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At Salesforce, understanding our customers is what gets us out of bed in the morning (and occasionally keeps us up at night). We know their problems are incredibly complex: from curing cancer to providing services to children with autism to gaining a 360-vision of shoppers. Incorporating this complexity into our software is no small feat: we need our product development teams to empathize with incredibly diverse users across many industries.

So, we’re always looking for innovative ways to better know our customers and share this knowledge across our organizations. And because we’re not afraid of experimenting a little bit (to say the least), our user experience team has started using Virtual Reality (VR) to conduct customer research on location with real users and streaming these sessions back to many of our Salesforce colleagues in real time. For more details, watch our VR session from Dreamforce, where speakers Andrew Conn (Director, Product Design) and Megan Kierstead (that’s me - Senior User Researcher) talk about the practical nature of doing VR User Research. The video just so happened to be filmed in 360° video, a first for Dreamforce!

Virtual Reality Has Moved Beyond Hype

In our not so humble opinions, VR has moved squarely beyond hype and games into the useful, practical, and widely applicable. Gartner agrees with us, as can be seen on their 2016 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology, where VR has gotten upgraded to “the Slope of Enlightenment”. But more relevant than some head-in-the-clouds report: we’ve seen it through our research.

Photo credit & copyright: Gartner, Inc.

VR Scales Empathy & Institutional Knowledge

VR provides an incredibly immersive, sensory experience that allows viewers to connect deeply with the lives of those being recorded. By seeing someone’s world from their perspective, you can more fully empathize with their viewpoint and understand their pain.

At Salesforce, this means we can use VR to better appreciate the complexity of our customers’ needs by recording them performing their jobs and sharing these 360° videos widely across our organizations. We’re still in the early days of this work, but it’s incredibly exciting. You can really feel what it’s like be interacting with a patient in a doctor’s office or selling shoes in a department store. Understanding users more deeply will only lead to developing better and better products. Salesforce is one of the very first companies in the world to be using VR to understand its customers.

This is a 360-degree VR video. On a phone, move around or use your finger to look in any direction. On a laptop, click and drag with your mouse.

Minimum Viable VR is Crazy Cheap

The best part? Our VR research has been cheap to set up and scale. Our team has a very lean mentality and always tries a “minimal viable idea” before going all in on an experiment. Lucky for us, consumer-grade cameras have rapidly decreased in price and are only improving every quarter (seriously). The equipment we use to conduct our research costs less than $1000 in its entirety, which includes two cameras with live streaming capabilities, cords, multiple Google Cardboard headsets, and all the software we need to do our jobs. That’s insanely cheap for technology that was literally science fiction for Marty McFly in Back To The Future. Even the most frugal budgets can afford this setup.

Photo credit & copyright: Universal City Studios, Inc.

And things are getting better every day. It’s bonkers. For example, Nikon recently announced a 4k 360 VR camera that costs around $500. You can throw this camera around and immerse it in water all while capturing incredibly sharp 360 video. Something like this would have cost a few thousand dollars just a year ago. That’s how fast things are moving in this space.

Interested In VR At Your Company? Let’s Talk.

As the technology improves, so will our ability to scale empathy using VR. If you’re a Salesforce customer and you’re interested in doing VR work with us, send us an email at vr@salesforce.com. You’ll be one of the first companies in the world to participate in this sort of cutting edge customer research.

To learn more about VR at Salesforce- in 360° view- check out the VR session at Dreamforce on your smartphone.