Take a moment to picture yourself soaring through the air, maybe paragliding over the French Alps. You can feel the tingle of excitement as you enjoy a completely new perspective on the world, the rush of air around you, the scent of pine trees wafting up from below. Now step away from this feeling and think instead about a photo on a web page showing someone else paragliding down the side of Mont Blanc. The idea is the same, but your experience of it is completely different—the web photo is static and impersonal. It appeals to just one sense, making it feel external instead of immersive.

This difference helps explain why healthcare marketers are paying more attention to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology. When you really need a target audience to experience something—something that cannot be conveyed effectively in a traditional print or web ad, or through other conventional marketing channels—VR and AR can be the ideal approach.

At the moment, most consumer uses for these technologies are related to gaming, with some traction for travel-type experiences, such as virtual visits to the Grand Canyon. In healthcare marketing, the use of VR and AR is much more tailored to our particular audiences of interest. VR and AR are most commonly used in campaigns built on empathy or education, offering users a new way to experience another person’s symptoms or to try out a new medical technique. VR and AR are effective for evoking specific feelings or for projecting a first-person or multi-sensorial experience.

Emergence of VR and AR

The technology behind VR and AR has been around for decades, but it’s only in recent years that regular consumers have been exposed to them. VR is fully immersive, while AR overlays the real world with 3D images.

Augmented reality made it into the news when Google Glass was tested in 2013, but it wasn’t until the 2016 release of Pokémon Go that people outside the tech realm really got a sense of what AR was and how it could be incorporated into daily life. It wasn’t all positive—Pokémon Go was blamed for traffic accidents as well as being a nuisance for unsuspecting people whose homes or businesses became PokéStops—but it served as a highly effective way to raise awareness of AR technology.

Similarly, virtual reality has been a science fiction trope for ages, but the concept finally went mainstream when smartphones were paired with viewing devices such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear. Today, manufacturers have even found new ways to dispense with the smartphone requirement, building all-in-one headsets like the Oculus Go that let anyone experience VR. On the software side, the latest releases of Apple and Android operating systems include functionality that makes it easier for developers to program VR- and AR-enabled apps.

The newfound accessibility of these technologies has captured the attention of marketing teams around the world. As usual, healthcare marketing lags behind its consumer marketing counterpart, but we are now seeing adoption of VR and AR for healthcare providers, patients, and other key audiences.

Ideal Uses for VR and AR

There are several marketing situations ideally suited for the implementation of VR or AR. As these technologies become more affordable and accessible, it’s important to be aware of when and how to deploy them most effectively.

The core philosophy for VR and AR revolves around empathy: Offering the experience makes it easier to evoke certain desired emotions or a more personal understanding of someone else’s situation. For example, VR can be used to let providers or caregivers experience another person’s symptoms, providing a clearer sense of how a disease affects his or her life.

These techniques are also a good fit for educational campaigns where people could use a hands-on lesson, such as surgeons trying out a new operating procedure. More and more medical conferences include exhibit booths outfitted with virtual reality features that allow attendees to try their hand at a new method or offer a gamified approach to learning a new concept.

When you’re ready to take the plunge, the first critical decision: Whether to use AR or VR. Aside from the technical differences, these approaches have different applications in marketing.

  • Virtual reality is typically an enclosed environment enabling an immersive and utterly personal experience.
  • Augmented reality, on the other hand, often involves projecting onto an external surface and provides a shared experience for anyone participating.

These tools are still among the more expensive options in a marketer’s toolbox, so they should be used judiciously. When they are selected, marketing teams can maximize their investment by creating multiple versions of the VR or AR experience to allow use on different manufacturers’ devices, just as app developers get the most bang for their buck by delivering Android and iOS versions of their apps. Building for Samsung Gear and for Google Cardboard, for example, ensures that more people will get to use the experience your team has created.

Soon Veeva CRM and Apple ARKit will be able to be integrated to enhance the personalized customer engagement within a professional setting, as well as to demonstrate complex multidimensional treatments and therapies. This would be a way for a brand to standout in a crowded market. For the patient, it can be used as a companion app along with other digital and printed materials for education to foster adherence. When personalized, such apps have been shown to have greater brand engagement, likely due to the ability of VR and AR to put the user in the picture for a more engaging and personalized experience.

Just like any new marketing technology, it’s also important to understand when not to use VR and AR. Until they become truly mainstream, the 3D functionality should be seen as a supplement, rather than as a replacement, for traditional 2D approaches. When a print ad accomplishes the campaign’s goal, it doesn’t make sense to incorporate a VR version just because you can. A pharma rep’s sales sheet doesn’t need to be redone in AR. A good rule of thumb: If there’s not a pressing need for empathy or hands-on education, VR and AR are not the right choice.

In Real Life

A few examples help illustrate compelling ways to apply VR and AR in healthcare marketing. For one program in which empathy and education were critical elements, my team used a VR approach to simulate the effects of diabetes on patients’ eyesight—what it’s like to see wavy lines, spots, and blurring around the periphery. The experience serves as a training tool for physicians and for caregivers, offering a more complete sense of the symptoms to allow them to relate and engage more successfully with people who are living with diabetes. The same experience can also be used with the patients themselves. It can be a challenge for patients to confirm certain symptoms, particularly if the way they describe them doesn’t match the way a healthcare provider describes them. Through the VR experience, patients can have much more certainty about whether the virtual symptoms offer a good representation of their own experience.

And getting back to that opening example of gliding over a mountain: My team had to create a marketing campaign for which a glider proved to be a key element for showing the smoother, easier-to-manage aspect of a new treatment. No matter how many pictures you display of a person in a glider, there’s just nothing like experiencing it for yourself to evoke the feelings the campaign was meant to convey. We headed to upstate New York, where we spent days recording a glider in flight to generate 3D views. Later we superimposed key campaign messages over those images to create an information-rich VR experience used at the client’s booth for a major conference.

Coming Soon!

The opportunities for immersive storytelling afforded by VR and AR are rapidly expanding. Healthcare marketers are coming up with new ways to incorporate the interactivity and gamification made possible by VR and AR approaches into novel campaign concepts. Meanwhile, the technology behind VR and AR continues to improve. Later this year, we anticipate the release of new functionality that will make it possible to offer AR experiences using a projector and any available surface. While these tools will not replace conventional marketing channels, they are a fascinating new option to convey emotional responses and will be integral to many healthcare marketing campaigns in the future.

  • Andrew Wint

    Andrew Wint is Senior Vice President of Technology at Evoke Giant. Andrew works closely with healthcare companies to better engage with their audiences. He is also a software engineer and database architect who has developed large-scale marketing applications for companies such as Reuters, Men’s Health, NBCUniversal, and Martha Stewart. 

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