After a shaky start virtual reality is coming into its own, with
marketers ideally placed to exploit its potential. James Curtis looks at
how this technology is already being used
When virtual reality came on to the scene in the mid-80s it was heralded
as one of the most important advances made in computing. It suddenly
became possible to live in a ‘virtual’ world which allowed us to push
forward the boundaries of experience. Developed by NASA as a training
tool for astronauts, VR has always been on the leading-edge of
technology and its potential for use in design and industry was quickly
But you could be forgiven for thinking this early promise has not been
fulfilled. VR has been wholeheartedly embraced by the entertainment
industry and Hollywood, but not so much by business. It has become the
ultimate computer game, while talk of ‘virtual sex’ and the making of
films like Lawnmower Man have given it an almost trivial image.
Commercial applications for VR have taken longer to surface, but at last
they seem to be coming to the fore and marketing is ideally placed to
Sainsbury’s, Lever Brothers and the Co-op are all getting involved,
using VR to design stores and, most recently, FMCG. Lever Brothers will
soon launch a new Persil kitchen cleaner designed using VR.
VR is also used in high-tech engineering For example, Rolls-Royce uses
it in jet engine design, and British Nuclear Fuels uses it to design
nuclear power station control rooms.
Although it is catching on, VR is still dependent on enthusiasts to
sell it - people who believe in it, know what it can do and how it can
be applied to a range of uses. Professor Bob Stone and his team at
Salford-based VR Solutions are key figures in driving the technology
forward, having worked with NASA in its earliest stages of development.
‘We had to go out into the field and sell it with sheer enthusiasm. It’s
all about showing what the technology can do,’ says Stone.
‘I believe VR will become a standard design tool. It has more to offer
than computer-aided design, but it will not replace it. It is an
informal front-end which can be used to experiment with new designs. It
allows you to interact with, and explore, the design in a way you can’t
VR’s biggest high street champion to date is Sainsbury’s,which has been
working with VR Solutions since January 1995 and has built an
interactive 3-D virtual model of the retailer’s Salford branch.
Designers can walk around the store, pick products from the shelves,
take them to the checkout and make immediate improvements to shelf,
aisle and gondola layouts.
On screen, the back wall of the Salford store can be instantly replaced
with the Stoke-on-Trent store design. Sainsbury’s anticipates that VR
will dramatically reduce its store design and development by saving on
time and money.
Mike Broughton, senior manager of technical infrastructure at
Sainsbury’s, says the company will be able to cut its pounds 650m store
development budget dramatically.
VR is used in all Sainsbury’s store designs, particularly the new
Country Town units, the first of which will open soon. Broughton says
anyone who can use Lotus Amipro or Microsoft Word can use the VR design
In a demonstration to the board, Broughton claims that an untrained
designer performed a store layout from scratch in 45 minutes.
Broughton says that now VR is incorporated into the everyday operations
of the company, Sainsbury’s can now look at ways of using VR in
merchandising and product design. ‘We could design a virtual Easter or
Christmas range and test it on shoppers without having to build it,’ he
The opportunity VR provides for retailers to involve their customers in
design is important, says Stone. ‘You can get local people in and ask
them where they like things to go and it will give them a sense of
Caroline Taylor, marketing director of PSD Associates, which works with
VR Solutions to create virtual images of packaged goods, believes that
the technology has ‘huge potential in store and packaging design’.
‘You can see how your product looks next to the competition when the
shelves are full, and then take another look later in the day when they
are emptying,’ she says.
Taylor also claims VR technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible
than many people think.
Headsets that once cost pounds 10,000 can be bought for under pounds
500. Hardware costs around pounds 12,000 and the software can be bought
for as little as pounds 3000.
Supplementary packages, such as smell and touch sensors, can be added
for around pounds 5000 each. Stone anticipates that eye sensors,
measuring the viewer’s response to different product and interior
designs, can be integrated at a relatively modest cost.
It is perhaps VR’s use in packaging design that offers the most
opportunities, allowing products to be ‘road tested’ in their home
environment to maximise their impact on the shelf.
This technique can be used to test different types of packaging without
the need to build a prototype until the very last minute.
Lever Brothers used it in the development of its new Persil product.
‘You can open the lid and use it in a virtual kitchen,’ says Stone,
adding that the milk carton may have reached a user-friendly stage
sooner if it was designed using VR.
As well as experimenting with different surface designs, designers can
use VR to test the mechanics of the packaging: the opening, the balance
and the ease of use. As Taylor says: ‘You can take the product through
its life cycle - take it off the shelf and see how easy it is to open
If touch sensors are incorporated into VR, users will have the benefit
of feeling the texture of the packaging. Raw material suppliers are also
keen to find out what VR can offer them.
British Steel Tinplate is interested in it as a way to test new steel
weights and shapes for cans, and it discussed the concept at the Steel
Packaging Congress in Dusseldorf in March.
David Jones, manager of research and development for British Steel
Tinplate, says VR can be used to assess loads on cans. ‘If you can save
on the steel costs you can spend more on marketing and packaging the
product,’ he says.
Marketers are also evaluating the potential use of VR in business
presentations. The technology can add a new dimension to traditional
multimedia packages and allow the viewer to interact much more with the
The Development Board for Rural Wales is one of the first to use it in
this context, and has used it as a tool for selling business units in
VR Solutions has developed a briefcase-sized VR package for mobile
presentations which runs through a Pentium lap-top computer and comes
with its own mini headset.
The viewer is taken on a tour of the units, which are visualised in
industrial or office use, depending on the requirements of the potential
user. Allowed to ‘walk’ freely around the units, the viewer can open
doors to look into rooms, and see the Welsh countryside from the
windows. For detailed information about facilities and fittings in the
units, the viewer can click on equipment, such as the boiler or the
windows, and a digitised close-up photograph appears on the screen
together with technical information.
‘You can show the units to people in London without the need for them to
travel to Wales,’ says Stone, adding that this is the first time VR is
commercially available in a briefcase.
There is obvious potential for travel agents to use VR in the same way -
for example, showing customers virtual images of holiday accommodation
from the office.
Stone, Taylor and Broughton agree that business has to get used to the
idea that VR is within its grasp and is a valuable tool.
It is not as expensive as people think; it can be run on a PC and staff
do not have to be specially trained to use it.
‘VR has various roles in the marketing mix and can be used across the
whole company. People shouldn’t try to justify it against one small
stage,’ says Stone.