Immersing for insights
Seth Ketron is assistant professor of marketing in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is tough to look anywhere nowadays without seeing something about virtual reality (VR). Whether gaming, training, shopping, concert-going or something else, VR offers a wide range of potential for user experiences in a novel and rapidly developing medium. Marketers, of course, have taken notice. In fact, retailers and brands such as Levi’s, Swarovski, Sephora, BMW and Toms have actively incorporated VR into the customer experience.
At one end, VR can be as extensive as virtual stores in which shoppers in VR can browse offerings, select products and make purchases – all within the virtual environment (v-commerce). At the other end, VR can feature one aspect of the broader customer journey, such as transporting customers to places of production for brand storytelling purposes or allowing virtual test drives of automobiles. As the technology evolves, the possibilities for marketing are seemingly endless.
With that said, VR carries many possibilities for marketing research! Before we discuss ways in which VR can be used to conduct studies (we will center on focus groups, though VR has other applications), let’s discuss what VR actually is and how it works.
What is virtual reality?
VR is a computing technology that immerses people into virtual environments (Berg and Vance, 2016; Cowan et al., 2023; Guttentag, 2010). These environments are often described in conjunction with the metaverse, thought to be a universal “reality” in the virtual domain in which users are fully immersed and can experience aspects of life not possible in the real world. Users may assume virtual identities in these environments via avatars (virtual likenesses) and potentially extend their lifestyles beyond what they do or have in real life, which opens possibilities for many industries in a wide variety of ways.
VR currently takes several forms that range in complexity, mobility and capabilities. A common, more immersive type, the automated virtual environment (AVE), sees users taking a first-person perspective within an interactive space. In some cases, AVEs are stationary, such as the CAVE (computer automated virtual environment), which makes use of special projectors in a physical room. These kinds of AVEs are often utilized in pop-up installations to specially feature brands, products or experiences.
More commonly, users can access AVEs via head-mounted displays (HMDs), like the Oculus Quest or HTV Vive, and access not only games (which have been a driving force behind VR development) but also virtual stores, training programs/modules, fitness and health care applications, real estate tours and tourist destinations. To a lesser extent, 360-degree video offers the ability to view environments in a more dynamic fashion than is allowed by two-dimensional images. It does not require specialized equipment, though products like Google Cardboard allow users to create a sort of VR headset in which they use their smartphones to look around a 360-degree environment while minimizing outside distractions or stimuli.
What makes VR different from other technologies, like conventional computer programs or smartphone apps? An important feature of VR is its ability to remove a user from the real world and shut out external stimuli. Immersion, or the physical and mental engagement of users with a virtual environment such that the environment feels close, is fundamental to VR – users experiencing immersion to a high degree are likely to be processing what they are seeing, hearing, feeling and doing to a greater extent. Compelling immersive environments may be capable of triggering presence, or the feeling that the virtual environment is actually real. Presence keeps users connected at a deeper level to the experience. When a VR experience is highly immersive, users are likely to enter flow, a state of heightened engagement and awareness in which the user feels “plugged in completely.” Flow occurs when challenge and skill are optimally balanced. Those in flow states tend to lose track of time and filter out outside distractions, a process which immersive virtual environments facilitate. While flow has often been observed in contexts such as gaming and work, flow is possible in marketing-relevant contexts, especially those involving VR (e.g., Cowan et al., forthcoming).
Why does all this matter for marketing research? Well, one of the key challenges of many research designs is the ability to keep users focused and engaged. We often blame the human attention span as being hopelessly short and fragmented, but in fact, humans can pay attention when they want to. Consider the nature of binge-watching, in which people consume many hours of content in one sitting, and concerts, in which fans often spend hours enjoying live performances (with varying levels of mild discomfort in some venues!). Those scenarios are, of course, difficult for many brands and organizations to produce in everyday contexts (when is the last time we got really excited about the cleaning power of dishwashing detergent?), but as researchers, we are hoping to harness human attention and engagement long enough to get reasonably real and reliable data.
If we go back to the fact that VR is more immersive overall than other kinds of platforms, we may then recognize the potential for VR to capture and maintain not only attention but interest and engagement with the task at hand. For marketing researchers, this is vital – we can get participants to stay with us longer. Of course, there are other benefits to VR, which are discussed in greater detail below.
Virtual reality and the focus group
That tried-and-true method, the focus group, continues to be the backbone of marketing research, and for good reasons. Focus groups allow us to talk to a reasonably sizeable number of participants in a manageable time frame. They enable synergies among participants’ responses and can be done practically anywhere. They allow us to gauge reactions to product prototypes, advertisements, logo and packaging designs – things that other common methods (like surveys) either prohibit or, at best, convert into pale facsimiles of the originals. (Can we truly and compellingly evaluate the way a new product looks or feels with a picture in an online survey?)
