We have reached a point in time where browsing disorganized aisles and waiting hours in line at a checkout in brick-and-mortar retail locations is no longer the norm. Customers are even growing tired of the aimless scrolling of 2D product images on ecommerce websites. Today, 80% of customers are searching for brands that offer hyper-personalized shopping experiences that optimize and tailor product offerings and recommendations, real-time associate assistance and pricing to fit the unique needs of their customers. For marketers the question becomes, “What technologies can we utilize to enhance the customer experience through hyper-personalization?” One answer: Virtual reality (VR).
Virtual reality technology can enhance the customer experience for multiple reasons: VR offers customers the convenience of time saved by not having to travel to the retail location and wait in line to checkout; VR increases customer engagement where their senses are heightened as they interact with the product available for purchase; and VR increases brand satisfaction. VR checks off all the boxes of what the customer wants and needs in their shopping journey not only today, but also tomorrow.
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual reality offers customers an immersive and interactive experience in a world beyond reality. VR simulates multisensory product and services experiences through vision, hearing, and touch to offer customers a hyper-personalized experience. In most cases, VR experiences are available via head-mounted displays (HMDs) and cubic immersive spaces (CAVE). HMDs consist of two screens, one for each eye, where together they simulate a 3D digital perception that is head-based rendered (congruent to the consumer’s actual head movements). HMDs are usually accompanied by a set of hand-held controllers, where together they monitor eye-tracking and head movements with their built in accelerometers and/or gyroscope. Eye-tracking data, such as total gaze time of each product and total product engagement relative to gaze is especially useful for marketers in identifying what triggers consumers to make purchasing decisions. These headsets also integrate EEG sensors that track patterns in consumers’ brain activity and unconscious behaviours, such as heart rate, skin temperatures and resistance. These metrics are conducive to marketers’ strategies and tactics because they offer intelligent insights on consumers’ behaviours, attitudes, preferences and emotions regarding a product. For example, knowing which products the consumer repeatedly picks up, returns their gaze to, dilates their pupils and raises their body temperature, informs marketers that this is a product worth investing more resources into for further product development and expansion.
CAVE, which is an acronym that stands for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, is a VR space where the walls, floors and ceilings operate as projectible surfaces to produce a 3D interactive and immersive virtual world. CAVE experiences are vastly different from HMD experiences because CAVEs allow several people into a single virtual experience at once, while HMDs are limited to only offering an individualistic VR experience. In addition, CAVEs offer marketers the chance to measure consumers’ full body tracking, from their head movements looking up and down the merchandisers, their eyes staring at the promotional signage, their fingers gripping the quality of the product packaging, to their retracing of footsteps around the virtual store. Full body tracking is achieved either through haptic censored bodysuits or computer-generated trackers. This body tracking data becomes especially useful to marketers when launching a new product line. If a customer immediately shakes their head and walks away from a product demo, marketers will take corrective action that better engages the customer and satisfies their needs.
Virtual Reality versus Augmented Reality
Not to get confused with these two realities, VR is a completely immersed and simulated environment experienced through sensory stimuli, such as vision, hearing and touch. The HMDs and CAVEs operate to remove the consumer’s vision entirely to replace it with a new 3D, digitally created world. Consumers have no sense of real-life because they are in a new dimension. On the other hand, augmented reality (AR) does not replace the consumers’ real world, rather, using computer-generated technologies, AR overlays information, content and media in real-time. AR is not experienced through HMD and CAVE experiences, instead it is primarily experienced through smartphones, tablets and occasionally through glasses.
When it comes to the customer experience, VR technology most commonly presents itself in the form of 3D virtual stores while AR technology most commonly presents itself in the form of the virtual try-on. These VR stores employ virtual tours of their stores, virtual hyper-personalized customer service and engagement, and virtual brand storytelling which all contribute to a positive customer experience. In addition, these virtual stores are synced to a retailer’s e-commerce website so that when a customer has a positive experience interacting with the product, they will be able to trickle down the marketing conversion funnel, clicking “add to cart” and “complete order”. Apparel retailers employ AR technology in their customers’ shopping journey to allow their customers to interact and actually try on their clothes. When marketers are deciding which of these two technologies increases purchase intentions of customers who are searching to buy a product, VR stores are more effective than AR virtual-try on. This holds true because the market research indicates that AR’s virtual try-on is primarily used by consumers whose shopping behaviours are more recreational, where they can simply play in this augmented reality and experience gamification. Hence, if marketers are looking to see serious increases in their customer acquisition and conversion rates, they need to opt for VR technology.
Peak into What the Customer Experience Looks like with a VR Headset Today
Thanks to the best VR headset brands, like Oculus, HTC Vive, Samsung and Microsoft, companies can employ VR technologies that enhance the customer experience. Specifically, large corporations today have partnered with these VR headset brands to achieve one of two objectives: increase product engagement and increase brand awareness, storytelling, and loyalty. For example, Jaguar partnered with HTC Vive when launching their I-PACE electric car concept. Collectively, they employed VR headsets to their customers who would be immersed in the driver’s seat itself. Jaguar customers could engage with the interior and exterior of the vehicle, touching the steering wheel, hearing the engine roar, and seeing the sun through the large sunroof. The major benefit of this immersive product engagement is that marketers can receive real-time customer feedback. Observing customers’ body language, facial expressions, body temperatures and heart rate all inform the marketers of the physiological triggers that drive purchase completion.
