VR + brain imaging + big data = the future of consumer neuroscience?

What if brain imaging, virtual reality and big data all came together to help us better understand how humans make intelligent decisions, like what to buy or how to invest? In this interview, Dr Dimitris Pinotsis tells us how he’s using these three technologies to yield novel insights and the possible impact on the future of consumer neuroscience.

Discovering how people like products to be presented online

“Using brain imaging means we can look at the biological reasons why people behave the way they do,” Dr Dimitris Pinotsis tells us. “One way we have used it is to look at if people prefer to buy something that is presented in a 3D VR world versus the 2D images usually found on e-commerce websites. 

“Data shows us that people prefer products that they can see in 3D, regardless of category. What’s surprising is that people who prefer 3D products also spend more and more frequently. Why? Using brain imaging, we are currently testing the hypothesis that seeing a product in 3D increases confidence in the item’s quality, and creates higher levels of arousal and stronger emotions.” 

This research can guide future development and design of e-shop websites that will be based on new technologies, like VR.

Looking at how emotion affects packaging preference 

Another question Dr Pinotsis’ research is asking is: how is the way people view the sensory elements of packaging – the colour, patterns, pictures – affected by their emotional state? “We are working on a project that uses 3D VR worlds such as being on a ghost train or lying on the beach to trigger different emotions. Using brain imaging, we can see how shifting from one of these worlds to another affects different parts of the brain – those that perceive sensory information like packaging and those that give rise to emotions. How do these different parts talk to each other? 

“If we can understand emotion and perception in the consumer’s brain, we can make better guesses at how people will behave when presented with different product packages and whether they might buy or not.”

Spotting potential problem gamblers

Besides understanding consumer behaviour, Dr Pinotsis’s research also aims to protect consumers online. He is working with the Gambling Commission and LAB to help people that bet excessively on online gambling sites, before they even get drawn in. The first step, he says, is to identify who they are: “To find out the common behaviours of problem gamblers, we use big data techniques such as spotting unusual browsing patterns like quick scrolls and clicks which might reveal elevated stress levels or vulnerability. We also analyse data on betting amounts and frequency of visits. In the next phase, we will use brain imaging to see how the brains of vulnerable consumers react differently to other people when playing on a gambling website.” 

“Taken together, these insights will help gambling companies spot problem gamblers early and stop them from getting into issues by changing their experience on the website. Examples of what companies could do are alter the colours, change timings or pause play to make betting less appealing.”

“Ultimately, what my research does is look at under certain circumstances, which areas of the brain are activated and when, and what does this activation mean? For example, is it cognitive factors that determine if we will buy something, or is it our emotional state? And then how do these two interact? This is an exciting open question with wide implications for neuroscience and beyond,” he concludes.

Dr Dimitris Pinotsis is an Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) at the University of London where he is carrying out these projects alongside his students and post doctoral research associates. He is also a Research Affiliate at MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Find out more www.pinotsislab.com

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