“Reality is the main cause of stress among those acquainted with it.” Lily Tomlin

If you find plain old, everyday reality stressful, you’re in for a rocky road. Get ready for virtual reality! Hardly a week goes by lately without some new announcement in the Virtual Reality space, making the devices cheaper, easier to use, and more powerful. Globally this year, 6 to 7 million VR devices will be in consumers’ hands. Of these, 55% will be mobile and 45% desktop. By the end of 2017, 9 to 10 million VR devices will be in consumers’ hands, and of those 5 to 6 million will be in the U.S. alone (Source: Deutsche Bank Virtual Reality Report, 9/10/15). And 8% of all U.S. smartphone users say they already regularly consume VR content (Source: Frank N. Magid Associates, 2016).

Virtual Reality is usually divided into two different sets of capabilities. Virtual Reality (VR) refers to those experiences where the user is immersed in a completely different environment or world. Augmented Reality (AR) simulates new experiences within your current environment. A third type, Mixed Reality (MR), is a combination of both and is being developed by Magic Leap, the ultra-secretive company heavily financed by other leading tech investors. However, since their technology is not yet commercially available, we will limit ourselves to AR and VR. (Note: Watch this space as development is moving so quickly there are sure to be additional realities introduced soon.)

While gaming is probably the application that comes to mind first for most people, marketers are lining up to use VR and AR in their efforts to woo consumers. IKEA uses AR to let customers project their new sofa, armchair, or entire kitchen onto their current home. An early adopter, IKEA has been offering this option since 2013. And think about selling the intangible: homebuilders are giving their clients VR experiences to help them visualize their exciting new homes, and by the way, reducing costly change orders after the actual building starts. Cruise lines, tourist destinations, event planners – the uses of AR and VR in marketing are only limited by our imaginations.

The opportunities for VR and AR in marketing research are also impressive. While the cost of and time required for developing VR or AR applications was prohibitive in the past, the industry has moved beyond that. (Home builders can develop a VR experience of a home for as little as $2K – a wise investment on a potential sale of several hundred thousand dollars. And VR headsets are similarly dropping in price, with Google Cardboard costing about $10 per unit.) That availability now makes it very reasonable – if not imperative – to create VR or AR stimuli for marketing research. Here are a few potential examples:

  • When Marriott created Courtyard by Marriott, they built scale room models for consumers to experience in qualitative marketing research. Imagine the savings that would have been realized if they could have created the Courtyard experience in VR. While you couldn’t test the bed or swim in the pool, you could virtually experience nearly every other aspect of the hotel. And how much longer will it be before we have sensory and full-body immersive VR?
  • A fast food restaurant franchisor was considering standardizing their beverage supplier across the chain. Naturally, several beverage suppliers were competing for the account, which would have meant millions of dollars in additional sales for one of them. And of course, the chain would reduce their overall expenditure to supply beverages. However, what impact would it have on the brand and the customer experience in store? They built a VR experience of their store, applied branding from each of the competing suppliers and tested it with consumers. In addition to lower costs, they enhanced their customer experience with the right brand partner.
  • Any effort in new product development could benefit from the early application of VR and AR technology to increase respondents’ ability to relate to the product. What’s it like to ride in a driverless car? Will this programmable TV remote be easy to use? What’s it like to live in a tiny house? Instead of investing in the development of prototypes (and the difficulty, risk, and expense of shipping them to research facilities), we can create VR or AR experiences for early stage testing.

Of course, as Marketers add VR and AR apps to their promotional toolboxes, marketing researchers will be called on to research and evaluate those experiences. But the marketing research industry needs to think beyond VR and AR for marketing and start applying it to stimulus in our marketing research projects. (The academics are already researching it.) The time savings and enhanced respondent experience make this a very attractive proposition for marketing research.