Eyes Up – Glance into the Future of VR
If HMDs and CAVEs virtual reality technologies already exist today, what innovative tech can marketers leverage in the future? Instead of customers wearing tight elastic bands that carry heavy screens before their eyes or wearing uncomfortable haptic censored body suits, they can alternatively resort to Biometric VR Fingerprint Sensors and Smart VR Lenses.
Fingerprint scanning has been an identification and tracking phenomenon for years, however, it hasn’t yet been taken to an all-new height. The Biometric VR Fingerprint Sensor eliminates the VR controllers and bodysuits that exist today and replaces them with a fingerprint marker. This VR marker will operate similar to a haptic glove, however, this futuristic device is a glove for the consumer’s index finger on their dominant hand. Primarily focused on the sensory stimulus of touch, the Biometric VR Fingerprint Sensor will empower consumers to feel the quality of fabrics, materials and packaging of products – an experience not yet possible. Once the consumer is satisfied with the quality and textures of products, they can seamlessly process their purchase with the tap of their finger. This biometric technology will enhance the future of marketing and the customer experience because marketers can identify the biological triggers that fuel their consumers’ purchasing decisions. Being able to tap into the biometric profile of the consumer, marketers will be able to offer their consumers not just hyper-personalized shopping experiences, rather they will be delivering the perfect solution that fulfills the consumers’ needs and desires. And the future doesn’t stop at the Biometric VR Fingerprint Sensor.
Similar to what consumers know today as the contact lens, this futuristic VR technology will integrate eye-tracking and brain computer interfaces to hyper-personalize the customer experience. Tracking and collecting the customers’ data from the social media advertisements they tap on their smart devices to the websites they frequently browse online, these VR lenses will be able to implement product placement marketing in the customer’s virtual environment. This VR technology will revolutionize the customer experience because in any given moment in their virtual world, their lenses will offer them hyper-personalized solutions that fulfill their needs and wants. And if a consumer is comfortably at home, looking for a blazer to wear for an interview, their VR lenses will display a virtual tailor from a previously searched retailer, who will take the consumer’s measurements, hear their style preferences, and reveal what the perfectly customized product will look like. The power of the Smart VR Lens is that the possibilities of convenience and hyper-personalization are endless, therefore, delivering the customer a superior experience.
The Reality of Customer Privacy
With any hyper-personalized technology comes the consideration and vulnerability of the customer’s identity privacy. With the use of VR technologies, marketers face the challenge of protecting the informational privacy, physical privacy and associational privacy being tracked and collected. A customer’s informational privacy refers to their protection against third party access to their thoughts (brain activity), financial, medical or educational records. A customer’s physical privacy refers to their protection against third party sensory access to their body movements (including eye-tracking), biometric data, as well as their exerted behaviours. Lastly, a customer’s associational privacy refers to their interactions in social situations and which organizations, clubs and communities they belong to. While this data is useful for marketers to deliver effective and targeted marketing strategies and tactics, it is also vulnerable to unwarranted hands. Threats to informational privacy being collected by existing and future VR technologies is that customer’s personal data, such as their medical information, may be accessible and used by hackers, government agencies and members of criminal organizations for unethical behaviours. This can consequently result in a customer being unethically judged for potential job opportunities or volunteering services. An example of an alarming threat to a customer’s physical data, is when they engage in virtual dressing rooms, trying on articles of clothing. In real-life, customers have the opportunity to protect their physicality by locking doors, however, when fully immersed in a virtual dimension their physicality may be comprised from existing recording devices. Finally, an example of a threat to a customer’s associational data is when the customer loses their ability to control who in their inner circle shares confidential conversations about events, such as riots with the rest of the world as well as third parties.
However, the reality of customer privacy is not all doom and gloom. Marketers can provide customers with safety warnings and disclaimers that effectively inform the customer of the potential risks associated with the utilization of VR technology. To enhance the customer experience, marketers should commit to being honest and transparent about the biometric data and intel they are capturing. Several recent brand studies report that over 90% of customers say transparency is important in their purchase decisions. Therefore, if marketers make the effort to demonstrate their honest interest in protecting their customers with safety warnings and disclaimers, they are not only increasing their customer acquisition and loyalty, but they are enhancing the customer experience.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As future-driven marketers, we are constantly searching for interactive and hyper-personalized solutions that satisfy the needs and experiences of our consumers. Virtual reality technology is a tool unlike any other as it offers customers personalized and immersive shopping experiences, all conveniently available at the customer’s own beck and call. It is accelerating the way our consumers are interacting and connecting not only with our products, but with our brand and our story. This is the future of marketing.
Samantha De Gregorio
Marketing Manager, Bank of Montreal
Past Editor: Future of Marketing Magazine
Graduate: Schulich Master of Marketing Program