Virtual reality and augmented reality technology has evolved exponentially throughout the years. While once projecting a pixelated and graphically obscure translation of a virtual world, the landscapes and backdrops of VR and the components represented in these scenes now appear so real in their replication that the mind can easily adapt to the new virtual space.
The graphic quality of today’s VR has enhanced and transformed the gaming experience, delivering detailed and lifelike worlds and new realms filled with artistic renderings of futuristic—or even prehistoric—structures, creatures, characters and settings.
Yet, VR and its offerings extend beyond games and entertainment. Stepping into the virtual world projected in VR also benefits businesses; this technology has the potential to amplify the customer experience, better facilitate employee training and perhaps even boost client satisfaction and retention.
How can the use of virtual reality benefit businesses?
Virtual and Augmented Reality & the Customer Experience
Utilizing virtual reality to amplify the customer experience doesn’t involve VR headsets or complicated consoles. VR and its uses are multi-modal, and integration of VR isn’t the same across industries. Augmented reality technology includes virtual assistants (like Alexa), interactive exhibits (like in museums), virtual tours (for real estate or the tourism industry), interactive customer service apps and even virtual reality product showrooms (for cars and fashion!).
Virtual Assistants and Augmented Reality
Augmented reality is ingrained in daily life. Most smartphones now come equipped with a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa. These interactive assistants also serve as a prototype for a virtual customer service associate.
If your business offers an automated customer service line—with an integrated voice-activated assistant—then welcome to the world of automated reality. While many businesses want to embrace a personalized approach to customer service, and, therefore, still utilize real-life human beings to assist customers with any issues, virtual customer service support does provide accessible and more simplistic assistance for time-harried customers.
For simple tasks like paying a bill or checking an account balance, virtual assistants can navigate requests easily and quickly by guiding customers with simple prompts and voice-activated virtual menus. This reduces a customer’s wait time and streamlines simple requests and basic account queries.
Virtual customer service assistants also can be utilized online via personalized chats. Customers type their question or concern, and the assistant is programmed with the applicable solutions and guidance. While this type of automated reality doesn’t take place in a separate realm, it is hosted in the virtual sphere, exists separately from a human interaction and incorporates the intelligence and data of the computer.
Other businesses and industries, however, facilitate customer service interactions by using VR/AR to identify project issues. Software or apps can now recognize products and identify them for customer service reps. Although this technology isn’t a ‘virtual assistant,’ the technology is an extension of VR/AR.
Virtual Exhibits & Tours
Virtual reality gives users the opportunity to experience scenes and adventures that may have once been out of reach for them. Museum exhibits can utilize VR by allowing visitors to step into prehistoric worlds or maybe even explore a painting.
The tourism industry has taken a financial hit because of Covid, but virtual tours provide a vacation experience that’s safe and relaxing. Now staycations from home can involve virtual excursions to historic sites or even a hike through the canopy of a rainforest.
Virtual tours also are utilized in the real estate industry. Potential homebuyers can preview the home of their dreams with online tours and walkthroughs that allow them to see every room and all the home’s amenities and features.
The 360-Degree Experience of Virtual Showrooms
The Coronavirus pandemic has challenged and changed daily life, and these changes (and challenges) reverberated throughout the retail sector. Visits to stores beyond the necessities were either limited or simply not an option (when restrictions shut-down nonessential businesses). Survival for many stores meant changing how customers shop for clothes, cars and other goods/services.
Online shopping became the dominant force, but not all businesses could best display their products in the two-dimensional world of computer imagery.
Consumers shopping for a new car need to see details up close, and they also want to view the automobile from multiple vantage points. Standard photos even in high-resolution cannot translate images to 3D.
To provide an in-person experience from the comfort of home, some dealerships offered their own virtual showrooms online to display inventory. Others could guide shoppers to the Relay Cars virtual showroom for panoramic views of many different makes and models.
