Over the past four years, a flurry of product introductions has created significant buzz around the area of virtual reality (VR), and much of the hype is well deserved. Users confirm that VR offers an incredibly immersive experience. In practical terms, this means that VR users feel swept away from their actual, physical environment and transported into an entirely separate virtual environment that fully engages their senses of sight and sound. Fighting off robots in the land of Robo Recall when one is actually standing in one’s living room is both thrilling, fun and magical. However, academic research indicates that the benefits of virtual reality go far beyond offering a novel experience for gamers.
Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has spent most of the last two decades researching how individuals respond to virtual reality. What he has discovered is that “experiencing something is more powerful than hearing or reading about it.” In fact, he has shown that VR is effective at creating more of a connection with the topic at hand because the experience is perceived as real. Professor Bailenson has conducted experiments where he has had participants take on new identities in the world of virtual reality and experience what it is like to live life as someone who is disabled, of a different ethnicity or homeless. These studies have shown that the VR experiences depicted are so realistic that subjects gain a much deeper understanding of the challenges others face and have greater empathy having “lived” the experience themselves.
Given the incredible flexibility and impact of VR experiences, it is not surprising that VR applications are expanding beyond the consumer realm and games and moving into interesting business applications.
STRIVR is a start-up that carved out a niche in VR training. The firm’s origins began at Stanford, where the football team began using VR as a training tool for its quarterbacks to review different defensive schemes and scenarios and practice how to adjust offensively to each. STRIVR’s platform has now been adopted by multiple college and professional sports leagues and teams, and Walmart has recognized that it could use the program to more effectively train its employees on different customer scenarios.
Many other VR applications are cropping up as well, each to support a different set of business needs and scenarios:
Given the powerful impact of VR technology and its expanding application within both the consumer and business arenas, it is easy to recognize the many ways that VR could be used to develop, research and evaluate product innovation.
Escalent is already working with auto manufacturers using VR systems to gain feedback on the research of new product concepts and identify what consumers like and dislike about vehicle exteriors and interiors. Instead of the time and expense of building and shipping full-scale prototypes to car clinics for feedback, these manufacturers are presenting new cars and design concepts through virtual reality. Wearing VR headsets, consumers see the front, side and rear views of these cars just as if the physical versions were before them. Sitting in a seating buck/cabin shell, consumers also use VR to review and evaluate different interior elements. Because the VR representations are so realistic, research participants have to be warned not to fall out of their seats as they turn and maneuver within the perceived interior space!
VR is also incredibly effective at evaluating different store and shopping scenarios, whether that be feedback on store layout, product placement, pricing or promotion. Eye tracking can be combined with VR to give additional insight as to what elements are attracting attention vs. being ignored.
Technology market researchers love to use stimuli to elicit feedback on new product concepts and all of their different elements. To that end, VR will play an increasingly important role in future concept evaluation because of the incredible flexibility VR provides. Not only will VR enable many more concepts to be created, but the technology will allow different feature variations to be easily displayed and evaluated.
In terms of research design, there is opportunity to structure VR research sessions creatively. While VR is often thought of as a solitary experience, there is no reason why VR couldn’t be used in a group setting for research. When outfitted with VR gear, a group of respondents could collectively review and discuss the spaciousness and design of a new hotel lobby or the appealing elements of a new widget. This is just the tip of the iceberg to the possibilities that VR offers the business world.
Given its amazingly realistic representations of products and environments and the engaging, dynamic experiences it offers, VR will become an increasingly valuable market research tool in the years ahead. At the same time, VR will not be an appropriate, realistic option for all research projects. As is always the case, the research subject area, objectives, budget, schedule and project scale will dictate whether VR or another market research method would be most effective for the project at hand.
Here are several scenarios where VR should be considered as a potential research tool:
The reality is that we are only in the early stages of using VR as an effective market research resource. But it’s clear that exciting, promising applications lie ahead. Strap on your VR headsets and prepare yourselves for the thrilling, dynamic experiences that await!