Unfortunately, focus groups do have their drawbacks. Loud, vocal individuals can sway or silence other participants (especially when moderators are not strong and skilled at balancing voices). Participants have to travel to a specified location, which is often a specially designed conference room or facility with contrived environments. This naturally prevents the geographically restricted, the unable to travel and the otherwise occupied (i.e., jobs, dependent care) from participating.
Recently, online focus groups have helped to alleviate some of these issues. With an online focus group, participants can be anywhere with a stable internet connection. Focus groups can also record written chat as well as vocal input and moderators can more easily manage group interaction. Conversely, online focus groups also tend to offer a less fruitful venue for observing nonverbal cues like body language and may not have the kind of robust interactions that face-to-face focus groups have.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to blend the benefits of conventional and online focus groups? Actually, there already is – the VR focus group! VR not only offers abilities of both offline and online focus groups but also expands the possibilities for focus group research beyond offline or online alone. Consider the following example. Participants in a focus group come into a room and put on VR headsets. They then see themselves as avatars within a completely virtual environment. They can move their virtual hands via controllers they hold in their actual hands, “walk around” the room (either by physically walking or using controller joysticks), “sit down” (again, either by parking themselves on chairs in real life or navigating to a seated position in the virtual space). Users can also see each other, allowing for interaction and observation of each other’s movements. The focus group proceeds as usual. The moderator welcomes participants, briefly discusses the agenda and then transports users to a completely different environment – perhaps a new restaurant concept, perhaps a production facility across the world or perhaps a fantastical planet in a different galaxy. Even better, the moderator can take the group to all of these locations (and more) if desired!
The use of avatars in virtual environments is an important feature, especially if the point of the group is to discuss topics that are sensitive or potentially embarrassing. In real life, even if focus group participants are strangers to one another, fear of negative evaluation tends to hamper our ability to be completely honest if we are concerned that said honesty will cause others to judge us. In a way, avatars are like masks for the body: we can make them look like ourselves; certainly, but more importantly, we can make them look like whatever we want them to be. In games and virtual social worlds, this means we can live out fantasies of who we have always wanted to be (a glittery pop singer on a big stage in front of screaming fans, maybe?). In more practical applications – a VR focus group, for example – avatars help to promote anonymity, just like the use of pseudonyms. Thus, VR focus groups can be helpful for topics and aims that might call for more obscurity of identification among participants.
Let’s consider a few illustrations of how VR can be used with focus groups (and other methods!).
First, new products are often a key element of focus groups. Prototypes at various stages may feature prominently in focus group sessions. VR can allow moderators to display virtual prototypes in a three-dimensional format. In simpler environments, moderators may place virtual prototypes on a table or pass them around. In more complex environments, they may be able to “conjure” prototypes for viewing.
Second, one of the most beneficial aspects of VR relative to conventional formats of focus groups is the ability to place users within simulated environments. This is a primary advantage of VR focus groups over conventional focus groups as moderators can test elements of the marketing mix that are not feasible or efficiently tested in the real world – a limitation especially applicable to environmental factors. Rather than having to build a series of expensive and expansive prototype stores, restaurants and so forth, VR allows researchers to construct virtual spaces at a fraction of the cost and users can walk around these virtual spaces as if they were real. Moderators can easily switch from one prototype space to another, eliminating the need for time-consuming physical travel.
Third, as mentioned above, beyond creating a lifelike environment, VR also naturally creates greater task involvement. This means that if you want focus group participants to complete certain more involving tasks, VR can help to facilitate that greater level of involvement.
Limitations of the virtual reality focus group
VR focus groups do have their limitations, like other kinds of focus groups. For example, if you are running a VR focus group in a conventional facility (e.g., a conference room), the issue of sampling remains. You will still need to source participants who can travel to the designated location. If you are running a VR focus group with remote access, the key challenge is the sampling frame – you can only recruit people who have a headset, which is currently limited to a few million households of consumers who are more likely to adopt new technologies. However, as VR continues to evolve and adoption grows, the number of potential participants will increase. Further, even if the frame is limited, you are still able to get participants from across the globe in one virtual room.
A unique challenge in VR is VR sickness, a special type of motion sickness in which a user’s brain and body are out of sync. Much like regular motion sickness, the things the user is seeing and experiencing in the virtual environment do not always match actual physical sensations, which confuses the brain and creates a dizzy, uncomfortable (and sometimes persistent) feeling. Consider, for example, a VR experience in which someone is climbing a mountain. The mountain might look highly realistic but if the user bumps into a boulder, the brain expects the body to feel the sudden whack into rock – which doesn’t happen with current technology – and the result is a headache. Fortunately, with thoughtful design and careful planning as well as further developments in the technology, potential VR sickness triggers can be minimized. For example, research has found that women tend to be more susceptible to VR sickness due to headset design (HMDs were originally designed using mostly men’s heads; misalignment with fields of vision tend to cause VR sickness). Adjustable eyepieces in more recent headsets have been able to account for this issue to some extent.
