“Game On!”: How Virtual Reality is Transforming Market Research

When the term Virtual Reality (VR) comes up, many people will immediately conjure visions of kids with goggles, hands gesturing into thin air. The stereotypical VR kid is using the technology for gaming and immersive role playing. VR is certainly a high-profile, high-octane market. Estimates say it will be worth tens of billions of dollars by the early 2020’s. What is maybe less visible but no less important is the fact that market researchers are using VR to take their work to unforeseen levels.

The earliest usage of VR in market research involved the display of videos showing how a customer would navigate a retail environment. After test subjects viewed the footage, data would be collected via interviews or paper surveys. The big push towards VR implementation began back around 2008 when Walmart announced plans to use virtual store simulations, and other companies have followed suit. Now, VR research is climbing to the next level of engagement: full interactivity. VR computer simulations replicate retail spaces and put products on the shelves. Test subjects can “pick up” products and place them in virtual shopping carts. Not only that, the VR simulation can track their movements in and around the store space.

Even more robust VR simulations use eye tracking software. A camera records the subject’s eye movements: how long they stare at an item, and how often. A “heat map” is generated. At a glance, you can “see” which products grabbed the most eyeballs. Brain science is also being applied to cutting edge VR schemes. Subjects’ responses to a simulated environment can be analyzed using EEG-based brain measurements. Sounds like science fiction? It does, but it’s very real, indeed.

So just how is VR changing the way market research is performed?

We are still in the early stages of adoption, but some trends are becoming obvious.

The Speed Factor. VR is accelerating the pace of market research. Because test subjects come into the virtual test environment digitally, the need to coordinate travel plans from multiple locations to one destination is entirely wiped away. Gone are the hassles of coordinating schedules. No more red tape. No more wait times. With VR research existing in the cloud, simulations can happen in real time, even though people are, geographically speaking, all over the map. The end result? Research gets completed much faster.

Cost savings. Traditional techniques such as focus group maintenance, survey mailers, prototyping, construction of mock retail space—cost tremendous sums of money to implement. VR mitigates the price of doing research. We should hastily add that VR does not eliminate costs entirely. VR software is going to cost you a pretty penny, but costs are shifted to the front-end setup, and once in place, can be expected to taper off rapidly. By the way, the setup of VR is also going to take some time to setup, more so than going with traditional field testing, but again, once a process is in place, VR research will take less time to complete and aggregate results.

Control. VR gives market researchers more control over their studies. It is easier to test difference scenarios and change elements in the VR space. Testing can be made anonymous, too, which leads us to our next game-changing influence: privacy.

VR is good at keeping secrets. When testing new concepts, it is hard to keep innovative concepts under wraps when the field test is literally setting up physical in-store displays in select locations. People are bound to notice the changes, and word of mouth intelligence can spread like wildfire. How do you minimize the risk of your private testing space being shared with the competition? Do your testing in a VR simulation. It’s like doing market research with a cloaking device.

VR bypasses space/time limitations. In the old days, you would need your testers to show up in a physical location (be it a focus group meeting room or retail space). Those geographical constraints would force you to focus on people who were available and nearby. Now with VR, you can micro-target select areas that aren’t necessarily where you are, or you can test large samples from geographically disparate locations. Reach can be as wide or narrow as you wish. If you are doing geo-demographic research, the ability to reach the right sample for your study is more feasible than ever before, using VR.

Deeper levels of granularity. VR has the potential to give you better eyes into your data. You can drill into brand selectivity, product categories, and SKU-level choices. You can see with a microscope (what an individual is buying) or a telescope (what a whole category of users are buying) as the test subjects navigate the VR retail space. You can track not only what they pick up, but also how they respond to signage, product placement, special offers, and how long they engage with the products. VR will generate a lot of data for you, and you will need a system for aggregating and analyzing it. Ideally this should be integrated with your panel management software.

After testing is complete, focus groups can be taken online and meet virtually. This is the ethnographic side of research. Consumers can chat online with moderators who probe their motivations.  You can also use traditional surveys to follow up with testers if you are interested in their narrative explanations for their behavior.

Two Caveats.  First, VR may not be for everyone yet. The cost of entry may be too high for smaller market research operations. As VR scales to market, this could change, sooner than later. Second, VR may not be an automatic one-for-one substitute for research in the field. There could still be an important role to play for physical in-store displays, and it would be great if we could compare results between virtual and physical testing to gauge just to what extent VR is truly capable of replacing traditional research methods. Until we have more data and a longer track record, we will not know for sure.

Although VR for market research is hardly in the mainstream, it is coming on fast. No doubt, it will become a useful tool for more and more market researchers.

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