Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing in Market Research?

Facebook has just launched its new Virtual Reality (VR) product called Oculus Go. It promises to give consumers an affordable entry into immersive content and experiences. The jury is still out on how much success it will achieve and whether it truly enhances consumer experiences. We can assume one thing, however: Insight communities will be racing to launch a tool that makes use of the technology. It will be touted as the next panacea for businesses to understand their customers. The appeal will be a low cost of investment to provide immersive experiences with brand content.

It’s worth taking a step back and look to history to temper our excitement. Leading with the technology first, instead of the customer need, is a problem seen before. I’ve heard many insight managers relate stories of working to find a viable, strong product concept that was able to support the latest manufacturing advance. Ten years ago, I collaborated with an exasperated global insight manager to create a successful product concept to help his team capitalize on a fancy new technology that cost them a £1 million+ investment. Despite all the collaboration, time, effort and investment in research, we were never able to arrive at something broadly compelling, meaning their big investment led to a niche innovation.

How does this connect to VR, you ask? It’s in the lessons learned: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. In the above example, the company was scratching around looking for any means to express the product, but it lacked a tangible, relatable need that consumers had in their lives.  They led with the shiny tool, not the customer need.

Technology is racing at a thousand miles an hour… where is the space for getting closer to the consumer?” Dr. Paul Thomas, Global Head of Insight, Asahi Breweries

There is a distinct tension between “the need & the seed.” The need is having a new idea that’s driven by a customer pain point or opportunity. The seed is an idea coming from product development. Both must be in balance to achieve success. Connecting to consumers is hard to accomplish if that balance is out of synch.

When technology is the primary driver the needs of the end-user often takes the back seat, and the situation is set up for failure. This is a real danger for VR as a medium in research, as it doesn’t easily promote the true closeness of customer experience.

While on one level VR is about connecting with the individual, the actual experience is also one of implicit isolation. Human and machine linked together, but senses of sight and sound remain focused on the tech, and when coupled with haptics, touch is also isolated.

There is a distinct tension between ‘the need & the seed.’ The need is having a new idea that’s driven by a customer pain point or opportunity. The seed is an idea coming from product development. Both must be in balance to achieve success.”

The heart of insight is still about understanding people and their opinions, desires, motivations, fears needs and how they live their lives. Any tools that we use must keep the focus on closeness, and any new development should be scrutinised through that lens. As ever, the mantra of “faster and  cheaper” will continue to influence budgetary decisions, but this should never be at the expense of better understanding.

This isn’t to say that a brilliant VR technique will never happen, just a reminder that what’s important at the heart of the insight industry needs to keep coming back to the critical question: How will I understand people more deeply today than I did yesterday?

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