Intelligent use of VR, AR and 3D printing for customer insight

Intelligent use of VR, AR and 3D printing for customer insight

Intelligent use of VR, AR and 3D printing for customer insight

Virtual and augmented reality is everywhere. It is predicted in a few years every house will own a 3D printer. Both are fast becoming part of the consumer reality so does that mean they should join the research toolkit?

We have recently pitched for a project in China on a new electric vehicle. In this fast moving digital market VR is already playing a very real part in car dealerships, which sparked our curiosity – can it be used for concept and product development in the insight environment?

VR and AR storytelling vs. evaluation

It was big news at the Cannes film festival last year with a dedicated pavilion, Eric Darrell, Co Director of Madagascar deemed it to be a ‘brand new language’ and car makers are now using augmented reality to showcase new features. There is no doubt that this ‘unreal reality’ is adding a new dimension to story telling that organizations have previously been unable to deliver.

Indeed this is a key strength of virtual reality with some large corporations such as Unilever already using it to disseminate insight across the relevant teams and capture stakeholder imagination. It can also be used for Virtual Ethnography, exploring for example the customer view as they go about their daily shopping.

So how useful is it as a tool to test new ideas and products? The hardware is becoming very accessible meaning implementation is less of an issue nowadays. The question then becomes if it makes intellectual sense.

We think it certainly has a role but has to be used intelligently. It’s all down to the role of VR currently vs. in the research environment. The classic use of VR relies on the model of ‘show-experience-immerse.’ By contrast the insight approach follows a different dynamic of ‘show-experience-evaluate.’ A small difference but not without meaningful implications.

When immersion is the end goal, the contextual landscape is all the more important to provide a fully rounded story. In fact so rich is the landscape that it can prompt viewers to take different angles from the story. This lead Spielberg to claim that VR is ‘potentially dangerous’ as it allows viewers too much freedom to make their own choices rather than be presented with a single fixed narrative path.

With evaluation the need is a little different. Stimulus material has traditionally followed the less is more mantra.   It needs to do enough to communicate the essence of a product and idea i.e. its intended design but without biasing response. In short it is about stimulating not showcasing.

This means VR and AR in the insight context should be developed with a more objective and focused approach, with a careful brief to any developer. It is about striking the balance between providing sufficient ‘stimulus’ without over-stimulating response and treading on the gamification territory.

3D printers and new product perspectives

3D printers present a new reality for consumers that will be readily available in home within a few years. They are able to produce objects in a previously unimaginable timeframe and at the push of a button.

This has huge implications for research. 3D printers are able to deliver a new physicality to ideas that previously sat on stimulus boards. The printers can produce items in material that is identical or close to the intended product and in a similar shape if not size. And not to mention they bring new possibilities for design iterations between sessions from the design team and even consumers.

Again there is a note of caution here for their use in testing product ideas. The difference still has to be drawn between what is the intended design vs. research design particularly for completely new ideas. It makes little commercial sense for a business to invest many design hours into a new idea if its viability has not been tested with consumers. That said the design does need to be developed enough to give the idea a fair chance.

In short what we are looking at is a far more sophisticated type of stimulus material, which takes a step closer to reality rather than a physical iteration of the end product.

Lessons going forward

If we are to embrace the new technologies we would suggest five things to bear in mind:

  • These new technologies are part of the consumer reality where individuals are increasingly exposed to new ideas in ever more sophisticated ways and the world of insight needs to respect this
  • Equally there is a gap between the consumer reality and research reality for a reason – we are evaluating not selling ideas so the design of approaches using these technologies needs careful consideration
  • Understanding consumer motivations prior to exposure to these new technologies is crucial to be able to isolate true vs. hyped response particularly when they are still in their infancy
  • Ensuring the user experience of the technology is driven by natural interaction is key rather than the particulars of that technology – again these technologies are still relatively new although that will change
  • Considering how viable it is to implement the technology, as part of the insight timeline within the business, is of course critical.

It remains to be seen to what extent virtual and augmented reality will become part of the new ‘research reality’ but undoubtedly these new technologies offer the potential for a more immersive and engaging insight experience.