A Massey University PhD student is hoping to spin his thesis on virtual reality into market research gold.
Alex Schnack started a stock standard marketing doctoral thesis in Palmerston North two years ago, examining the effectiveness of product packaging.
The only affordable way to do that for a student was consumer surveys, but he soon ran into a familiar problem. People lie, they tell the researcher what they think is the right answer, or what makes them look good.
His solution was to use virtual reality headsets, to put people in a virtual store where every conceivable combination of packaging and shelving could be tried with little extra cost.
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Schnack was surprised to find little evidence of anyone doing that already, and set out to be one of the first in New Zealand to offer it as a commercial service to retailers.
He had known first-hand how unreliable consumer survey were from doing research with non-profit organisations back home in Germany.
“Everybody I asked said ‘yeah, I definitely give to charity, and would donate to this organisation’.
“But when you looked at the actual rate of donations, it definitely wasn’t 100 per cent of people.”
The trouble was, the only other option to gather information on consumer behaviour is to set up in-store trials which can cost thousands if not millions of dollars, he said.
However, the first consumer virtual reality headsets were released just as Schnack began his research, and it struck him as the perfect solution.
“I wondered why no-one was using it for market research. [So] I thought the time was right to jump into this VR gap.”
Schnack called on a computer programmer friend to help him build a virtual reality system that would suit his needs. The testing area was a four-by-four-metre empty space, enough room for a couple of virtual supermarket aisles.
Virtual shoppers can hear sounds such as the hum of freezers, passing cars, and snatches of background conversation, so Schnack could gauge how the atmosphere of a shop affects what they buy.
Ultimately, he hopes to expand the testing space and add smells and temperature changes to the tests to create an even more realistic environment.
“I’m taking small steps, it’s very new technology and it’s still very novel and expensive. It’s all hard to get on a PhD student’s budget.”
But his budget could soon expand now he’s working with Massey spin-off company Consumer Insights, with both national and international retailers paying to use his system.
Schnack has also recently moved to Auckland, where he hopes to make commercial connections to help fund further research.
Schnack’s PhD supervisor Malcolm Wright immediately saw the idea’s potential.
“We’ve already run several successful studies, and we are now working with clients both nationally and internationally,” hw said.