Lessons learned on the ground from Viscira

By Rick Barker, chief operating officer for Viscira

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have experienced incredible growth since 2013, when the first Oculus Rift VR headset hit the market and provided a whole new sense of what was possible. Since then, there has been a market explosion in AR and VR applications and a “headset race” by such technology titans as Facebook (who now owns Oculus), Microsoft (PlayStation VR), Samsung (Gear VR), and Google (Google Cardboard) – all striving to capture mindshare and market share in what is now a multibillion-dollar market.

AR and VR are also having a transformative impact in the healthcare industry. Today, global biotech and pharma marketing clients are using the technology for a host of purposes, including brand marketing, disease education, training, general awareness building, and patient communication programs. In fact, the global AR and VR healthcare market is expected to reach $5.1 billion by 2025, according to a recent report by Grand View Research.

Viscira’s first foray into AR and VR dates back to 2011, when we created a VR conference exhibit called EyeMac. This VR program enabled physicians to simulate the experience of having neovascular (“wet”) age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD) and see firsthand what a patient sees. It was a powerful program that created tremendous empathy and helped shift treatment behaviors.

More recently, we have been working with another next-generation headset, the Microsoft HoloLens. It was first released in March 2016 as a mixed-reality headset that blends high-definition holographic content with what the user sees in front of them in the real world. We’ve used the Microsoft HoloLens to design and develop AR experiences for a wide range of use cases, including congress booth exhibits, sales rep training programs, medical education, direct field force engagement with HCPs, and patient education programs in doctors’ offices.

Given the rapid adoption of AR and VR in the healthcare space, we want to share some key insights and lessons learned from our experience on the front lines deploying these programs for major life science clients.

1. AR, VR – Know the differences

This is often the first and most basic issue we need to resolve. Pharma marketers need to understand the fundamental differences between augmented reality and virtual reality before they decide which technology to use for brand marketing or education.

Augmented reality refers to technologies that “augment” views of the real world with computer-generated images. Microsoft HoloLens is an AR device, and so is Google Glass, an optical head-mounted display shaped like a pair of eyeglasses. These devices allow the user to see what’s in front of them and then superimpose digital or holographic content on top of that view.

Virtual reality, by contrast, refers to technologies that allow users to enter into and interact with completely immersive worlds or virtual environments. Virtual reality is the umbrella term for all immersive experiences, which can be created using real-world content (such as 360-degree video from a real-world location like Niagara Falls), synthetic content, or a hybrid of both. With VR, the user wears a headset or head-mounted display and cannot see anything in front of them. There is no view of the real world. Everything the user sees, hears, and feels is computer-generated in the headset itself.

2. Tell a good story – Linear versus nonlinear storytelling

One of the keys to great marketing is great storytelling. Storytelling through an immersive narrative has the potential to engage participants more fully and has a deeper impact than more traditional modes. Unlike a video, which is inherently linear as the user moves from start to finish, AR and VR experiences can tell a nonlinear story.

With a nonlinear approach to storytelling, the user is placed at the center of the experience: they control how much time they spend on each part of the story and even which parts they view. Users are free to explore and interact with the content at their leisure. This approach can extend the boundaries of progressive storytelling and user education.

At the same time, effective stories do have storylines. It can be challenging to create a compelling AR or VR experience that both grants the freedom of a nonlinear approach and guides the user through a program from start to finish. To keep a user on the right course, UX designers need to identify clear paths of engagement with the content and pinpoint areas where a viewer could get lost. These insights should then be used to inform the types of visual or audio cues needed to guide viewers through the experience. It is essential for these audio and visual cues to be repeated.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that medical, legal, and regulatory (MLR) review teams may not be as comfortable with a nonlinear approach because they have a lot less control over the user experience and flow of the story than they do when a linear structure is used.

3. Navigate the MLR process

Pharmaceutical companies require an MLR review process that is informed, efficient, and risk averse. Not every MLR team has experience with every AR and VR headset on the market. Indeed, some teams have no experience at all with AR and VR. It is imperative, therefore, to put each MLR reviewer inside the specific headset or head-mounted display to ensure that they understand the ultimate user experience. This means moving beyond a traditional script and storyboard for MLR reviews.

It helps to have the MLR team review an alpha or beta version of the AR or VR program within the headset. If that is not feasible, we recommend utilizing a video capture of the program that can at least show one pathway that a user may follow to navigate through the program. With the HoloLens, for example, this can be accomplished fairly easily: it has the ability to capture a video stream of what is displayed within the headset, including all visuals, audio, and user commands.

4. Optimize the design

Each device is different, and the storytelling and design need to be optimized for the device. With the HoloLens, for example, the field of view is somewhat small, so the number of holographic elements and objects on the screen needs to be kept to a minimum.

To maximize the field of view, we recommend utilizing horizontal space over vertical space. Also, since the visuals are not of the same high quality as typical high-resolution 3D animation, consider increasing the saturation of the graphics to help make the objects more vibrant.

5. Consider the user experience

When determining the length of your program, it is important to understand the limitations of the technology and what it’s like to wear an AR or VR headset for an extended period of time. Many of these devices can feel heavy, somewhat uncomfortable, or even disorienting after several minutes. A first-time user may need a few minutes just to make sure the headset fits properly and that the full viewing area is easy to see. This is to be expected.

For any audio or voiceover used in a program, headphones produce a much clearer and more reliable result. If you decide to use a device without headphones, you should be cognizant of surrounding noise and how this might affect the user’s ability to focus and concentrate (especially in a congress environment). It is often helpful to have a broadcast of the program playing on an external monitor, so that staff managing the experience know where the user is in the program and may assist when needed. In a convention environment, a broadcast also generates additional interest, as it gives passers-by a glimpse of the AR or VR experience.

6. Plan for backups – When in doubt, reboot!

Using most of these AR and VR devices is like wearing a highly sophisticated computer or smartphone on your head. That means that we encounter some of the same issues you would expect with any high-tech device. If the AR or VR program is developed for use at a tradeshow conference, you will need to have backup devices on hand. The battery life of some headsets may be only two hours while in use, and it can take three to four hours to fully recharge the battery. Also, the device can get hot after extended use (e.g., 40-60 minutes) and may cause the user some irritation.

Some devices may also start to have performance degradation issues over time. When that happens, you may simply need to reboot the device as you would a computer. It’s a tried and true approach to fixing performance issues with a lot of different technology – when in doubt, reboot!

We hope that you can benefit from what we have learned in the world of AR and VR, and we wish you the best of luck with your next program!