CES REPORT: Virtual and Augmented Reality Are The Future of Customer Experience

Everywhere you looked, the excitement around virtual reality at this year’s CES was apparent. Every VR session, demo and exhibiting booth was packed, with long lines snaking around the convention floor. With investments in VR/AR startups hitting an all-time high in Q4 2015, it’s safe to say that 2016 will be the year this technology enters the mainstream, and customer experience professionals need to take notice.

If you’re not familiar with the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality, here’s a primer. Virtual reality is an immersive, interactive experience where the user is visually (and sometimes aurally) placed in a simulated environment. By wearing a pair of 3D goggles and a set of headphones, the user can feel what it’s like to be in a number of different scenarios such as the middle of a dancefloor, in the crowd at a concert, or the top of a mountain, all while standing in the middle of their living room. Augmented reality on the other hand takes your existing visual environment and adds other elements to it. Imagine standing in a plain empty room, and then looking at it through a screen that adds images of furniture to what you’re already seeing. In this way you can see what the furnished room will look like without having to manually place all the items.

Augmented Reality is Great For “Try-It-Before-You-Buy-It”

As you can imagine, there are endless opportunities for any brand looking to provide customers with an incredible experience through VR and AR. The technology is especially useful for companies that rely on a “try it before you buy it” model for selling their products. Home Depot’s augmented reality mobile app allows you to select Home Depot products, and then see how they will look in your home by pointing your phone camera at the place they will be installed. L’Oreal’s Makeup Genius app allows customers to project makeup directly onto their faces.

And those are just the examples of pre-purchase, marketing/sales oriented uses. At CES, I demoed a pair of ‘smart glasses’ made by a company called ODG which can be used by repairmen fixing complex machinery, or medical professionals who can access patient vitals and other information while keeping their hands free. Imagine being able to fix or set up your own gadgets and appliances by putting on a pair of smart glasses and sending a live camera feed to a service professional. Much like IoT, AR would allow companies to have a presence in customers’ lives long after the product has been purchased.

All of this is what Google Glass was supposed to do, but arguably, it suffered the misfortune of being ahead of its time. As the technology enters the mainstream and its value to businesses (rather than as a consumer toy) becomes more apparent, we can expect its rapid adoption.

Virtual Reality Hardware is Ahead of The Content

For virtual reality, the business use cases have been slow to develop. Most of the VR demos at CES were in the fields of entertainment. The Facebook-owned Oculus is probably the best known virtual reality company, and it was dominating most VR conversations at CES. Its flagship product the Oculus Rift is an incredible, breathtakingly immersive piece of technology, but it is designed almost exclusively for gaming. And at $599, it’s not quite as accessible to the general public. However, the Oculus-made Samsung Gear VR retails at $99 and is a very affordable entry point into the world of VR. Designed to be used alongside Samsung phones, the Gear VR allows users to play games and apps, and watch VR movies.

I demoed two different environments on the Samsung Gear VR, one was on a rollercoaster, and the other was the middle of a crowded dance floor (both inducing mild panic.) While the images weren’t crystal clear, I was surprised by how effective they were at transporting me to a completely different reality, and I felt myself reacting to the dizzying heights of the rollercoaster, and the claustrophobia of the dancefloor. When an immersive experience is that compelling, and that accessible, you can expect virtual reality headsets to gain widespread adoption. And as it was with social media and the mobile, companies will soon need to go where the customers are.

Therein lies the trouble with virtual reality. The hardware is incredible, but the content has been slow to catch up. Shooting 360 degree video and audio in a way that isn’t jarring and tells a coherent story is difficult and expensive. There are only a few companies creating content for virtual reality, and most of them are focused on gaming, cinema or pornography. To get ahead of the trend, companies need to embrace virtual reality as not just a storytelling medium, but the ultimate customer experience. Imagine hotels being able to transport potential customers to their grounds and attractions without ever leaving their website. Imagine auto-manufacturers letting customers demo what it’s like to drive the car of their dreams.

It’s only a matter of time before these experiences go from novel to norm. That’s why it’s important for any brand that deals with physical products and experiences to start thinking about what the ultimate VR experience would be for their customers, and start laying the groundwork for delivering on it.