Fact or Fiction: Virtual Reality in Market Research

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In early 2016, McDonalds in Sweden launched ‘Happy Goggles’, a program whereby Happy Meals are sold in boxes that transform into virtual reality (VR) headsets… If this doesn’t make it clear that VR is not only here (at least in some way, shape and form), and way beyond the penchant of the gaming industry, I don’t know what does. But is there a future for it in the market research industry? And what does that future look like?

What is Virtual Reality in Market Research?

Until I wrote this blog I admit that I had never even considered putting a cardboard box on my head to view great white sharks on YouTube but I must say the experience is impressive for the cost. I would suggest though, that this is not VR in its truest immersive form, the viewer cannot interact with the content. In terms of market research where participant interaction is the key, we are talking about much higher end, 100% immersive VR technology, the kind offered by PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift. Where the viewer does in fact, leave this world entirely.


Let’s start by looking at the pros of virtual reality for market research, the things that could make it a key research method in our industry going forwards.

1: Cost Meets Quality

Once the initial investment in both equipment and virtual reality expertise has been made, VR technology has the potential to combine the best of the online and physical market research worlds. Imagine a prototype product test where there is no need for a physical prototype? Where the experience of the physical product can be created and therefore tested, virtually. The test and indeed research can take place remotely, simply by sending out a headset and controller (which will be returned). All of the research quality of a face-to-face, with none of the cost.

2: Context Meets Speed

Continuing with our virtual prototype example. Though some may argue that face-to-face research provides richer insight than that conducted online, few would argue its benefit in terms of environmental context. VR bridges the gap. Participants are able to test a product at a time applicable to them, in a location where they would use it naturally, with all of the relevant environmental factors in place. Actual usage results can be recorded by the technology, including eye tracking and the experience is documented via seamless commentary and/or virtual interview. That’s phenomenal power!

3: The ‘Fourth Wall’

A great deal of time in any organisation today is given to ‘creating the customer experience’. And a significant proportion of all market research is dedicated to just this. From the customer service function, to sales, marketing and PR. But how do we keep raising the bar? How do we breakdown that ‘fourth wall ‘of screens between us and pull our customers even closer? By using virtual reality. I would suggest VR is a key player in the future of market research for this very reason, if we’re not using it to conduct research, we will be researching it as a subject. McDonalds – case and point.

4. You Can’t Stop Progress…

And why would you want to. Virtual reality is an incredible technology with endless possibilities for market research, from researching store layouts, to advertising campaigns, to product development. You only have to watch this brief video from Chris Milk at TED to appreciate that it is the epitome of human empathy via technology: The holy grail of insight. But you’ve got to be in it to win it.

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"VR is the epitome of human empathy via technology. The holy grail of insight."


On the surface then, virtual reality looks like the answer to, well, pretty much everything! In fact, what has taken so long, why hasn’t every market researcher from Oz to Iceland already embraced this ground breaking technology? Here are a few of the barriers to immediate adoption.

1. Financial Outlay

I skipped rather briefly over the ‘initial investment’ of VR in Fact 1. In reality the cost alone is what puts VR market research out of reach for most in the current climate. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds to provide systems for a largely unexamined research medium. Costs that will either have to be absorbed by the business directly, or passed on to them via an agency. That’s a lot of ROI to recoup. A fundamental problem when the far more budget friendly, traditional and online methods are still holding their own.

2. It’s Scary!

There is generally an adoption delay among the mainstream when it comes to any new technology. Even if market researchers were ready to step into the unknown in pursuit of VR greatness, the jury is out on large scale public participation and a representative sample. People are reluctant to adopt smart home automation - Virtual reality is on a completely different level, and it may be several years before the general population opens up to it.

3. One Size – Does Not Fit All

Whilst I can see the potential of immersive VR in some market research circumstances - as with all methodologies, it is not a one size fits all approach. Evaluating an in-store experience for example, with all of the associated staff interactions, displays, signage and overall ambience, requires the actual in-store experience, not an ideal world simulation. And what of quant? If the possibility of virtual reality is a long way off in terms of a smaller qual projects, its likely use in large scale quant projects is unprecedented. I cannot see a scenario in my lifetime when true VR replaces traditional data collection methods.

4. ‘Artificial’ Intelligence

Can any human really appreciate an artificial world in the same way that they appreciate the real one? Behave in the same way that they would in a real world scenario? To some extent maybe, but to what extent must be evaluated before we head off into a VR market research world with blind faith. How should this new feedback methodology be interpreted? Understanding its nuances will be the make or break between reliable insight and that which is severely misleading.

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"Before we head off into a VR market research world we must consider the implications of AI on behaviour."

So, is virtual reality a fact in the future for market research? Some are already dabbling but there are too many limitations and unanswered questions to declare true immersive VR has arrived just yet. It’s definitely one to watch through, technology develops and costs come down. And it certainly has the potential to be an incredible addition to the market research toolkit. My advice, keep yourself posted.

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