In the early 1990s, Virtalis became the first company to design virtual stores and demonstrate the potential for using VR to prototype and evaluate products in a simulated retail setting.
Subsequent efforts for leading household names (Lever, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble) resulted in a high quality concept-to-market service. When this technology was married to the consumer research capabilities of the specialist company MRSL, the result was REALITYCheck, a technique which allows cost effective analyses of shoppers’ behaviours and responses in simulated retail environments.
In REALITYCheck, virtual shoppers are equipped with VR headsets and interactive hand controllers and they navigate around a computer-generated store pushing a virtual trolley. As in real life, they can browse, pick up products, scrutinise packaging and check prices, removing items from their trolley and replacing products back on shelves as required.
The feasibility of REALITYCheck was tested by 27 volunteers (7 males, 20 females; mean age 39 years, standard deviation 14 years, age range 18 to 67). Representatives of a market research organisation recruited members of the local general public for the trials. Subjects were briefed on the nature of the trial and were asked to complete a comprehensive questionnaire, covering such topics as computer familiarity, awareness of Virtual Reality, current state of health, and so on. The moderators were also briefed on the health and safety aspects of immersive Virtual Reality, thereby protecting the well being of subjects both during and immediately following the virtual shopping trial.
Subjects were allowed a short period of time to train on the immersive VR system and then indulged in a 5-10 minute “shopping expedition”, concentrating their purchasing behaviours on a soap powder category. Video records were made of each trial and subjects were invited to record their own verbal comments during playback.
The feasibility study proved to be a considerable success. One of the significant results was that, during the actual immersive trials and the subsequent video playback sessions, none of the subjects recorded comments which related to the fact that they were “in VR” – wearing a head-mounted display, experiencing fatigue problems or interaction problems with the hand controller. All comments were focused on the subject’s actual shopping behaviour – why they were looking for one brand or packaging type over another, how they normally located their product of choice in a real supermarket, and so on.
REALITYCheck could be used to augment current video-based research, where volunteer shoppers in a real supermarket setting are equipped with eye tracking equipment to monitor their visual search and gaze behaviours. Rather than tracking shoppers through a supermarket using in-store security cameras or a concealed trolley camera, a more imaginative use of the REALITYCheck system would be to test the shoppers’ suggestions after they have been filmed and questioned. Virtual environments, unlike real settings, take seconds to alter, so the time and cost benefits of this approach when compared with traditional methodologies are enormous.