Virtual Reality: Real Enough?
P&G's use of virtual reality in product development shows the headaches as well as the results that can come from putting business goals first.
In the early 2000s, it was clear the pressure to get new consumer products to market faster was accelerating. P&G needed to compress the time it took to create and test a product, so it needed to create package prototypes more quickly, show them to focus groups sooner, and iterate faster when test consumers panned the first try.
That meant modeling product packages digitally. P&G's IT organization turned to virtual reality, which at the time (2002) was barely in its infancy. For perspective, Second Life, the online virtual reality environment that enjoyed a fleeting burst of fame, didn't launch until 2003.
Bernard Eloy helped lead the virtual reality effort, as head of a team of technologists in P&G's Brussels office. They already were working with their peers in packaging design and consumer research, so they knew the problems well. Building a prototype bottle for a new fabric softener, for example, and creating a real-world mock shelf to test it with consumers took too long--many weeks. And if consumers hated a design, it would take several more weeks to get new versions out.
So the team in Brussels created a way to virtually create both a product and the shelf it would sit on, to appear on a life-size screen. Eloy remembers vividly the response he got when showing it to his business unit counterparts: "Their thinking was that it looked too much like a toy."
The team has continued refining its virtual reality environment, taking advantage of more powerful computers and graphics capabilities, and piggybacking on the explosion of video game innovation. Yet they also field-tested the "cartoonish" version and learned something important: The game-like digital environment didn't hurt the simulation. Comparison tests found that focus groups reacted much the same whether using the simulations or real-life mock-ups. Doing those tests also provided success stories, critical to getting a tool adopted. "People said this saved their product launch," Eloy says.
In one case, designers were making a laundry product with green packaging for European markets--and they didn't realize until the digital demo that a rival bottle looked nearly identical. Seeing their product designs on the shelf, next to competitors', has proved to be a key value of digital simulations. Consider that P&G brand managers could be taking a new product global, facing different sets of rivals in different countries.
Retailers also offered early support for the digital modeling. One of the first was a French convenience chain that wanted to redesign its stores. P&G could show the retailer what products would look like on its new shelves, as well as what promotions would look like in places around the new stores.
That's the next major step for this visual technology: showing an entire store, replicating the consumer experience of P&G products from the time a person walks up to the front door, grabs a cart, and heads down the aisle.
When it comes time to do a focus group using virtual reality, the IT team doesn't just switch on the technology. It provides whatever's needed to deliver that service, including keeping the library of product images up to date so there's a digital image of every competitor on file.
That's the big idea behind Passerini's global business services team, that a centralized team provides the services that business units need. Getting to that place, though, was anything but painless.