If transformational change and behaviour change programmes are going to truly engage their audiences – whether employees, customers or other stakeholders – they need to connect with those audiences emotionally as well as rationally.
Organisations traditionally tell their stories and share their motivational messaging through a variety of channels: in print, digitally, online, offline or in the environment.
Each of those modes of engagement has one thing in common – the medium is two-dimensional. That is, whether in print, or a moving image on-screen, we experience the content on flat surfaces. As a result, the transmission, consumption and motivational power of these messages is diluted by the huge number of distractions within our field of view.
Furthermore, no matter how powerful the story and message that’s being shared, as audience members we’re used to being at least partially-detached observers of world-changing events on the 24-hour rolling news cycle. So the message, even something as dynamic as a video case study, is likely to lack immediacy and emotional punch – essential elements to get us to even begin to countenance personal behaviour change.
So, how do we make this content more immersive, more engaging, more emotionally resonant – without piling on the drama and hyperbole? How do we own the audiences’ attention for the duration of the message?
Immersing the audience
We start by ensuring that the channel we use is all-encompassing, such that all the audience can experience is the message itself, to the exclusion of everything else.
So instead of watching, say, a powerful video case study on their phone or laptop screen, our audience member is within the story: to all intents and purposes stood (or sat) within the scene as the story plays out all around them. Furthermore, they can be the centre of the action – the protagonist, the hero of the story.
And what if we go further by giving them the power to shape the narrative? Empowering them to evolve the story, while it’s happening, just as they could if they were actually present. Imagine how much more emotionally engaged the viewer would be.
It sounds fanciful, but thanks to the ongoing surge in consumer-ready virtual reality (VR) technology, what was once firmly within the realms of science fiction is now an easily available, cost-effective, and incredibly powerful tool for organisations to literally immerse their audiences in their message.
With the launch of Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR) headset in October 2016 and Google’s Daydream VR headset in November, and the corresponding media push that will go with both, VR is about to become a mainstream technology (see Getting real panel). And many organisations are already harnessing the technology of VR to emotionally engage stakeholders and foment behaviour change at the highest levels.
Perhaps the leading example of the scope of VR to engage even the most hardened audiences is the UN-sponsored documentary Clouds Over Sidra, a short but powerfully immersive film about the daily life of a young Syrian refugee in a Jordanian camp. The film was shown via GearVR headsets to hundreds of UN delegates at a recent General Assembly, transporting them into the life of Sidra and creating profound empathy with her plight and that of all refugees – some of the delegates were moved to tears by the experience.
Since then the UN has funded a range of other VR films to increase awareness and fundraise for a variety of global health and social issues, including Under the Net to help fight malaria.
But it’s not just the United Nations using VR to change behaviours. AT&T has funded the creation of It Can Wait, an interactive and visceral VR experience that persuades people to avoid using mobile phones while driving. And pioneers of the current consumer VR technology, Oculus, has launched VR for Good, a programme to help filmmakers harness the burgeoning medium for social change.
Brave new world
VR’s unique ability to place people into a convincing ‘real world’ (or indeed fantasy) scenario is seeing it adopted in a wide variety of practical situations, including virtual tourism and virtual meetings, immersive training, enabling physicians to master the latest surgical techniques, helping designers streamline sports cars, supporting war veterans to deal with PTSD, and offering convincing walkthroughs of architects’ plans before the builder breaks ground.
VR is also already in use in the classroom. For example, Google’s Expeditions programme, is helping teachers bring lessons to life with immersive, virtual journeys to a range of exotic locales, such as the ruins of Machu Picchu or even the surface of Mars. Many commentators see VR as an essential component of the future of education.
But aside from its many roles in enhancing training, how might businesses use VR to aid organisational transformation or wider behaviour change?
As we’ve seen, VR is perfect for sharing emotive story content with employees, customers or influencers. That might be a story about a new or refreshed brand, or a renewed commitment to living an organisational purpose or values, or perhaps a case study on the efforts of colleague volunteers, or a story to inspire employees or customers to help choose a cause to champion.
On this last example, imagine instead of asking participants to choose a corporate cause via traditional ‘two-dimensional’ case studies, you immersed them instead into the story – as the UN did with Clouds Over Sidra. You might enable your audiences to experience life on a city centre street to better empathise with homelessness, for example, or see the difference made by unfettered access to clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa by transporting your audience to meet the beneficiaries eye to eye…
Virtual Reality offers a unique and incredibly powerful channel for engaging with your stakeholders on an emotional level unmatched by any other medium. As VR entrepreneur and Clouds Over Sidra director Chris Milk puts it, VR is an “empathy machine”.
As such it has the potential to become a crucial tool in the armoury of the behaviour change practitioner.
The tech behind modern VR is relatively simple. A headset houses a hi-resolution screen (often a mobile phone display), the attached computer (either a tethered PC or console, or a mobile phone clipped into the headset itself) provides the video content and splits it into two slightly offset images to provide the illusion of depth, and a pair of custom lenses distort the images into a stereoscopic view that allows our eyes to focus on the content despite it being on a screen mere centimetres away.
Crucially, motion detectors in the headset accurately track head movement. So wherever we look, however quickly, the screen updates so we see the virtual world exactly as we would the real. The content might be pre-recorded (so-called 360o) video which allows us to be an observer within the scene, or fully computer generated in real-time, which enables us to influence the world and even physically interact with it using hand-held controllers – thus extending our agency into the virtual world
Sony’s October 2016 launch of PSVR is targeted at a potential user base of 40m+ PlayStation 4 console owners. It joins PC-powered headsets from Facebook-backed Oculus with its Rift, and HTC’s Vive (created with game publisher Valve). Samsung’s GearVR and Google’s Daydream VR are cheaper – though technically less compelling – solutions, which require a top-of-the-line Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel phone, respectively, to be plugged in for screen and processor duties.