VirtuQual: Exploring the Potential of VR

By Jacob Harbord

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the most hyped recent technologies in market research. But is it any good? Does it add any value, or is it an expensive toy to excite clients? As VR enters the mainstream and we move beyond the initial honeymoon period, answering this question is urgent.

I feel the market research industry is becoming more comfortable with VR as a technology capable of enhancing existing methods. We’re seeing the emergence of VR car clinics, VR livestreaming, and VR planograms. Yet, we’re still less comfortable with VR as a media. Furthermore, we are unclear as to its role in building narrative understanding within client organisations, alongside generating novel insight.

In the first of two articles we look at the weaknesses and strengths of VR from a qualitative and ethnographic perspective. It will be argued that we need to shift how we approach 360 filmmaking.

(This does not refer to the creation of virtual environments which viewers are able to navigate like a videogame, but documentary footage shot with a 360 camera and stitched together in post-production.)

Weaknesses of VR

The weaknesses of VR can be divided into 3 areas: shooting; editing; screening.

Shooting

VR cameras are actually easy to use. However, shaky footage or movement contradictory to the viewer’s head both replicate create intense discomfort and nausea. This prevents us from rotating the device and limits camera movement to forward/backward. In practice, it’s best to keep the camera still.

The camera must also be kept at eye-level with those in the film. If you place it lower, characters look large (viewers feel small). If you place it higher, characters look small (viewers feel large). This prevents us from shooting close-ups and restricts us to a single, eye-level perspective.

Editing

Limitations in movement/perspective translate to editing restrictions. For example, when documenting someone cooking dinner, we’ll typically shoot close-ups of hands and face plus wide shots for context. This allows us to compress time and highlight what’s important by cutting between different perspectives. With only a single POV from a static camera, the grammar of editing is limited alongside your ability to tell a visual story.

Screening

When you’re ready to show the film, you’ll find that nobody owns a good VR viewer. Yes, Google Cardboard is cost-effective, but it’ll give you a headache within minutes. High-end headsets like Oculus Rift are expensive, making them a hard-sell for key stakeholders. Resultantly, the best way to view VR is via hand-held smartphone or on your PC. This makes the experience much less immersive.

So What?

The weaknesses of VR undermine its benefits – there’s little value in simply replacing 2D with 360 cameras and hoping for more outputs. For example, it’s almost impossible to record a shop-along without camera movement, nor document in-home consumption without close-ups. We must therefore tread carefully when deciding to use VR and ask ourselves: why bother shooting 360, and what unique value will it add?

Strengths of VR

To understand VR’s strengths, we must consider the theory of ethnographic filmmaking and then compare virtual versus physical immersion.

Social Aesthetics

In David MacDougall’s The Corporeal Image, he outlines film’s special role in documenting ‘social aesthetics’. Macdougall argues for film to be used in the study of “human societies as material creations that structure the experiences of individuals, even as individuals are constantly modifying them”, by exploring how “aesthetic judgements directly affect how people act and the decisions they make”. Filmmaking is crucial to this endeavour because, “in portraying social environments, films often automatically communicate an entire complex of relations”.

MacDougall was writing before the emergence of VR. Arguably, 360 films have even greater potential for the purpose he envisioned. Whereas 2D cameras provide a collection of fragmented perspectives, only 360 cameras allow us to document environments in their totality. VR captures a true sense of space and place within a digital record. This helps us untangle the complex web of socio-material interrelationships described by MacDougall.

Concentration & Extension

We could also develop such understanding by being physically present. In fact, it’s often better to do so, since we’re able to enjoy multisensory immersion whilst spending extended periods of time within a liminal space (i.e. the field site) which is crucial for generating creative insight.

What, then, is the value of entering such places virtually?

The benefits are two-fold. First, the compression of time and space allows for concentrated immersion within a range of environments. Viewers are instantly transported between places and shown the curated highlight reel. Second, with physical immersions typically limited to a handful of observers, VR extends the opportunity for immersive experiences to a much wider audience.

Post-Framing

While capturing an environment in its totality helps us study social aesthetics, it also gives us the opportunity to make decisions around framing after the fact. By changing the default POV or simply clicking-and-dragging within 2D viewing software, we’re given the freedom to shift camera focus to suit our needs.

So What?

The study of social aesthetics promises to open our eyes to new areas of focus, leading to fresh perspectives. The creation of concentrated and extended immersions has clear value for regional/global teams under pressure to develop deep understanding – all while reducing travel budgets and efficiently utilizing executive time. Post-framing gives us the flexibility and freedom to revisit footage from multiple analytic perspectives.

Blueprint for Use

How do we actually use academic theories and possibilities within a project and what do we actually produce for our clients…..?

Tune in next time for Part 2, where we’ll look at VR’s potential to create new possibilities for consumer immersion, alongside transforming how we do auto-ethnography.

By Jacob Harbord, IPSOS

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