Using VR and AR to Measure Consumer Behavior and Inform Packaging Design

With virtual reality, future press operators can not only be trained in an immersive environment, but also break the rules of the real world: Imagine slowing down time during a pressrun, or removing the side of a press to examine its interior.
Photos courtesy of Clemson University

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)—No doubt you’ve heard both of these terms, but what’s the difference between them and why do they matter when it comes to flexography and packaging?

In simple terms, virtual reality completely replaces what you’re seeing with virtual objects, while augmented reality overlays those virtual objects or information on the real world. Gaming headsets such as the PlayStation VR or Oculus Rift are considered virtual reality, while devices like the Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass are augmented reality. Each of these technologies offers unique ways to interact with digital content, and could redefine how we approach the design process and even employee training.

The ABCs of AR & VR

Virtual reality has existed in some form or another for decades, but until relatively recently, has been either extremely expensive or of very poor quality. Thanks to the proliferation of high-resolution and inexpensive screens developed for smartphones and tablets, along with vast improvements in computer graphics card horsepower, virtual reality has become widely accessible to many consumers. Large investments in the technology, such as Facebook’s 2014 purchase of Oculus for $2 billion, have further driven down cost and increased performance. A typical VR system now can be purchased for less than $1,000, so long as you have a capable computer to drive it. The two most popular systems on the market at the moment are the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. Both hardware sets include the virtual reality headset, controllers and some form of exterior tracking device to allow freedom of movement in the virtual reality environment.

Wearable augmented reality hardware has thus far struggled to succeed in the marketplace. The now-discontinued Google Glass aspired to be a wearable personal assistant, but faced privacy concerns and wasn’t considered particularly “fashionable.” The Microsoft HoloLens is currently aimed at application developers rather than consumers, and while it shows promise, it isn’t quite ready for widespread adoption. Augmented reality also exists on most of our smartphones, more common examples being apps that animate images on packaging, or overlay a fully animated character on our living room floor. These same smartphones can now power several VR apps with the addition of sub-$100 pieces of hardware that strap our phones to our faces.

Design & Visualization

With the development of several packaging-specific 3D design tools over the last decade, such as Esko’s Esko Studio and Creative Edge Software’s iC3D, we now have the means to develop accurate models of packaging without the need for advanced modeling skill sets. However, until recently these designs could only be viewed on 2D screens, which don’t really give you a full understanding of how they will look in 3D until physical prototypes are created. Now, these models can be exported into off-the-shelf AR or VR apps, which can allow us to visualize the packaging at the proper scale and in whatever environment we’d like.

Modern software packages enable the construction of a full virtual retail environment, to gauge pack appearance, placement and other variables.

The most accurate AR apps will utilize a fiducial marker—simply a unique marker of a particular size— which allows the app to size and position the models correctly. Most current AR apps are on smartphones or tablets, but as the technology advances, these models could someday be viewed through AR headsets. Leveraging augmented reality for proofing and visualization of packaging offers some of the same benefits of a physical prototype, but in a more immediate, digital format. Visualization apps for other industries already exist and show great promise: Furniture shopping assistants such as those from Wayfair and Lowe’s can overlay the chair you’re considering onto a live video of your living room, allowing you to see the item in context without the pesky heavy-lifting and assembly.

As far as virtual reality applications go, there are several software packages that allow full construction of a virtual environment such as a retail store. These applications are beneficial not just for store concepts and layouts, but also for visualizing entire shelf sets of packaging, or point-of-purchase displays in context. Furthermore, these types of applications offer an opportunity to increase collaboration in the design process. Team members around the world could put on headsets and be in the same virtual environment to work on design and layout concepts, all in real time.