One problem I have with conventional market research is that people aren’t very good at predicting their own behavior (or explaining their past behavior). While market researchers can be reasonably accurate in collecting factual data, getting people to say what they would do in a particular situation is a lot more difficult. European research into virtual reality environments may give marketers some new tools to aid in understandng consumer behavior. The research team, led by Mel Slater, a computer scientist at ICREA in Barcelona and University College, London, has fused virtual reality imaging with neuromarketing-style EEG sensors to see how people react to realistic (but not actually real) stimuli:

Working in the EU-funded Presenccia project, Slater and his team, drawn from fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology, psychophysics, mechanical engineering and philosophy, conducted a variety of experiments to understand why humans interpret and respond to virtual stimuli the way they do and how those experiences can be made more intense.

For one experiment they developed a virtual bar, which test subjects enter by donning a virtual reality (VR) headset or immersing themselves in a VR CAVE in which stereo images are projected onto the walls. As the virtual patrons socialise, drink and dance, a fire breaks out. Sometimes the virtual characters ignore it, sometimes they flee in panic. That in turn dictates how the real test subjects, immersed in the virtual environment, respond. [From ICT Results - When Virtual Reality Feels Real.]

The reactions of the subjects to the virtual stimuli are strong:

“We have had people literally run out of the VR room, even though they know that what they are witnessing is not real,” says Slater. “They take their cues from the other characters.”

Here’s a video showing some of the work:

The researchers suggest that the entertainment industry may be the biggest user of this technology, but I think it could have some interesting market research applications by putting subjects into the very situations that marketers want to explore. Instead of having a fire in the virtual bar, what if they were offered their favorite beer or an alternative new brand of brew? Subjects could be exposed to different ads in the virtual environment and their subsequent behavior could be observed. This might not be as accurate as “real life” behavioral testing, but virtual market research could be a less expensive way to quickly create environments and situations related to products, branding, and so on.