FEATURE4 August 2017

Virtually reality

Features Retail Technology

Virtual reality (VR) and eye-tracking technology are helping to put research where it belongs: at the heart of product development, says Tim Holmes of Acuity Intelligence. 

VR technology, especially when combined with eye-tracking, offers a turning point for market researchers. The recording of eye movements gives researchers certainty about how well the shape, size and colour of a product will perform on the shop shelves, based on its ability to capture the attention of a shopper and whether the package engages the shopper long enough to persuade them to buy.

What’s more, researchers get all this information from an immersive store, where observers are invisible and two-way mirrors cannot influence behaviour. In fact, the need for expensive bricks-and-mortar research has all but disappeared because once inside the VR headset, shoppers are oblivious to the real-world around them.

So, imagine the scenario – a washing up liquid brand is redesigning its packaging. The new bottle needs to stand out from competitors and attract the attention of shoppers – both loyal customers looking for their go-to washing up liquid, and new customers who may not have noticed the brand before. The pressure is on the design teams, creatives, marketers and advertisers to make all the right decisions.

Testing the product in an entirely virtual retail environment minimises the risk of going too far down the launch process with a design that won’t work. Market researchers, and even designers, can track what draws the eye and what doesn’t, based on the eye movements of shoppers wearing VR headsets. The product design can then be tweaked accordingly before it even hits the shelves. What’s more, measurements can be automated, removing the need for researchers to have eye-tracking expertise, and making this type of research truly agile for the first time.

A turning point for market research

The foundations for applying scientific methods like eye-tracking to brand and package development have already been laid by the burgeoning field of neuromarketing, which investigates unconscious responses in consumers to understand what makes people buy.

But neuromarketing research is often associated with time-intensive and budget-breaking analysis, which is the domain of only a few privileged brands and is totally inaccessible to many smaller brands and retailers.

Historically, most research activities in retail have relied on participants’ self-reported responses – such as focus groups. Or on in-store observation, with researchers standing in supermarket aisles with clipboards for hours on end, attempting to track how shoppers navigate a store and make their purchase decisions. The difficulties with these methods are two-fold.

Firstly, when asked, people don’t always know exactly why they’ve selected to buy a particular product. The decision is often made unconsciously, so the market researcher ends up with inaccurate information about the buying journey and the respondent attempts to explain something they did but were completely unaware of. This is where eye-tracking can be valuable as it allows researchers to understand the unconscious decision-making process. Secondly, if market research is taking place after a product has been developed and placed on the shop shelves, findings – accurate or otherwise – would mean costly redevelopment.

Advancing the industry

Whereas some of the original VR testing tools for market research have relied on flat screen projections or have taken shoppers on a pre-recorded 360-degree video journey around a store and measured where their eyes land, the latest immersive VR technology allows the shopper to go ‘off the rails’ encouraging them to behave naturally by taking their own route through the store and freely interacting with 3D products. 

This new method is much more effective from a market research perspective simply because it’s reflective of real-life shopper behaviour and because there is no constraint on the journey, everything is so much more life-like.

But what about my job?

While marketers might easily feel empowered by the prospect of these advancements in VR, agencies, designers and creatives might also be quivering in their boots at the prospect of a technology that can essentially work out whether their ‘eye-catching’ designs really are eye-catching. After all, they have built entire careers on their creativity and ability to create products or adverts with emotionally engaging designs.

But this isn’t just another instance of machines taking people’s jobs away. The ability to combine virtual reality with eye-tracking is in fact a giant leap forward for marketing, placing research where it belongs, at the heart of product development, and allowing brands and creatives to truly optimise their designs before they hit the shelves.

Embracing VR technology is the future for creating efficient and influential marketing campaigns. As a tool, it ensures they are based on accurate data, gathered in a quick and cost effective way.

Dr. Tim Holmes is director of research and development at Acuity Intelligence and honorary research associate at Royal Holloway, University of London