believing, he said.

“I want everyone in our company and our key partners to experience this and to see what it’s all about so they can understand where it’s going,” Jensen said.

At the annual tech event hosted by the Minnesota High Tech Association on Thursday, industry leaders discussed local trends in technology and innovation, including virtual reality.

Shawn Sheely, director of technology for marketing firm SapientNitro, said although improvements are needed in terms of the sophistication of content and other areas of virtual reality, the next five years could usher in full mobile and then full in-home VR adoption.

“Right now is really the time we are starting to see adoption. This is happening today,” Sheely said.

Virtual reality can be used in a range of sectors from entertainment — think gaming — to education. Beyond marketing, businesses could use it in areas such as enhancing training or improving medical care, Sheely said.

SapientNitro recently developed a virtual reality experience where people could explore a New York City apartment filled with items people could then buy.

Minneapolis advertising agency Knock has experimented with 360-degree video such as those that can be played on YouTube and Facebook.

“I think it’s going to be the wave of the future,” said Todd Paulson, chief creative officer at Knock.

About a year ago, Knock invested in a GoPro 360 rig setup that allows the firm to take 360-degree video, but it still requires a lot of work in the back end to stitch the different footage together, said Dallas Currie, Knock’s video and media director.

“I think the next step for us is finding new technology that is a lot more simplified,” Currie said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet