How Companies Will Use VR and Read Your Brainwaves to Sell You More Stuff

Shopping will be optimized through AR, VR, and biometrics.

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Aug 17 2016, 2:30pm

Wearing an EEG and Samsung Gear VR headset, the test subject uses a controller to navigate through the VR environment. Image: Mark Willard

I'm passing through the front foyer of a major Chinese bank. I careen through well-lit hallways and teller booths, before sliding by some signage written in Cantonese. It's as if I'm there, minus the tellers, customers, and sounds of a bustling financial institution.

But the thing is, I'm not actually in China, or in a bank, although it almost feels as though I am. I'm using the Microsoft HoloLens to see a visual representation of this branch's layout, as designed by Toronto branding and design agency Shikatani Lacroix. Augmented reality gives me a bird's eye view of the scene. I then put on a Samsung Gear headset, and take a VR tour of the same space.

What I'm experiencing is part of the design firm's offering to its clients: An application that creates realistic retail environments using 3D technology, visualized through augmented reality and virtual reality. Experts say they can then analyze a consumer's brainwaves to judge how they're responding to the virtual environment, via electroencephalogram, or EEG. The EEG capability comes from a new partnership with True Impact, a neuromarketing research firm.

VR bank kiosks. Image: Shikatani Lacroix

This marriage of technologies is still in its newlywed phase, and it's difficult to assess its value this early. But it's easy to understand the appeal. Instead of a design firm building dollhouse prototypes to show focus groups, it can tour consumers through the environment in AR or VR, and report back to a client on what excited or bored them, using intimate details to make the case: These consumers will be outfitted with sensors across their bodies, including EEG.

"What we found with VR is that people aren't always honest about how they feel about what they're seeing," said Daniel Terenzio, head of immersive solutions at Shikatani Lacroix. "But we eliminate that with neuroscience."

A Chinese bank is this technology's first client, which Terenzio declined to name, although the VR and AR environment I experienced was a generic one. Their tests found that in areas with lots of information and detail, for example where large signs were displayed, "cognitive responses go up," noted Terenzio in our interview, "but in areas with larger more empty spaces that cognitive effort level goes down and it's more soothing and restful."

A test subject is fitted with an EEG and Microsoft HoloLens headgear to view the AR retail environment. Image: Mark Willard

Shikatani Lacroix is not the first to harness neuroscience to give brands detailed data on what their consumers supposedly want. More companies are embracing it.

Earlier this year, Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist and executive vice president of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, spoke at the Digiday Retail Summit about how tools such as eye tracking, EEG and biometrics can help brands identify visual hot spots (areas in a store or on a product that attract the most attention) and blind spots and determine levels of emotional impact. For instance, wearing an eye-tracking glasses unit and EEG sensors, you can walk through a fake store and a firm can determine which area of the shelf your eyes turned to most and what made your heart rate fluctuate during your shopping trip.

AR and VR are also finding a home in retail. In 2013, IKEA introduced an app to let customers "place" a product in their home by placing the outline of that table, for example, in a living room space.

The web interface. Image: Shikatani Lacroix

And earlier this year, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba allowed shoppers to check out their goods on a VR headset to view at clothing and other fashion items in 360 degrees. This move comes several months after Alibaba opened a VR research lab to develop VR and AR technologies to help sellers on Alibaba platforms build their own 3D product inventories.

Terenzio demonstrated to me how they use a tablet outfitted with AR technology to display a digital label on a bottle of Pepsi (one of their clients), wrapping around the product fully. As I turned the bottle around, on the tablet I saw the new label, a moving image as opposed to a static one.

"This is a much better way to show clients how a label will look on their product, rather than just showing them flat pictures," said Terenzio.

When I first heard about what Shikatani Lacroix was unveiling, I had that initial creepy feeling of "Oh great, another company hoping to read our brains to sell us more stuff." It made me think of something out of a Cronenberg movie. But from their clients' perspective, it could save a lot of money. Who wouldn't want a virtual tour of a new shopping mall you're about to build, say, instead of seeing its miniature model that you literally can't walk through?

Reading our minds to build better stores and products will be the future of retail, for better or worse. Responsible companies have to ensure consumers give consent to have their bodies scanned to optimize shopping. It would be a dark day if this neuromarketing spun out of control: if we walked into a bank and didn't know our heart rates were being monitored.

Correction: A clarification has been added to specify that the VR and AR environments experienced by the writer were of a generic bank, not the client of Shikatani Lacroix.