Imagine this: you’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, ready to head off on your daily commute. But rather than place your hands on the wheel and start driving, the car takes care of the work for you, while you enjoy a coffee, answer some emails, and catch up on the news. Because every other car on the road is also a self-driving machine, there’s no need to watch out for erratic or distracted drivers, and before you know it, you’re at your office and the car is ready to zip off for another trip, rather than wastefully sitting in a parking lot for the next eight hours.
Now you take the headset off. The VR simulation has come to an end, and you’re back in the real world. The next time you get in your car, you notice just how annoying it is to always have to be on guard, sitting in traffic while someone tries to cut you off. Maybe you knew about self driving cars beforehand, but the idea always seemed a little scary — though now that you’ve “lived” it, suddenly the status quo seems pretty awful. You experienced the future, and it’s mighty hard to go back.
In recent years, people have taken to referring to VR as the “empathy machine,” largely based on a TED talk by acclaimed director Chris Milk. And that’s true — up to a point. But to call VR the empathy machine limits the possibilities of the medium, because it could be used for so much more. In fact, VR should be seen as the future machine — a way to immerse people in worlds that don’t yet exist, to create comfort with and demand for those coming realities. Until this point, we’ve had to use our imaginations when it comes to the future — but now, we can actually move around inside of the next world. We can interact with it and be part of it, and when the headset does come off, we’re left with a desire to revisit it and make it real.
One of the great use cases for VR right now is for rapid future prototyping — figuring out which visions make the most sense. For any company looking to do market research, VR should be an absolute cornerstone of their strategy. There is no other technology that gives us the ability to A/B test a whole new world and subtly guide consumer behavior and create demand while doing so. Sure, brands could use it to determine which products catch a consumer’s eye while they walk down a virtual aisle or which side of branching narrative most people look towards — but they could also think bigger. What does the ideal world look like for this brand, and how does the journey to get there play out?
A major caution — at this stage, these shouldn’t be overt. If the future you imagine is a future where your brand name is slathered everywhere, people will be out of the headset and groaning within minutes. Rather, this is an opportunity to think about the bigger picture and the next wave of technology, and how a brand fits into an increasingly on-demand, consumer focused, mobile world.
Take, for example, Whole Foods. When Amazon bought the company, there was talk about using it as a launching pad for their smart-shopping strategy, where consumers simply swipe a device and then put items in a basket, swiping again on the way out — no more waiting in line. While this hasn’t gone wide yet — and indeed, Sam’s Club it hot on their heels with their own mobile shopping technology — it might only be a matter of time and of convincing customers that this is the future they want. If a VR experience allowed someone to live inside a world where this convenience is possible, it might make the next time they were stuck in line behind someone paying with pennies (it still happens, trust me) all the more annoying, and cause them to question why this ideal world isn’t possible yet. That would in turn create demand, and whoever could fulfill that demand first would win the day.
This has vast implications beyond simple commerce as well, and this is where the empathy machine concept could come back into play. All signs point to an increasingly urban and diverse world in the next few generations, and yet there are vast swathes of the population who stubbornly refuse to realize this reality. There is an incredible amount of fear, and using VR to let people live in worlds where they interact with cities and diverse populations could create a level of comfort and understanding that would make them more open to change and transition. For brands that want to thrive in a global economy and support tolerance, allowing people to live in virtual worlds or have virtual conversations would be an amazing way to plant a flag and create real value.
A few weeks ago, there was a short NPR piece on Sci Futures, which works with science fiction writers for create future scenarios for companies. Think of VR as a way to take this to the next level, exponentially — rather than a few thought leaders reading these pieces, millions of people could live them and get a chance to see where things are headed before we get there. The battle for the future is being fought right now — but those of us who embrace VR will have a leg up when it comes to letting people see what can come next and getting them to believe in the possibilities of change.