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May 23, 2016

Businesses, schools, hospitals test virtual-reality technology

PHOTO | Contributed A student at a college fair “tours” Denver's Regis University with the help of a virtual-reality headset.
PHOTO | Contributed Boston's Tufts Medical Center provides a 360-degree tour of its heart-catheterization lab as part of a VR video for patients.

The University of Hartford's business school is providing a virtual-reality tour of its campus to accepted students hoping to convert them into matriculating pupils this fall.

Tufts Medical Center in Boston is using virtual reality to educate patients and family about its heart catheterization lab before procedures.

More businesses, schools, hospitals and others are dipping their toes into the virtual-reality (VR) waters to see how they can exploit the mind-bending technology for myriad purposes, including to attract more customer attention.

“A lot of companies are starting to explore it because it's kind of all the rage right now,” said Melissa Tait, senior vice president of technology and project management for Farmington-based Primacy, an independent digital agency that did the VR work for the University of Hartford and Tufts.

While still in its infancy in terms of how companies and others use virtual reality, Tait sees it taking off. She said companies are using it for various reasons, including as a learning, marketing or entertainment tool, or even for escapism experiences.

Enhanced Storytelling

The New York Times, for example, included Google Cardboard VR headsets — into which a smartphone capable of playing video off a virtual-reality app is placed to create an immersive 360-degree visual experience — with a Sunday edition last fall as an enhanced storytelling technique.

McDonald's created a VR headset out of Happy Meal boxes in Sweden. Others in the VR realm include the likes of Red Bull and Marriott.

“When it first came out, everybody was thinking, 'Oh, this is all about gaming,' but it's going to be so much more than that,” Tait said.

Organizations are able to connect and tell stories in a different way using VR and are building off that, she said.

Future Trends in Virtual Reality

As an early adopter of virtual reality, Primacy is exploring other ways to use the technology, Tait said, believing VR will trend toward data connectivity. That could include interaction with application program interfaces to pull data into the VR experience, interaction with e-commerce where a user could tap to purchase something and interaction with search engines.

“There's a lot of activity around VR and everybody's trying to figure out, 'Where is it going to go next and what's my niche spot to be in?' ” she said.

Virtual reality is a way to get people's attention amid the daily bombardment of information and help cut through that clutter, said Ida Morris and Marisa Davis, marketing communications specialist and brand marketing manager, respectively, at MNI, a media planning and buying company based in Stamford.

MNI has pitched virtual reality on clients who are looking for ways to create an engaging, immersive experience with their target audience, Davis said.

Morris believes VR will appeal to younger audiences in particular.

“I feel like it's a very up-and-coming technology that is going to be especially important for Millennials who are going to want an immersive experience like that and are not satisfied with traditional marketing,” she said.

University experience

Colleges have been early adopters of VR technology. The University of Hartford's Barney School of Business tapped Primacy to develop its VR campaign, which immerses students into campus life via a customized and fully branded website with video and audio, and a Google Cardboard VR headset. In April, the school mailed the custom web-app and headsets to 1,300 students that were accepted by the university.

The goal is to turn them into part- of full-time students this fall.

“We wanted to find a way to stand out from other universities and show, not just tell, accepted students what life is truly like on campus, both inside the classroom and out,” said Marty Roth, dean and professor of management and marketing at the Barney School.

Denver's Regis University last September began providing a virtual-reality tour of its campus at college fairs to introduce prospective students to the school using an Oculus Rift VR headset.

Kim Frisch, dean in the office of admissions,said the technology “allows us to bring our campus anywhere,” inviting students, parents and counselors across the country to see and experience Regis and its Rocky Mountain surroundings through VR.

Regis, which also worked with Primary on its campaign, has seen its campus visitors increase 3.1 percent year over year.

“I think there's pretty good correlation between implementing virtual reality and the increase in our campus visitors,” Frisch said.

She expects VR will soon be commonplace in universities' recruiting toolboxes.

Healthcare uses

Primacy also worked with Tufts Medical Center on a virtual tour of its cardiac catheterization lab. In the video, Tufts provides a 360-degree tour of its cath lab, and features an actual patient just before a heart biopsy, a common procedure for heart-transplant recipients.

The video allows patients to see the facility beforehand, hear the types of questions they'll be asked by the doctor prior to a procedure, see staff and become comfortable with the process.

“Somebody who's educated about the procedure and knows what's going to happen … will be in a better frame of mind, which is actually really important,” said Dr. Carey Kimmelstiel, director of the cardiac cath lab and interventional cardiology at Tufts. “Secondly, they will be less nervous,” and able to ask more direct questions before the procedure. “I think everybody then gets to be more comfortable.”

The patient's family also can take the VR tour to have their questions answered, he said.

VR has uses beyond the cardiac cath lab, Kimmelstiel said.

“That's the first step that we did just because those patients have so many procedures … but it's gong to be expanded to other patient populations as well,” he said.

Tait sees myriad VR applications in health care, including creating escapism tours for children, perhaps to a theme park, or for chemotherapy patients transported to a calming beach scene and sunset while sitting for long treatments.

“We've had a lot of conversations with hospitals to use it in that fashion,” Tait said.

Outside perspective

Jeff Mard, vice president of business development and innovation at marketing communications agency Cronin and Co. LLC in Glastonbury, says there's client interest in VR and he expects the agency will deploy it this year — if it can serve clients' purposes.

Clients' objectives drive strategies on what marketing to use, he said.

“If VR is the right medium, terrific, but it's not a VR-first approach,” Mard said.

Can't Be a Gimmick

“It boils down to VR is one of many ways in which technology is helping clients market,” he said. “We're constantly looking not just at VR, but other ways to improve the bottom line” for clients.

Just because VR is cool, neat and new doesn't mean it will meet every client's objective.

“If it's just a neat gimmick, that's a lot of money to invest in something that's not really going to help them maintain profitability,” Mard said.

There are also challenges with VR that include ergonomics of headsets and how users navigate through the experience, Mard said.

Look for innovators such as Facebook, Google, Snapchat and GoPro to push VR as a viable medium within the ever evolving user experience mix, Mard said.

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