Virtual Market Research: The Future of Design?

Shopping cart with mouseLiving in the digital age, we see advances in computer technology every day. Each new improvement in hardware or software allows for people to solve existing problems in novel and increasingly efficient ways. More specifically, this constant evolution of technology allows for the combination of originally independent solutions/inventions into groundbreaking capabilities. Such has been the case with the invention of 3D printing, wearables (i.e. Google Glass, Pebble Smartwatch), and self-driven vehicles respectively. Companies have repeatedly enjoyed success by using innovative software solutions to optimize the use of tangible, every-day objects and environments.

A new industry based on this same kind of hardware-software synergy has emerged within the past 5 years. Traditionally, market research companies have assisted retail stores by performing studies on a set group of consumer participants. Retail companies then use this information to more efficiently design store layouts and market products to consumers. Nowadays, these same market research companies are capitalizing on increased capabilities in video game design and virtual environment creation in order to perform more life-like studies and to gain more valuable data. Advances in high-resolution photography, game engines, video game design, and much more have coincided, allowing companies like InContext Solutions and Red Dot Square to create highly immersive market research experiences. Both companies have software that enables clients to create their own virtual stores from the ground up. Everything from individual product packaging to aisle orientation can be manipulated, allowing companies to construct realistic environments. Consumers can then navigate their way around these detailed, fully stocked virtual stores as if walking around their neighborhood grocery store—they can pick up products, read nutritional information, and put products into a virtual shopping cart. As consumers interact with the virtual environment, specific metrics are tracked that give powerful insight into consumer patterns.

Now, rather than having consumers answer general questions about shopping preferences on a market research survey, these preferences can be monitored real time and find a foundation in useful data. The process of market research has been forever changed as companies now have the ability to iteratively update their store layouts in the virtual world. Rather than trying to find the ultimate layout solution, retailers are now capable of testing minute details and finding workable, small-scale solutions to incrementally build their store.

The opportunities that virtual space planning has created in the market research industry are largely applicable in many industries across the board. This unique combination of technologies now allows for environments to be built and used before ever actually existing. Universities could leverage the capability of 3D modeling to plan out their campuses. Building classrooms, dining halls, or auditoriums virtually allows the administration to test multiple layouts before deciding on the most effective option. New technology can be seamlessly integrated into classrooms and tested in the cloud to ensure that said addition would actually be useful. Not only could the universities save money by capitalizing on the most effective solution, but also in the process of building these virtual environments they are creating an interactive catalog of all their campus buildings and public spaces. These environments could then be released to the public and allow potential students and employees to tour campus without ever leaving their home; the university could showcase specific areas and gain valuable data from how users interact with the space.

With the advent of these new capabilities, universities could build campuses that are most advantageous to students and that bolster the use of technology in furthering education. Although the virtual-reality-space-planning industry is still carving out its niche, the possibilities are intriguing and promising—especially where education and large universities are concerned. Will online classes become fully immersive virtual classrooms where students interact with other students and a professor right from their dorm? Maybe. Will some student create an awesome video game based on virtual environments designed by University administration? I sure hope so. Will students start bringing Oculus Rifts to class along with their textbooks? I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

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