Manufacturers or dealers also offered virtual test drives of their automobiles. This virtual test drive model had different functions for dealerships; some scheduled test drives via an app and delivered the car to the consumer for an at-home test drive. Others, though, actually created a virtual test drive that was truly virtual and could be experienced on a phone or computer screen—no keys necessary!
The virtual showrooms extended to the fashion world, too. Fashion retailers pre-Covid operated on a dual selling model—customers could order online and they also could view (and try on) items in the store. The retail shutdown meant that those who needed or wanted to preview items in the store didn’t have that option.
Like the automotive sector, some boutiques embraced a virtual showroom, allowing consumers to view the entire store in 360 degrees. At some online retailers, customers can view garments from multiple vantage points to assess drape, style and length from different angles. While this isn’t a solution for those who want to try on an item before clicking ‘buy,’ the interactive viewing options may enhance the understanding of a garment’s shape and fit and provide more input for a hesitant buyer.
VR and AR for Employee Training
Across industries, virtual reality and augmented reality also is transforming employee training. This technology is used in flight simulators for pilots, in training simulations for automobile manufacturers, and, per NPR, some simulations teach retail workers how to deal with a robbery. The optimization of this technology depends on the industry and the business’s individual needs. However, the options are seemingly endless.
VR Training Sessions for Employees
STRIVR is one of the big players in the business of VR training; the company provides training sessions designed for the retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing and technology industries. For the retail sector, these interactive sessions address job roles in multiple areas including customer service, fulfillment, new hire assessment, manager training and culture and values.
Employee training sessions can address how to handle customer service issues, help employees learn about new processes in the company, how to most efficiently pack shipments, assess individual skills/weaknesses (e.g. “new hire assessment”), and provide interactive lessons on company culture.
Logistics training sessions can include interactive lessons related to onboarding and safety, while lessons/sessions in the financial services sector include fraud protection, sales training, manager training, contact center training and safety training. Walmart and Verizon have used STRIVR for employee training.
VR Training Simulations for Pilots
While flight simulators have been around since the early 20th century, virtual reality simulators created a more realistic experience for pilots in training. In 2018, Wired reported that these simulators now provide an integrated sensory experience; the new technology developed by FlyInside provides pilots with the sense of feeling all the switches and dials they would use during a flight.
VR for Training and Evaluation Protocols in the Automotive Industry
The automotive sector has utilized virtual reality for safety evaluations and to aid technicians in making repairs. For this industry, VR may be an important tool in detecting design flaws or to simply streamline the visual appeal of the model.
Varjo partnered with Volvo for a VR headset—or, rather, a “mixed reality test drive”–that can be used to assess a car model or prototype while driving. The technology allows the driver to test safety technologies and other aspects of the automobile.
Porsche’s “Tech Live Look” combines smart glasses with a software platform to help technicians to more easily make repairs. The glasses magnify tiny areas (like screws) and illuminate dark areas for better visibility during repairs. The technology was introduced in 2018.
During Covid, Ford utilized virtual reality in its design process. Team directors wore VR headsets to view prototypes in a virtual space, and directors could switch vantage points within the program to view the car from a different angle. Virtual reality ensured that the design process didn’t come to a screeching halt as industries were forced to transition to work-from-home environments.
VR and AR to Boost Client Satisfaction and Retention
Success for any business depends on keeping clients and customers happy. Virtual reality and augmented reality also can be used to ensure client satisfaction, which, in turn, leads to retention. Virtual reality experiences can be used to elevate the shopping experience or to simplify the buying process.
VR to Visualize Interior Design
Furniture stores sometimes offer interactive experiences for buyers that allow them to photograph a room and upload it to create a virtual simulation of the space. This takes the guesswork out of buying new furnishings, as the simulation may allow buyers to better visualize hues, texture and size/shapes.
Macy’s, for example, offers the Virtual Room Designer. After the image of the room is uploaded, buyers can rearrange furniture and add in new pieces to see how they may look at home. This feature allows buyers to know if a nightstand will complement the bed…or look completely out of place. It also ensures that the piece of furniture will fit in the space!
