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TD in VR: More Disney than The Matrix, and that's fine

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TD Ameritrade's new virtual reality experience, an immersive video viewable through Facebook's Oculus Go headset, feels more like stepping onto a Disney ride than going into a virtual world. And that's probably the ideal approach for the current state of VR adoption.

The Oculus Go is a $200 standalone headset that's better suited for media consumption than for truly immersive experiences, and its apps provide a simple taste of what the technology can do. TD Ameritrade didn't try to push the limits of the technology — which relies on smartphone components under the hood — beyond what it was designed to do.

The closest comparison is Disney's Soarin, a popular theme park ride that uses a massive video screen to simulate the experience of hang gliding through the skies of California. Though TD's experience starts at street level to explain the inner workings of Wall Street, it eventually takes a helicopter's view of Silicon Valley before landing the viewer inside a bitcoin mining operation. A narrator explains the surroundings, while facts appear in a style reminiscent of VH1's "Pop Up Video."
TD isn't the first financial company to dabble in VR; Fidelity Investments has demonstrated a VR "agent" named Cora that can answer questions about stocks, but this is still a prototype. RBC uses a related technology, augmented reality, to liven up its eGift P2P app by having a virtual helicopter deliver funds to recipients.

While VR is typically marketed as a platform for gaming and entertainment, its true potential is in communication. Popular VR apps typically track users' body language and pick up their voices to allow a fairly convincing simulation of in-person conversation. It's no coincidence that Oculus is a part of Facebook; the social network lets users link their Facebook profiles to certain apps as a way to find other people who share their interests.

The TD experience doesn't attempt to be a social or customer service tool. It is simply a well-produced short film that surrounds the viewer in a series of 360-degree environments. While most of its content isn't specific to TD customers, there is one bit at the end that makes a memorable pitch for the company's mobile app.

The VR experience ends with the viewer in the middle of the woods, watching a hiker approach. Once the hiker gets close enough to the viewer, she stops, pulls out her phone and accesses the TD Ameritrade app. In any other setting this act would seem mundane, but in VR the viewer can look around and see just how deep in the woods they are and how otherwise unconnected the hiker would be to her financial accounts.

It's not an everyday use case for TD's mobile app, but the immersiveness of the VR experience makes it relatable.

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