TECHNOLOGY: Virtual virtues

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

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

take advantage.

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

with CAD.’

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

and use.’

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

Newtown, Wales.

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.


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