You’ve probably come across the VR-hype train by this point. It’s pushed by media organisations, VR companies, techy types and hardware providers. Breathless punditry has claimed 2016 the breakthrough year for Virtual Reality.1 Goldman Sachs has global projections of the Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality market being worth up to $182 billion in 2025, similar to the market for notebooks and desktops.2 However, for VR to reach the heady heights of current prognostics, there will need to be massive consumer uptake across multiple categories. So what’s the actual state of play for consumers, brands, and market research companies? European data shows that 75% of people feel they don’t know enough about VR and 73% would wait before buying a headset.3 In the UK, the data shows an interested public, but one that is yet to be convinced of the value and legitimate application of VR technology outside of gaming. Many people (47%) say they want to try it out; however, barriers to usage are cost (66% say devices are too expensive), and a perception that the technology is mainly for gamers (60%) or doesn’t have a practical use (46%). Sixty-eight percent of people said they would have to try it out first to see if they like it. This highlights a key challenge: getting headsets on the heads of consumers. 05_chart_1 Consumers say they are open to a range of VR experiences: yet there is no one stand out VR experience. This is likely because most people are simply not familiar with what VR experiences could or should look and feel like, making judgements about it difficult. Everyday consumers are ultimately unsure about VR. Prices will need to come down substantially and relevant experiences made more obvious for consumers to adopt this technology. Herein lies the conundrum for brands. VR requires consumers to seek out the content relevant to them and then engage with it. To succeed in this niche space, brands will need to create engaging content that isn’t gimmicky. Good efforts do currently exist from Coke (you can ride a sleigh with Father Christmas), Topshop (experience a fashion show), and McDonald’s (turn the Happy Meal box into VR goggles and go on a ski slope), but these all still feel experimental and have not achieved cut-through. Yet in industries with obvious applications, virtual reality is readily adopted. Healthcare is a case in point. Virtual reality is being used with success to treat patients with phobias via (virtual) exposure therapy, as well as allowing surgeons to teach and practice complex surgical techniques. Real estate is another industry where the benefits of VR are clear; why traipse around town looking at houses when you can do it from the comfort of your sofa using VR? Education and training are other obvious places where virtual reality simulations can offer value – particularly in areas where ‘real life’ training is costly or dangerous, such as the military or aeroplane pilot training. It’s no accident that one of the leading lights for VR is immersive news stories. Media outlets such as the Guardian and New York Times have successfully harnessed the technology for short-form documentaries – allowing viewers to literally walk a mile in the shoes of a Syrian refugee. These immersive films create an emotional, compelling and memorable experience. 05_chart_2 Brands getting VR right will enjoy big first mover advantages and, much like in online viral content, it is likely to be forms of branded content, and not straight out advertisements that win out. Experiences that are rare, risky, or convey desirable information efficiently are likely to resonate with consumers. And that’s without mentioning pornography! Finally, market research organisations are exploring VR. There are currently three broad uses for VR in market research. The first is observational. We’ve been using 360 cameras placed in-home with great effectiveness as a means to observe people – their routines and interactions, how they engage with media, as well as one study on getting to grips with different types of passionate football fans. 05_quote_1 05_quote_2 The second is product or concept testing. We’ve run a pilot study in the auto industry comparing the full product displays of new cars and VR simulations. We found consistency between the evaluations of the two, suggesting the auto industry has the potential to see large efficiency gains in new product testing and innovation through using VR.4

For market research companies, the next steps in the evolution of VR will be to create virtual platforms to simulate different environments that also allow users to interact with their environment. For instance, tracking shopping journeys, changing product packaging in real time, or transporting users to a bar to taste test a drink. In parallel to this we are likely to see a rise in augmented reality.

Finally, we have also been using 360 videos to bring our clients closer to their consumers and immerse them in their worlds. Instead of the trusty point and click PowerPoint approach, we’ve found that spicing things up with a few well-chosen and edited clips energises the audience and serves as a good jump-off point for debate.

All three approaches – observing, testing, wowing – will combine as the technology develops and we continue to explore this technology.

At the moment, yes VR has potential, but don’t believe the hype just yet!

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