Being able to understand what it’s like to be them is surely an incredibly valuable goal in helping us to understand them. In short, empathy is the key to understanding other people’s reasons for doing things; to understand their preferences and their life choices. Cognitive empathy is our conscious ability to understand someone else’s perspective, to put yourself in the shoes of others and to look at the world through their eyes.

Empathy is something most of us learn in the early stages of childhood and some would think it an obvious tool that we all possess — and one we can deploy to understand any given situation involving other people. However, that is not the case. It is very difficult for us to understand people and situations that we are not familiar with. Imagine, though, if you could. Imagine if there was an ‘Empathy Machine’ that could transport you into the shoes of other people and let you live in their lives for a moment. Well there is and it’s called Virtual Reality (VR).

Virtual Reality is simply the construction of a 360° video space that a viewer can enter via a head-mounted display. It can be a real video or an animated environment like a video game. To create a VR film, you simply record a scene using a 360° camera, undergo a rather complicated editing and stitching process and output a 360° film that can be distributed in a number of ways. From the cheap and easy, like YouTube’s 360 service, to the more involved, like building an app that can be downloaded onto a smart device, making your 360° film available to view on a £10 Google Cardboard or any number of more sophisticated headsets like the Samsung Gear VR or HTC’s Vive.

We have been experimenting with VR and 360° video for a few years now and have seen it grow as an industry and slowly but surely come out of the sci-fi closet and into the mainstream. According to Deloitte, the VR industry is on track to have its first $1bn year. There is a VR race among the major players (Samsung, Sony, HTC, Facebook’s Oculus Rift) and this is driving the accessibility of VR and making it easier to produce and distribute.

That is not to say that it’s without its teething problems. There is still a little way to go with refining the quality of output and the distribution can cause some problems. It will improve and is doing so on a monthly basis. The key is to follow it closely and make sure you are testing and practising to ensure that you are using it in the way that delivers the results for the type of work you are doing.

I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Cannes Lions Festival this year. It was not what I expected. It was great. We (or rather, Insider) were there to support the kids and family insight consultancy, The Pineapple Lounge, which had won a place as one of the Unilever Foundry 50 startups, having made some Virtual Immersion films for them about millennials (more on this later).

I had fully expected to go there and be one of the only companies presenting VR, but how wrong I was. It was everywhere, almost centre stage and, for me, was the buzz of the festival. There was a virtual takeover by VR companies, practitioners and brands using it to great effect and it was going down a storm. I encourage you to take a look at the Cannes website to see more.

Beyond gaming and entertainment, VR is being used for some very practical applications. The healthcare industry has been a big adopter, using it for surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery and skills training. One of my favourites, however, is ‘Clouds over Sidra’; a VR documentary made for the United Nations that follows a 12-year-old girl, Sidra, who lives in Za'atari camp in Jordan, currently home to 84,000 refugees. Just download the Within app to see the VR version of this film and others on your smartphone.

It was shown to dignitaries at the World Economic forum in Davos, including UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg. It was used to influence the influential and create empathy for the plight of the camp’s inhabitants. If you get a chance, you should watch this film on a headset. It will go some way to showing you the power of VR.

VR is also the perfect fit for the market research industry. It can be used to create customer closeness programs, for Virtual Immersion into the lives of customers. It could be used for Virtual Ethnography, putting you at the dinner table with a family from Moscow as they enjoy a meal, it can take you on a shopping trip with housewives from Twickenham, or into a social situation or a bus journey. In the case of the films we made for Cannes, we were able to put the viewer into a bedroom hangout with three millennials as they talked about beauty products, music and socialising. When you watch the films, you feel like you are literally in the room with them.

It’s an invaluable experience for marketing, innovation, product and insight teams to engage with. It delivers a sense of immersion that is game-changing in terms of bringing real people and their needs and issues into the boardroom also.

Experiencing these moments in VR makes them memorable experiences and creates a buzz within an organisation. They can put the viewer right there in the room, with the people they're tracking at the moment of insight, so they can ‘experience’ the lives of their customers.

It creates a level of empathy and understanding for a person or situation. Feeling is believing…and empathy is key to feeling. Virtual customer connection and virtual ethnography are here and they will change the game entirely.

There are exciting times ahead for the industry as a whole. Clients are demanding more engagement and ROI from research and, by bringing their customers to life in this way, research is becoming more integral to the internal dialogue within the business, really moving them towards the customer centricity they often speak of and long for.

VR does not offer a different way of telling stories — rather, it is a whole new medium and it is much more than storytelling. It is story living.