Exploring the future through VR: the PricewaterhouseCoopers experience
“An interactive virtual reality experience that allows users to explore a potential future by looking, interacting with, and walking around that world.”
— Jeremy Dalton, PwC
The VR experience created by PricewaterhouseCoopers for clients immerses its users in a future vision of the world, where interactions with self-driving cars, robotic police forces and full-body scanning facilities are commonplace and take place while walking down the street.
What are its objectives?
PwC devised the virtual reality experience to help their clients think about what the world might look like in the coming decades and how future trends may affect their businesses. The company’s VR and AR lead, Jeremy Dalton, acknowledges that it can be difficult for all of us to imagine the future – and trying to describe it in 2D through a third person narrative is not an engaging experience. To combat this, the PwC team has built a future view of the world that illustrates how the forces currently driving us forward – the technological advances in immersive tech, Artificial Intelligence and robotics, as well as the geographic, social and climate trends – might impact on our future.
“We’re digging deep into the core strength of VR, which is its immersive nature, and applying this to a business context,” explains Jeremy. Using the medium of storytelling, they have built a scenario that takes the user on a journey, first by driverless car, then stepping out to explore a streetscape with all the interactions this offers – ordering a coffee, reading advertisements, watching drones flying overhead.
“You can try to describe to somebody how automation might affect the jobs market in the future and they get it in a theoretical sense,” says Jeremy. “But as soon as you order your coffee from a barista robot, you really get the message in a way that is more meaningful.”
How does it work?
Clever storytelling tricks drive key messages home. The moving billboards flash up the pension age – in this new world it’s now 85 – and a newscaster beamed from a live screen talks about new healthcare plans for the future generation. This might be a brave new world but it uses the classic mantra of traditional storytelling techniques, “show not tell”.
For example, ordering a coffee is far from a spontaneous decision and instead is prompted by the automatic body scanning that reveals you are slightly dehydrated, advising you to stop for a drink. Don’t want to? A flash screen notifies you that your health insurance has just been increased by 0.2%. In this new world, your personal details are constantly available to others.
On-street advertisements are individually targeted to each user, while invitations to “design the body of your dreams” prompt strong reactions from users, Jeremy reveals. “We’ve inspired very strong reactions from participants, which have been both negative and positive. And that was our objective. This experience is meant to inspire strong emotions, debate and conversation.”
“Essentially, we have gamified this world,” says Jeremy, “and there are 20 different disruptors in the sequence to explore. The technology makes it easy to access and very impactful, with the idea being that the experience will inspire new conversations afterwards.”
What’s the technology behind it?
The user is immersed in the world through a HTC Vive headset and the software runs off a laptop and transformer. PwC partnered with REWIND to develop the experience, which is supported for room scale and uses standard transportation features. The user is immersed in the experience, while other participants in the room watch as it unfolds on a large screen.
And the technology is entirely portable – an important consideration for PwC who can take the experience out to client workshops all over the world. The full-size screen, headsets, controls and all of the accessories pack neatly into a slim carry case.
What have the challenges been?
One of the biggest challenges, confirms Jeremy, was producing a narrative; creating a story that would take in all aspects of this new world was not an easy thing to do. “We were trying to balance conveying the message with creating an entertaining storyline that flowed, and we had to do it in a limited time constraint of 10 minutes”.
The narrative was produced in house and took several months to develop, working across several stakeholder teams, from cyber security to AI, as well as the sponsor group. Then the narrative had to be translated into a fully functioning VR experience. In total, the development time for the project was 12 weeks, with the main bulk of that time being spent in script and narrative development, followed by the development of the VR experience and its functionality.
And the feedback?
“We did the first focus group in Barcelona and we were delighted with the feedback from participants,” Jeremy confirms. Asked to describe the experience in a word, using a free text box with no prompts or suggestions, the list of words chosen was quite inspiring and included “amazing, interesting, insightful, futuristic, realistic, fascinating and immersive”.
And its ratings were also high. Participants were asked how useful the experience had been in helping them think differently about the future, rating it on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being the highest. The end results scored largely 4s and 5s.
This innovative project has met its objectives in terms of client feedback. “We didn’t have a world-changing goal for this,” says Jeremy. “Its goal was simple, to reflect our future and help clients better understand it – and use this experience to have richer conversations around it.”
Despite the hugely positive feedback, Jeremy reveals there are improvements that can be made to the platform. “There are 20 different disruptors in this world, each signified by a D symbol which the user can click on to explore. But most users are so immersed in the action around them that they don’t focus on the symbol and fail to click for more information.” The next iteration of the project will look at ways of highlighting the disruptor more effectively, for example through changing colour palettes.
PwC is also looking past this platform with a view to creating additional worlds beyond this street. Other segments with more business relevance can also be created, as Jeremy explains. “What if you could call a vehicle and go to the rural mine or take a drone to an oil rig or even enter a store and go through a full transaction. We have lots of ideas relating to different industries, for example in retail, banking, manufacturing, oil and gas, and there is scope to build out and connect to these spaces.”
One of the most innovative aspects of the experience is the ability to benchmark feedback across all user groups. Throughout the experience users can highlight disruptions, which are reported back to them at the end with a question asking how impactful each disruption will be to their business. This data is collected and can be analysed and benchmarked against the views of previous users. Within companies, team members can see how their views rank against those of their colleagues and there also the potential to benchmark a company’s views against those of its competitors.
Words by Bernadette Fallon