World’s first VR focus group study?

It is easy to talk about how industries are being transformed and prophesize about the need to relearn professions from the ground up as new technologies render hard-earned experiences obsolete. It is in fact very easy – as long as you are not talking about your own job. Change is a good thing; just make sure it happens to others.

But my own profession is now changing at its core. In a virtual reality (VR) related project Ericsson ConsumerLab is currently running, we decided to eat our own dog food and do the focus group research part in VR itself. I have not heard about anyone else doing this yet, so we are breaking new ground here!

Instead of going to a large city somewhere, recruiting people and inviting them in groups of four to eight to a dedicated qualitative facility with a glass mirrored room (for onlookers), we invited groups of the same size to a virtual room in an online environment called Altspace VR.

Participants in our groups are from all over the USA; from the West Coast to the East Coast – and we researchers are in India and Sweden. But we meet as avatars and the focus groups are run in traditional form: onlookers have a PC screen to look at, sessions are recorded for later analysis, slides and videos are used to show concepts, and a moderator leads the participants through an hour or more of discussion.

Of course, there are some differences in dynamics to the sessions. Some people join the discussion halfway through and it is easier to leave if you get bored. Some people are also ruder than in a physical setting. But for the most part people behave and interact surprisingly naturally.

There are, however, two differences that will ensure fast growing popularity of VR focus groups. The most obvious one is money; all you need is a PC with a VR headset and someone who recruits respondents. There is no travel, no renting of expensive facilities, and no wasted time. What used to take weeks can be done in hours. Second, you can just as easily do global research as local. All you need is a group moderator who speaks ten or fifteen languages and can stay awake in any time zone…

It will, of course, take a few years for this transformation to happen. Most people today are on mobile VR headsets such as Samsung Gear VR and they can only participate 20 minutes before their phones overheat. People who are using dedicated VR headsets such as HTC Vive or Oculus Rift are decidedly early adopters, and while interviewing them about the future of VR itself works very well, they might not be the appropriate target audience to discuss a new toothpaste or pet accessories.

But even though our project has an early adopter focus, it is interesting to see the spread of personalities in the groups. Avatar choices are all over the place: Those wanting to flaunt their techie side may select robots of various forms, whereas others select the avatar with closest physical resemblance to themselves. Speaking of humanity, some select oblong shapes still resembling their human form, whereas others feel more comfortable in a legless flying thing with a propeller on top. I appear as a yellow robot ball shape – wonder what that says about me?

There is also abundance of expression when it comes to body language: Those who have neither hands or feet wiggle their heads around or swoop round in the room like they are on fire; those with hands (i.e. hand controllers) wave them about more or less animatedly; and those with sensors on their bodies can really knock other participants out with shows of dexterity.

Here is a short clip from one of the sessions, focusing on a person wearing a sensor suit. If you are a consumer researcher who has seen anything like this in physical focus groups, well then you needn’t worry that there is too much transformation ahead of you. Whereas for the rest of us, it may be another matter!

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