Ikea also offers a virtual showroom. Ikea’s Virtual Home Experience, however, is only available in store. The functionalities of the showroom, though, let users delve deep into their creative imagination. Ikea’s website notes that the application lets users swap in furniture, change lighting (to see how the room may look at night or during the day), and opt for different fabrics and hues. Ikea’s VR application is powered by the Oculus Rift.
AR to Change Our Appearance
AR can change the way we look…without changing anything! VR/AR programs allow users to upload photos and make changes to their hair, try makeup hues and, yes, even view plastic surgery results without undergoing the surgery. Wonder how you might look with a smaller nose? There is an AR technology to preview the new virtual you.
Sephora and other big beauty names allow users to upload a photo and try on products virtually. On the fence about a lipstick hue? Try it on virtually and see if it’s flattering…or a fail. For Sephora and other companies, this convenient tool may help reduce returns and maybe even lead to more purchases. If more than one eyeshadow looks amazing via the virtual preview, buyers may be more inclined to purchase multiple hues…especially if there is less uncertainty about the purchase.
Going for a bold short chic haircut may seem like a big decision. In the past, the potential answer to the burning question of ‘how will it look?’ remained a mystery until the style was completed. However, with AR apps like The Hair Styler, users can try on different styles and colors. Cosmetologists may see a benefit from these apps, as now their clients can show them specifically what they want and how they want it to look. Since the new style will be displayed on the client’s own photo, the style request can be visualized a bit more accurately.
In the past few years, cosmetic surgeons have seen an uptick in younger clientele. Today, it isn’t unusual for someone in their 20s to request fillers or perhaps even Botox. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, who has openly admitted to having lip fillers, also have made these minor cosmetic procedures much more acceptable.
However, more invasive procedures like rhinoplasty or face lifts may cause a bit of trepidation for those who are unsure what to expect from the augmentation. Face Touch Up helps take some of the guesswork out of these procedures; surgeons can use this app to show patients the final look after surgery. While the photos might not be an exact recreation, it can help patients visualize the results post-surgery.
AR for a Virtual Fitting Room
Retail fashion stores shut down during Covid didn’t have the means to let customers try on clothes. Even now, those fitting rooms may be locked for sanitation reasons to help stop the spread of the virus.
FXMirror may transform the way consumers shop for clothes in the store, as the technology eliminates the need for the store to have a fitting room. FXMirror includes a processor, Kinect camera, a wifi router, a virtual fitting application and a Cloth Authoring Tool (aka CAT). The technology works by taking a snapshot of the individual in 3D; measurements are captured that allow for a personalized avatar (choose your own image or a generated avatar). According to the website, users can change hairstyles, skin complexion, and rotate the image for a rear view of an outfit. FXMirror also allows users to change their facial expression. FXMirror can access the full inventory of the boutique or store.
While many fitting rooms are shut during the pandemic, these closed spaces also may present a risk for shoplifting. FXMirror and technology like it may help stores decrease the risk of theft while still providing a convenient virtual space for trying on clothing.
Virtual reality and augmented reality offer many benefits to businesses. This technology can help facilitate more seamless customer service interactions—especially for simple requests—and it also can improve employee training programs and give a boost to customer satisfaction/retention.
Virtual customer service assistants are a primary example of how many companies already utilize this technology. In addition, companies that offer VR training for employees may be the wave of the future, as more industries look for ways to better prepare employees for different scenarios they may face in their new job.
VR/AR used as a way to provide insight about purchases can amplify a company’s customer satisfaction and retention rates; virtual reality showrooms, AR programs that provide previews of beauty products and even a VR virtual fitting room all provide customers with the means to see a product before they make their purchase.
VR may be a solution to ensure that the customer is always right, while simultaneously minimizing the risk of returns or losing customers because an employee wasn’t right for the role.