The big consumer story of the last decade has been about the myriad of ways technologies like mobile devices, social media and ecommerce have empowered customers. Now we stand at the precipice of the virtual-reality revolution, and customers are poised to see a new round of no-less disruptive empowerment. For brands that hope to thrive moving forward, the big lesson of the past 10 years -- to cultivate authentic relationships with your customers, get close to them, ask for their input and truly listen -- is more urgent than ever. Brands need to find ways to give customers what they want, and anticipate how virtual reality (VR) will disrupt their industries.
Because it will.
I see the significance of the present moment as not unlike that scene just a few minutes into the late-1980s Robert Zemeckis movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which two worlds collide. Roger has been chasing a baby around a cartoon kitchen, when a refrigerator falls and bonks him on his head. Someone off screen yells “cut!” and, as if from another dimension, a real life person -- the director -- walks onto the cartoon movie set and starts admonishing Roger.
The moment causes profound cognitive dissonance -- how can real people interact with cartoons? But today, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is looking more like a prophecy. We’re heading toward a world in which the line separating created reality (like graphic animation) and the real world of flesh and bone will become more blurred than ever. That blurring of realities is playing out in a way that few imagined.
The attraction of a fully immersive virtual reality experience in the context of a Hollywood movie or a video game is obvious, and companies are already moving in that direction. But the real revolution will come when virtual reality is ubiquitous and integrated with our everyday devices -- how much time do you spend interacting with the world through the screen on your smartphone? -- when virtual reality becomes a part of the augmented reality that is already with us. The day can’t be far off when any of us will be able to don a pair of glasses and be guided by an expert while making a simple home repair.
The release in November of the Gear VR, an affordable virtual-reality headset with Samsung smartphones, is proof that these technologies are now viable as consumer products. Oculus’ consumer product, slated to hit the shelves next year, will propel VR further into the mainstream. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, there will be a 77 percent increase over 2015 in exhibitors using VR headsets at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. The virtual reality revolution isn’t coming -- it’s here.
Already innovative uses for VR are solving problems, enriching lives and empowering customers. The eye-health solutions company, Vivid Vision, is using virtual reality to treat vision disorders. Trillenium brings the VR experience to online shopping. And Google’s Expeditions program offers students “guided tours of places school buses can’t go,” like coral reefs and remote archaeological sites. The home hardware retailer Lowe’s offers a Holoroom for customers to experience a home renovation before it happens.
The effects of this shift will be tremendous and beyond what we can foresee today. Brands need to be asking themselves how this technology might impact what they’re offering. They also need to ask how they can work with customers to ensure that VR experiences are improving rather than simply complicating their lives.
Virtual reality will expand our abilities, helping us learn new skills to live richer, fuller lives. As with any revolution, there will be winners and losers as VR goes mainstream. The losers will be those companies that, having failed to grasp the full meaning of customer empowerment, see their customers leave them behind. The winners will be the brands that run toward their customers and seek to empower them even further by understanding exactly how they want virtual reality integrated into their lives.
The smartest brands will seek to anticipate what their customers desire by understanding not only what VR experiences they want -- but why they want them. Getting to that level of commitment will require a deeper understanding of what drives customer, the kind of understanding that comes when companies build relationships with their customers and foster an ongoing conversation.
As with any new technological shift, it’s important to experiment but to do so with purpose. As you seek to understand how virtual reality will affect your business, don’t just ask yourself -- ask your customers.