Virtual reality is just fun and games. And market research.

For many people, VR (virtual reality) is the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise that lets you take a sunny vacation in South America without ever leaving your living room. And while we may not be there just yet, we’ve certainly made a lot of progress.

Virtual reality saw its first billion dollar year in 2016 with hardware sales reaching US$700 million and content sales reaching US$300 million. VR and AR (augmented reality) market research group Greenlight Insights forecasts industry revenues will surpass US$7 billion globally by the end of 2017. This market is expected to grow to more than US$33 billion by 2022, primarily due to gaming and applications medicine, education, military, fashion, and entertainment.

In fact, we’ve made so much progress in just the last couple of years that numerous companies have implemented either VR (virtual reality presents an entire image to you) or AR (augmented reality superimposes an image over real surroundings) into their marketing plans.

This simple AR app called Plant Life Balance allows you see what a plant might look like in your home. The app assesses your home in terms of the rooms and space you have, and then suggests plants that would be best suited for you. Point your phone at the location, and the app displays your virtual plant in your actual home. Even better, Plant Life Balance could collect data to determine precisely the types of plants that are needed or desired most.

On a grander scale, IKEA, the Swedish furniture is currently using AR to help people select furnishings for their home. By wearing goggles, customers can see how the cabinets they’ve selected would look in a different colour or with different knobs and hinges. You can even walk around a kitchen you’ve designed yourself to see how it works – did you put the recycle bin in the right spot, would you rather a shorter or taller cabinet? Not only can consumers choose more wisely, IKEA will be able to create products more wisely.

Lowes, a home improvement company, has implemented VR as a training tool to help customers learn a wide variety of DIY techniques at their own pace. Skills such as laying tiles are learned with the use of haptic technology which creates vibrations in hand tools. These vibrations make it feel like you’re actually using the power tools.

VR and AR have many highly useful applications in market research. Along the lines of the IKEA example, virtual reality can allow customers to test out new store layouts. Do people feel more comfortable in a 5-aisle layout or a 6-aisle layout? Which layout is most effective for maneuverability and finding products? Do they prefer the check out at the front or the back or the side of the store? As a retail researcher, you’re no longer limited to a test of one or two physical layouts.

What about shelf testing? Virtual reality is an excellent way to test numerous product positions such as top or middle shelf, left or right of the store, as well as variations of the package itself, red or blue, and square or rectangle. Even better, with so many potential options, it is possible to test hundreds of options in mere hours. Program the software to test ten different colours or ten different shapes, and then program it to test the package with ten different competitive sets. Virtual reality makes it possible to test an unlimited number of situations in a very tight timeline without having to go back to the factory to produce more physical product.

You might wonder, though, are these virtual reality tools realistic enough. Are they convincing enough to make consumers forget that what they are experiencing isn’t real?

Unequivocally, yes.

I have watched people stand against a wall in an empty room and then refuse to take one step forward because their eyes told them they were on the edge of a cliff. Logically, they knew they were 100% safe but they simply couldn’t step forward.

Market researchers are keen to understand how consumers behave in the world. We launch surveys and focus groups to understand feelings and opinions, but we often need to progress to behavioural measures such as shop-alongs and observational research. We need to see behaviours in real life.

If VR is real enough to convince people they are clinging to the edge of a building, it’s real enough to simulate choosing a product off the shelf.


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