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Every once in while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” It is hard to believe it was a little less than 10 years ago that the great Steve Jobs spoke these words when introducing the iPhone to the world in 2007. An entire new industry was disrupted and a whole new set of disciplines created for smartphone application designers, developers, tool makers and digital marketers.

In 2012, we once again experienced one of these key moments, where virtual reality (VR) hit the mainstream with the introduction of Oculus Rift as a hugely successful Kickstarter project, which was later acquired by Facebook. VR is the newest digital engagement channel, and the Rift was, at the time, essentially uncontested in the industry. Since then, the market has been quick to capitalize on the rise of VR and its potential for use cases such as gaming, shopping, education, training and healthcare (to name a few). 2016 is often dubbed “the year of VR” with the launch of the consumer release of the Oculus Rift, as well as a lineup of other key players including HTC, Samsung, Sony, Google, and Microsoft.

Just as the smartphone quickly transformed from a consumer product into a key digital channel for customer engagement, virtual and augmented reality (AR) will soon experience the same transition. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on virtual reality; however, augmented and mixed reality will also play a key role in human-computer interaction (see the footnote at the end of this article).

Like many mediums before it, VR in these early years suffers from a lack of high quality content. While there are abundant pre-recorded 360-degree video experiences to enjoy, engaging interactive non-gaming experiences are still rare — and, when found, they are often one-off experiences that can be perceived as gimmicks.

So, what’s missing? How can businesses find success and rise above the noise and gimmicks? The answer: Make it personal, and focus on the customer’s digital journey with your brand.

To successfully engage customers, an organization must understand where that customer is in his/her engagement  journey and the channels that he or she uses to engage with the brand. This is not new; the philosophy of omni-channel customer experience is well established and is equally applicable to VR. For example, a customer who adds items to a cart in a VR shopping experience should be able to continue the experience seamlessly on a smartphone or tablet, and should have the same level of personalization in each channels.

The Salesforce Customer Success Platform enables the execution of such omni-channel customer experiences and empowers businesses to define a customer journey across all channels, including VR.

That said, one must wonder what the market opportunity is for virtual and augmented reality.  Is it significant enough to warrant the investment today? Digi-Capital’s forecast is well referenced and predicts the AR/VR market segment to have $120B in revenue by 2020, and approx. $50B in 2018. To put this in perspective, the actual revenue of the global mobile app market was $41.1B in 2015 (see AppAnnie report). If Digi-Capital’s forecast is therefore accurate, in 2018 - just two years from now - we can expect a VR/AR industry the size of the entire mobile app market in 2015, with VR representing half of that!

 While the applications of VR to gaming are self-evident, use cases for early adoption of virtual reality go far beyond gaming. Here are innovative ways companies can capitalize on the rise of VR, especially to the benefit their customers and overall improvement their customer experience:

 Automotive (Sales & Marketing)

Automotive companies can set up a “digital dealership,” where a VR headset is provided as part of the experience to customize the buyer’s desired vehicle — followed by continued engagement through other channels, such as mobile and email, leading to a sale. The customer can be engaged at the dealership, in a pop-up store, or at home. In all cases, the customer’s selections and activities within the VR experience can be used to enrich the customer profile and drive more intimate and tailored marketing across other channels.

 Live Entertainment (eCommerce)

When a concert-goer wants to buy tickets to a show, VR can be used to "jump in" and preview the experience. Consumers can switch between seats, see the stage, and hear a simulated 3D sound, which can drastically influence buying decisions. To make the experience more intimate, Salesforce can be used to leverage the customer’s loyalty member status to offer and experience preferential seating, special offers, and similar information that personalizes and enriches their overall experience.

 Field Service

A field service worker who performs his or her work in a hands-free environment experiences productivity benefits from VR technology: Using VR provides direct access to on-the-job training which, in turn, makes their work environments safer because, through the use of VR simulations, they’ve already learned how to work in potentially dangerous environments. In the case of AR, the hands-free field service worker can employ in-the-field technical assistance and access visual workflows, tasks and work orders using gestures and voice commands. The content can be served directly from the Salesforce knowledge base, and the tasks configured and delivered through the platform.

 Audience Reach

To execute on a given use case, one must understand the factors that impact scalability (the ability to reach a mass audience on their own devices vs. centralised in-store experiences). Today, a high-end immersive and interactive experience requires a premium headset such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, tethered to a powerful computer, which can cost upwards of $2,500 (USD) for the whole setup. At this point, this setup is reserved for serious gamers, hardcore VR enthusiasts and organizations with an in-store (or pop-up store) experience such as the Audi Dealer in a box or Merrill experience.  

 The other end of the spectrum is to experience VR on a mobile phone placed in a Google Cardboard headset, which delivers a much simpler VR experience due to the more limited processing power of a smartphone, as compared to a gaming PC. There are in-between solutions coming to market such as the Sulon headset. Regardless of the ‘distribution’ model, it is possible to achieve an effective engagement level across all these solutions if the experience is designed carefully.

 Getting Started with Enterprise VR

Here are four steps to getting started with enterprise VR use cases:

1. Find use cases where immersion and 3D interactions add value to your customer’s experience (e.g., customizing a physical product). Challenge yourself if the use case can be delivered through other mediums such as mobile or web (challenge yourself to identify a use case that can only be delivered through VR?).
2. Determine how the experience can be personalized if empowered by a customer profile / context (e.g., presenting relevant products and offers based on a shopper’s known preferences, past history and recent abandoned online shopping cart).
3. Identify interactions in the VR experience that would enrich the profile (e.g., send back to Salesforce relevant selections and choices made within the experience that can enhance future 1:1 marketing offers and campaigns).
4. Decide on how this experience best fits into the customer journey for your brand. Should it be an in-store (or pop-up store) experience with a high-end VR setup, or a scalable but less immersive mobile app experience?

We encourage businesses to experiment, collaborate with partners and digital agencies, field test and iterate on ideas. Like many innovations that we now take for granted, it takes numerous iterations to get it right.

We are still at the beginning of this journey. Ultimately, the destination will be an amazing place where more intimate and truly personal computing will be woven naturally into our lives and how we work, collaborate, create, and communicate. The great inventions that our future generations will bring to life as a result of this new medium are unimaginable — and that’s really exciting.

A note on Augmented and Mixed Reality:

For the purpose of this article, I’ve focused on virtual reality; however, the fields of virtual and augmented reality are merging. Vendors such as Microsoft, the Google-backed Magic Leap and newcomers such as Sulon are producing headsets that cater to both. In fact, these solutions allow the experience designer to dial up the digital content to the point where it takes over the entire field of view, thus achieving virtual reality, or dialing down digital content to a limited set of “objects” that augment our existing world. This is referred to as mixed reality and the article’s key messages apply equally to both virtual and augmented/mixed reality.