Virtual reality joins the mix

If the recent experience of a Canadian manufacturer of clinical laboratories is any indication, virtual reality technology might be coming into its own as a marketing tool.During the course of a July 17-21 trade show in New Orleans, Autolab Systems of...

If the recent experience of a Canadian manufacturer of clinical laboratories is any indication, virtual reality technology might be coming into its own as a marketing tool.

During the course of a July 17-21 trade show in New Orleans, Autolab Systems of Toronto was able to give hundreds of potential buyers a virtual introduction to its new automated lab concept – without the expense of assembling a demonstration model at the exposition site.

Automated lab

Autolab Systems, which is a division of MDS Health Group, Canada’s largest health care firm, recently developed an automated lab for installation in hospitals, medical centres and commercial laboratories.

There are between 300 and 500 potential buyers of the new lab in North America alone.

Installed, the lab would cost from $3 million to $5 million.

Michael Geraghty, Autolab’s director of business and product development, says the new system’s competitive edge over rival labs is that it costs ‘significantly less’ to operate than traditional labs.

Geraghty says Autolab’s high-tech system of conveyor belts and robots perform many of the routine tasks that would otherwise have to be carried out by highly paid lab workers.

He says at a time when escalating health care costs have come under intense scrutiny in developed countries around the world, clinical laboratories are coming under increasing pressure to reduce expenses.

While Autolab’s inventors may be confident in the superiority of their product, communicating the ins and outs of such a complex system to prospects at a trade show is another matter.

That is where virtual reality came in.

In-Form Interactive, a Toronto-based supplier of interactive media products and services such as kiosks and cd-rom training programs, created a virtual reality simulation of the lab for the July exposition, held by the American Association of Clinical Chemists.

To experience the lab, the user dons a head-mounted display, which offers color, three-dimensional animation and three-animation sound.

With the head gear in place, it is possible to take a simulated walk around the multi-storey lab.

The perspective is from the conveyer system, which transports specimens through the lab.

During the tour, the participant can look around in any direction, focus on points of interest and stop for demonstrations.

By all accounts, the virtual lab was the hit of the trade show, attracting attention as much for its effectiveness as its novelty.

Geraghty says the event was so successful he has asked In-Form to upgrade the system in preparation for at least two more trade shows in the coming months.

As well, he says he plans to use the system when making sales presentations, explaining it costs far less to take a virtual lab to a company than it does to fly a planeload of prospects to Toronto to see the real thing.

Rob Hollingsworth, vice-president, sales and business development with In-Form, was pleased with the results, saying virtual reality demonstrations are ‘efficient and entertaining’ devices to communicate complex messages.

Noting the fact that virtual reality has, to date, been used primarily for entertainment purposes, Hollingsworth says ‘we’ve crossed the threshold to make the experience real enough for marketing.’

Hollingsworth says the ballpark cost to develop the software required for a trade show ranges between $50,000 and $100,000-plus.

He says hardware rental costs per show range between $10,000 and $15,000.

Based on what it has learned developing a virtual reality program for Autolab, Inform is now trying to sell the concept to other firms.

Hollingsworth declines to reveal names of prospects, but he does say the system would be a natural in a range of categories, including ski-resort development and aircraft manufacture.

Hollingsworth says he knows of only one other example of virtual reality being employed as a marketing vehicle, citing The Real McCoy Virtual Voyage, an amusement park game sponsored by Hiram Walker to promote its Cutty Sark brand of Scotch whiskey.

But he says Hiram is merely exploiting the novelty of the technology to draw attention to itself with a fantasy game.

He says it is not harnessing virtual reality’s power as a demonstration tool to market its products.