Running a virtual reality focus group
If you intend to run a VR focus group, you will, of course, need the requisite equipment and resources, which include (but may not necessarily be limited to) the following:
VR equipment. HMDs are the most common equipment type you might need. There are several options, from the more basic and budget-oriented to the more technically advanced. If you want to realize the full potential of VR for focus groups – say, customizing environments and tailoring features to your specific needs – you will need the fancier variety. If you only need a projected room, a CAVE might be more suited to your needs.
A large, empty location. Physical facilities are still needed if focus groups are to be conducted in person. Since movements should be less restrictive with virtual environments, your location may simply be a large empty room (rather than a smaller room with furniture, which would present tripping hazards). Virtual experiences often work best when users have a good three-to-five-foot radius around them, though that range should be tailored for the given experience.
Casting equipment. In conventional focus groups, it is common for clients and other observers to watch via one-way mirrors and/or recordings. With VR headsets, users can cast their views to external screens and record interactions in real time. Thus, for clients who wish to observe, VR headsets can cast in real time to television screens, computers and/or mobile devices. Casts can also be recorded for viewing after the fact. While this is similar to simple video recording, an important feature of casting is that you can see experiences and recordings from each participant’s viewpoint. This offers the ability to view not only the entire focus group asynchronously but also the unique perspectives of participants.
A trained moderator. While the tried-and-true skills of a moderator still apply in VR, the moderator should also be fully familiar with the workings of VR. This ensures that the valuable time of the focus group is not wasted on fumbling through unfamiliar features or trying to get certain tools in VR to work. The good news is that many VR headsets are user-friendly, so even a moderator who has never before seen VR can get up to speed relatively quickly!
Future and additional possibilities
One of the ongoing challenges with VR is its inability to (currently) replicate a fully multisensory environment. While sights and sounds are easily accomplished in VR, viable and reliable technologies for other senses have yet to be developed on a mass scale. Smell is perhaps the most advanced of the remaining three major senses, with some development toward capabilities for real scents. For example, the Feelreal mask attaches to many VR headsets and utilizes cartridges to infuse smells that a user is supposedly encountering in the virtual environment. Smells don’t have to be piped in with complicated equipment, though, especially if you are using VR headsets in an in-person focus group. For example, you can use candles, diffusers, sprays and other basic means of introducing scents into VR among a group. (Cowan et al., forthcoming)
Touch is currently quite limited – typical VR headsets with controllers allow for vibrations, much like gaming controllers, but do not convey finer tactile sensations like the textures of fabrics or furniture. Some advances in this domain have recently emerged, such as haptic gloves that simulate more realistic sensations of pressure. However, technology is still quite a way off from a broader range of realistic touch sensation.
Of course, taste is perhaps the most difficult to envision in a virtual environment. While we might be able to pipe in smells of food and potentially even replicate haptic sensations related to the process (e.g., chewing), we simply cannot create food out of simulated projections. However, as we know, the environment plays an influential role in our perceptual processes and food-related decisions are as much about where we eat as they are about what we eat. Thus, while food research may not be able to showcase virtual foods for gustatory tests, researchers can make use of virtual environments to determine how aspects of the environment can affect perceptions of and preferences for foods.
Remember the holodecks of Star Trek? Eventually, the technology could evolve into a “holodeck” of sorts, where environments become more realistic and less reliant on bulky tools and attachments. Of course, that is likely a long way off, but such a platform would maximize immersion, presence and flow.
Finally, VR can be used for other kinds of research beyond the focus group. To start, participants can complete surveys with more realistic stimuli. You might want to see how potential customers feel about 20 different designs of a new product, for example. You could create a virtual environment in which those 20 designs are presented like an art gallery and participants can rate liking of each design by “walking” up to it and selecting a button on a virtual panel. Experiments are also possible. Taking our prior example, participants can be randomly assigned to a condition in which they view just one design and respond to a series of questions about it. As with focus groups, experimental stimuli may look much more realistic and permit interaction in VR vs. more conventional static stimuli.
Exciting and powerful tool
No matter if you’re ready to take the plunge with VR or are still considering whether and how to use it for research purposes, hopefully this article has given you some ideas for how to use this exciting and powerful new tool – both for marketing research and for the world!
Berg, L.P., and Vance, J.M. (2016). “Industry use of virtual reality in product design and manufacturing: A survey.” Virtual Reality, 21(1), 1-17.
Cowan, K., and Ketron, S. (2019). “A dual model of product involvement for effective virtual reality: The roles of imagination, co-creation, telepresence and interactivity.” Journal of Business Research, 100, 483-492.
Cowan, K., Ketron, S., and Kostyk, A. (2023). “The Reality of Virtuality: Harness the Power of Virtual Reality to Connect With Consumers.” Berlin, Germany: de Gruyter.
Cowan, K., Ketron, S., Kostyk, A., and Kristofferson, K. “Can you smell the (virtual) roses? The influence of olfactory cues in virtual reality on immersion and positive brand responses.” Forthcoming in Journal of Retailing.
Guttentag, D.A. (2010). “Virtual reality: Applications and implications for tourism.” Tourism Management, 31(5), 637-651.