At last: a meaningful example of VR in B2B

I witnessed a rare thing yesterday – a virtual reality product designed specifically for use in a B2B environment. And not just at a trade show.

You may have noticed that the hype about VR went into overdrive about a year ago, with lots of vendors and agencies taking advantage of the price drop for some of the related technologies to tout its potential in B2B.

But potential was all they were touting – actual real life examples were conspicuous by their absence. It was case of B2B VR being ‘all mouth and no trousers’, as they say.

This was repeated last month when I appealed via social media for some VR social case studies – I got loads of enquiries back from agencies wanting to speak to me about the potential of the tech… but virtually nothing in the way of actual examples.

So I was delighted and intrigued when a longstanding friend of B2B Marketing Peter Richards of Lloyd's Register invited me to demo the VR application he had been working on with his agency Polar Media. At last, something practical and tangible to get my head around.

I must confess, it was a relatively inauspicious start for my journey into (what has been touted as) the future of customer experience in B2B. Polar are based in discrete mews offices near Balham tube station – I’m very fond of this increasingly trendy part of south London, having lived here for five years in the noughties, but Silicon Roundabout it certainly is not.

Yet sometimes great things come from relatively humble origins, and the technolgy itself absolutely did not disappoint. Peter explained to me that the product emerged from Lloyd's Register’s need to better showcase its safety training services to the energy industry, particularly those working on offshore oil rigs. As the Deepwater Horizon episode demonstrated so horrifically, safety is paramount in these environments – one small slip in procedure can be catastrophic for all concerned, not to say the wider environment.

Lloyd's Register has a state-of-the-art training facility in Houston, Texas, but flying engineers out to utilize this facility is can be cost-prohibitive, particularly given the tough times the energy industry has experienced in recent years. Its new VR experience places the user in a virtual oil rig environment and gives them the opportunity to evaluate various potential safety breaches – and demonstrates what the impact would have been if they had failed to detect them. From a UX point of view, the Polar’s masterstroke is to use crash-test dummy figures as participants in the safety drama being played out, which means the platform can quite graphically illustrate what can happen to workers in the event of a safety fail, but without the potential gory details or emotional trauma.

Whilst the experience is inevitably finite in terms of length, its power to transport you into the oil rig environment is quite extraordinary. And this is literally another world from the generic VR experiences showcased by the vendors. For me, at last, this makes VR real.

Peter Richards explains that the platform will enable oil industry workers to experience and trial the company’s safety training (which is a primary part of its offering to the industry) without the associated travel costs, making it an invaluable marketing tool, as well as part of its service delivery. And yes, they will be taking it trade shows – starting at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston in May. Finally, the experience on the platform allows Lloyds Register to collect data on the safety knowledge of oil workers, thereby creating an associated PR opportunity. In other words, this is three solutions in one. Clearly a worthwhile investment.

Whilst the physicality of the oil rig environment lends itself well to VR, the is surely not the only opportunity for creative deployment of this technology by B2B brands. I’m hoping this is the first of many such applications that we’ll see over coming months. In the meantime, well done to Peter and Lloyd's Register for blazing a trail - given the lack of precedent for this technology in this market, it must have taken courage and commitment.