Virtual Reality in Market Research: Mainstay or Illusion?

Virtual Reality in Market Research

Virtual reality is a booming trend, with headsets from the $600 Samsung kit to the $15 Google Cardboard. According to IDC over 2.2 million headsets were sold in the first quarter of 2017. Even if you aren’t already investing in the hardware, you can’t ignore the craze of Pokemon GO’s augmented reality that struck the world by storm. Even 2 years after its introduction, Pokemon GO announced that it continues to make about $2 million a day in revenue. (Forbes) Virtual and augmented reality are offering a new avenue of entertainment for consumers, but what does this mean for market researchers?  Will this be the new mainstream research tool for market research, or will this fade away as quickly as your Pokemon GO habits?

A quick history lesson:

A quick glance at history will tell you that this is far from a fad. Contrary to popular belief, virtual reality devices are not new. The pursuit for virtual reality started centuries ago with panoramic painting and stereoscopic photos. But headsets are recent right? Wrong. A device very similar to our modern day VR headsets was released in 1965 called “Ultimate Display” by Ivan Sutherland. [For a more in-depth dive into VR history, check out the Virtual Reality Society. The evolution of these devices has changed slowly over time, but our fascination with virtual and augmented reality is here to stay.

VR opportunities in market research:

So what does this mean for market research? The VR headset offers advantages on two separate fronts: participant engagement and project cost. Market researchers are constantly faced with the challenge of low response rates and the headache of recruiting. But with VR, participants that are otherwise bored with traditional survey methods can be attracted by the novelty. But it isn’t just the excitement of VR that is important. As with all novelties, excitement will fade, but the engagement that VR allows is critical for even more meaningful results. Immersion into the brand’s space and product allows the participant to engage more fully than, say, showing a 2D photo of a proposed product. Imagine how much more meaningful and rich insights could be if participants could pick something up in their hands, turn it over and return it to the shelf, rather than shuffle through a stack of concept profiles?

Ideally, we’d always like to have a prototype in hand, allowing respondents to engage with that rather than using their imagination, but prototyping can be time-consuming and expensive. VR helps circumvent that problem, allowing for rapid prototyping of products and experiences. Additionally, grand scale projects such as store design or architecture can be generated on a low-cost scale. Before, the next best thing was to build and do exit interviews, hoping that you guessed correctly. As market researchers, we don’t think guesswork has much of a place in business decisions.

Virtual reality also helps bridge distance, allowing for those crucial “face-to-face interactions” while maintaining anonymity through avatars. This allows researchers to collect valuable information while allowing respondents to still feel safe. Not to mention reduce travel hassle!

So what’s the downside?

Before you run out and buy the office headsets, remember that many challenges remain. Arguably, VR won’t be a mainstream solution for market research, but rather a niche product. Content generation and the cost of the complex coding around building virtual environments will continue to dampen adoption. Not to mention, once you’ve built content, there are compatibility issues across devices. Until a dominant leader in content creation and hardware emerges, it may be especially hard to jump on the VR trend. Most importantly, VR, like all products, is not a magic solution. It works well for prototyping and spatial experiments but is not a catch-all for many of the problems market research is facing. If anything, we should be looking just as close to the problems that arise out of VR adoption to identify universal faults in market research. Recruitment may become easier with VR adoption, but recruitment and research should always be respondent/consumer focused. How are they making an impact that they will see? Is the experience exciting and enjoyable for them? VR is just a remedy for the symptom, not necessarily the solution.