Aug 17 Accelerating Innovation with Virtual Reality

As technology advances, researchers and designers are increasing their ability to better understand people and their behaviors, and to test their ideas more rapidly and effectively. From mobile ethnography that captures in-the-moment feedback from individuals to chat bots that can be used in prototypes, technology is enriching and expanding our ability to design solutions that truly improve people’s experiences.

One emerging technology that Rêve is utilizing to disrupt research, design, and testing is virtual reality (VR). While VR has existed since the 1950s-60s and has gained recent traction in consumer markets, it has not yet been leveraged widely in the design and innovation process. Through our investment and partnership with Roomera, a virtual reality platform, we have expanded our capabilities to help our clients better understand their current customer experience and rapidly test new ideas to improve it. VR offers us a way to gather customer feedback on experiences that don’t even exist yet – making it faster and easier to test innovative ideas, products, and services and ensure they will be successful.

Before discussing how we’ve been leveraging VR to improve our human-centered design process, it’s helpful to define what we mean when we say virtual reality. We’re not just talking about a Google cardboard over a smartphone (although this can still be a useful tool in some instances.) We’re talking about a fully immersive environment – with realistic visuals and audio – where individuals can walk around a space, interact with objects around them, and even browse on a smartphone. All these elements and interactions work together to stimulate multiple senses and increase the depth of immersion, making virtual reality feel, well, virtually real.

How exactly can VR improve and accelerate the design process?

A new way to co-create with clients and customers

At Rêve, we believe in a co-creative process; we invite our clients and their customers into the innovation process. Co-creation ensures we identify solutions that are desired by customers and are feasible and viable for our clients. Co-creating with clients and customers can be difficult, though, as not everyone is well-practiced in envisioning or articulating their ideas. VR provides a way for clients and customers alike to manipulate environments to express their needs quickly. This is an entirely new way to communicate one’s vision, and we believe it will result in quicker alignment and much more effective collaboration.

Using virtual reality, clients and customers can express their ideal shopping experience, work environment, or care delivery context. They can move furniture and walls, change signage or wayfinding, adjust lighting and sound, or integrate digital experiences into physical spaces. By giving customers and clients the tools to design their solutions, we learn what aspects are most important to them (e.g., curated products, additional information available on an app, easy access to help, etc.) and can ensure addressing those priorities in our solutions.

Transforming prototyping and testing

Investing in and implementing ideas can be challenging for clients, as it is challenging to be sure whether new ideas will satisfy customers, function well, and increase revenue. In all our work, we develop prototypes to help our clients test solutions before investment and implementation. Depending on the idea and the stage of development we’re in, we use anything from a simple sketch to an illustrated story, to a functional website to concepts with customers and get their feedback. However, when ideas involve a physical space or new service, it can be challenging to communicate those ideas with customers or stakeholders within the client organization. Blueprints or floor plans aren’t easy to understand, renderings show an incomplete picture, and full-scale prototypes take a lot of time and resources to develop.

Here are two specific ways we leverage VR:

VR enables us to validate our ideas: Using virtual reality, we can develop concepts of new physical environments and invite individuals into them. We can see how they behave, what draws their attention, where they get confused, and what excites them. Rather than asking people to imagine what a new space or service might look and feel like and describe how they would use it (which can cause bias due to self-reporting), they can explore the experience firsthand, and we can observe their actions directly. This validates our ideas, increases confidence, and provides evidence that they will succeed.

VR allows us to test and learn quickly: In virtual reality, we can rapidly build out highly realistic models of new experiences and spaces that do not yet exist. We can test multiple versions of experience in one session to allow for easy comparison and evaluation of ideas. Then, based on feedback from the customers (and employees) who would be part of the future experience, we can quickly iterate and test new versions without spending weeks to redraw the design or months to reconstruct a physical prototype. As Roomera’s CEO, Thong Nguyen, put it: “We’re moving bits and bytes, not atoms.”

Realistic environments and quick evolution of ideas can help us ensure the experiences we design are desirable for customers as well as feasible and viable for our clients.

Using VR to build empathy

Last but not least, virtual reality can contribute to empathy building. Since we are human-centered in our approach, most of our projects include interviews or observations of individuals to understand their behaviors and needs better. Contextual research helps us (and our clients) identify how we can improve their experiences and design solutions that truly address their needs. Often that research takes place in context (e.g., in the home of a caregiver or at the desk of a call center employee). While we strive to have our clients be part of that research when appropriate, it isn’t always possible or scalable. One of our team members had a profound statement, “Could VR allow us to not only put our clients in their customers’ shoes but quite literally, walk in them?”

The power of using VR to build empathy and drive individuals to action has been well-documented. In one Stanford study, individuals who experienced being color blind in VR spent more time helping students design color-blind-friendly websites than those who had not. Another Stanford study showed that when individuals interacted with an older-looking version of themselves in VR, they were more likely to save for retirement.

At Rêve, we are excited by the possibilities that new technologies provide to improve our research and design process. This is not to say that we will do away with analog, in-person observations, or low-fidelity paper-based prototypes (long live the napkin sketch!). However, we believe that technology such as VR, when used appropriately based on the research or testing objectives, can make our insights deeper and more resonant, and can evolve and validate our ideas more efficiently and effectively.

VR presents a transformational opportunity for research and experimentation. However, there’s nothing like experiencing it yourself. If you’re curious about what the experience is like, or how you might leverage VR, please reach out so we can show you firsthand!

Photo: Rêve’s team conducts a VR test of a retail experience.