For years retailers have been touting the benefits of providing experiences that not only delight the eyes but also engage the senses. Providing immersive environments that play to the five senses, which trigger neural pathways that that enhance memory, unlock emotions, make customer engagement more profound and relationships longer lasting. A song will bring you back to high school and a smell to the kitchen table of your childhood home. Research into the neuroscience of how our brain is intimately tied to our body’s perception of the world is providing a solid foundation for why we need embodied experiences to fully live in our world. 
Developments in digital technology are now providing what some call "better than real" virtual constructions of immersive environments and shopping experiences. With enhanced visualization capabilities we’ve come to expect "avatar-like" virtual worlds as a baseline for what is acceptable when putting on a VR headset. Collaborations between companies like Samsung and Oculus are allowing everyone with a smartphone to "stand" in a virtual world with the download of an app and a lightweight headset. No longer tethered to a computer, new VR headsets are providing increased mobility, enhancing yet again, the possibility of virtual environments truly becoming a widely used channel for customer experiences. 
But, the virtual world seems to stand apart from "real" experiences in the designer’s toolbox. The connection between the VR and real world is independent of each other. One leaves the embodied world to experience the digital. And, retailers have been concerned that the digital space would undermine the store as the platform for connecting to a brand and buying its products or services. When the word ‘dotcom’ was mentioned in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it would send a shutter down the spine of retailers who feared that online sales would cannibalize the store’s profits. Today, we see the digital interface as simply another vehicle for customer connection. 
Despite the pervasive adoption of digital technologies into our everyday lives, the general perception is that the VR world is its own vehicle for customer experience making. It is not typically seen as a way to get customers more interested in "real experiences."
What if, instead of disconnecting customers from embodied experiences and having them experience the digital world in a vacuum, the digital world was expressly used to foster a deeper desire for the real thing? 
What if, a digital experience was not just entertainment but a preview, or rehearsal, for a trip to some exotic location?
What if customers could stand in places they were about to visit rather than simply flicking through an online gallery on a laptop?
What if the virtual experience played to all of the senses – the feel of mist on your face, wind in your hair, the smell and taste of salt water and the rumble of a volcano under your feet – rather than activating only the visual and auditory areas of the brain? 
Would a virtual experience of a place make potential customers want to leap up from the comfort of their couch and head off to “Travel Brilliantly?”
In a word, YES!
Marriott International had the same questions and they answered them by building a “Teleporter,“ (see: and a 4D virtual experience portal that brought the experience of far off lands to customers and made them want to get up and go, to experience the real thing. The Teleporter was an experience that Marriott built a few years ago. In digital terms, it was another life ago. The Teleporter delivered on its cross-country tour in providing 4D experiences to guests. However, its cumbersome size inherently had challenges when considering anything of the sort being widely distributed and gaining deeper adoption as a tool to engage guests. But then, this was not the Marriott team’s primary goal. Marriot has since moved to personalized, in-room VR experiences, AR, photogrammetry and 360 degree viewing environments to name a few tools in the box when creating new hotel concepts.
In a continual push to innovate and vision-cast into a digitally integrated future, where guest experiences are modulated by digital technology, Marriott has continued to explore digital technology and immersive experiences. The focus is not so much on using digital tools as a post-design and construction validation of new concepts, but to use these powerful visualization tools as an integral part of the design process. Introducing them early on allows Marriott to share design iterations with other global design, brand and operations team members, as well as owners and their architects. Standing in a virtual construction of a hotel lobby or guest room allows for a more comprehensive exploration of the space, short circuiting misunderstandings about the brand and design strategy for a brand as well as construction issues. What to many is only partially understood through a 2D rendering becomes more fully understood and appreciated when one is able to walk through a virtual model.
Adding another texture to the already complex weave of influence to creating great brand experiences, Marriott’s Global Design Strategies Group is looking at neuroscience as another tool to help better understand engagement and craft experiences that resonate with guests. 
We are more likely to be able to list five parts that make our car’s engine work (where we may find ourselves commuting for up to two hours a day) than we are able to name five functional areas of our brain (which we are in 24 hours a day). If we only knew a marginal amount about how the brain works, we might likely not do some of the things we do, asserting that it will induce a guest into feeling this way or that, when it is more likely that it is completely off the awareness radar. Neuroscience research suggests that there is as much as 95 percent of our thoughts that we don’t actually think about at all. Much of what drives us operates below the level of conscious awareness. People feel more than they think.
Neuroscience research methodologies are now finding a place in the design process in an effort to more fully understand the effects design can have on how guests may feel in a place and what motivates, or keeps them away from, making a purchase. 
The session I will present at DSE 2018 will look at emerging technologies, neuroscience and design of guest experiences. I will address the issues of creating VR experiences and how providers of brand experiences can see them less as syphoning off customers and revenue from stores and more as a vehicle to provide customers with what, in the end, we all crave – novelty, meaningful relationships, and actually being in places that engage us in experiences that are relevant.
Key Learning objectives / talking points:
• Why novelty, storytelling and embodied experiences activate the brain, enhancing learning, trigger emotional reactions and build empathic relationships.
• Why travel changes you and why it is important to experience the world.
• How virtual reality experiences are being used to create customer connections and generate additional revenue streams.
• How immersive digital experiences can be used to enhance customer interest in "real," embodied experiences.
• How Marriott International is rethinking customer engagement and learning from the retail marketplace.
• How the lessons from the “Marriott Teleporter” can be applied to the making of more engaging customer experiences in general.
Why is this topic of interest:
• For some time retailers have seen the influence of digital technology on the way that they have run their businesses. This influence will only become more profound as a whole generation of shoppers see their digital experiences as a natural extension of their embodied lives. As a result, their expectations about how experience should unfold will be wholly different than the generation before them.
• Digital experiences, including augmented and virtual reality, will lead to the necessity of a paradigm shift in using technology as a tool for meaningful engagement in-store.
• Digital environments are used as something apart from the in-store channel, rather than being a fully integrated series of platforms between which the boundaries are blurred and customer experiences are dynamically shifting.
• Virtual experiences are indeed captivating but they are a proxy for the real world. 
• If the retail market still harbors concern for the digital world undermining the in-store experience, can we use digital experiences to reverse the flow of traffic back into stores? 
• Can the "un-real," or as some may contend "better-than-real," digital experiences be used to promote customer desire to participate in "real world" interactions in stores?
• What can be learned from the hospitality world where customer experiences are measured in time spans of 2 days or 2 weeks rather than typical shopping trips being 2 minutes or 2 hours?