Transformation through immersion: Using immersive technology to demonstrate how life is changing for consumers in rapidly growing cities.

Mark Manning

Director, Consumer Innovation Science at GSK Consumer Health

Nick Leon

Founder, Naked Eye

In the next two decades most of the world’s growth is expected to occur in today’s emerging markets.

By 2050 it is anticipated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Developing countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria will have transformed their economies, gaining a larger middle class with increased purchasing power. This will create important new consumer markets, each with much more ethnic and cultural diversity than the long-established middle class markets in the West.

A WARC paper (Sinha, 2016) predicted that, over the next decade, half of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) growth – and new consumer purchasing power – will come from smaller cities in these emerging markets. At present, close to half of the world's urban population live in relatively small settlements of fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, while only around one in eight live in the 28 mega-cities across the globe that are home to more than 10 million people. Urbanisation is transforming life in these smaller settlements, fuelling not only the growth of the middle classes, but a sea-change in lifestyles. Some of these smaller cities will eventually become mega-cities in their own right, with their own satellite towns attracting an influx of economic migrants from rural areas.

To examine the implications of this shift – particularly on lifestyle and how it impacts health issues – we focused our study on three of the fastest growing cities in different continents: Batam in Asia, Brasilia in Latin America, and Lagos, the fastest growing mega-city in Africa.

Batam in Indonesia has been ranked the fastest growing city in the world by population, with an annual growth rate of 7.4%. Brasilia is the fastest growing city in Brazil and one of the main economic centres of the central-western region. Still a relatively new city, it offers a high quality of life, and many job opportunities, and according to some sources, the highest per capita GDP of all Latin American cities at around $36,000 (USD). Lagos in Nigeria, which doubled its population between 2000-2016, is currently home to 21 million people. By 2100 the figure could be as high as 88.3 million people – making it the world's most populous city.

Our aim was to carry out an ethnographic study to examine the healthcare challenges that these emerging cities, and their expanding middle classes, face. In particular, we focused on how pain and fever is managed at home, on the go, and online.

The ethnographer's task was to study the lives of the study's participants, their lifestyle, practices and cultural traditions. This ranged from visiting herbalists and making traditional cold and flu remedies at home, to using the web and smartphone apps to communicate with the family doctor.

The information collected will be used to support R&D into commercial opportunities.

Before the study began, we drew on available sources such as financial reports, travel guides, investigative journalism and documentary films to help us make sense of local customs and lifestyles, and the degree to which smart phone technology had been adopted to manage health in each market. This data was then used to frame a set of questions further to explore each market.


Learning using Immersive Technology


Immersive technology can help us learn in new ways, and make deeper and more engaging connections with people's everyday experiences.

Before our fieldwork began, neither GSK nor Naked Eye placed much emphasis on how or when new or innovative technology could be deployed on the project. The focus was on how we could uncover and record people's unmet healthcare needs, and the challenges they face at home, in the neighbourhood and in the wider city.

What we discovered had to be fed back to GlaxoSmithKline in such a way that it would enable teams in countries as different as Switzerland and Singapore to connect with the people we visited, and make a real difference in the way they understood their needs and the reality of their lives.

Only after a series of discussions with the R&D brand team well into the study did we start to think about:

a) How we could bring in the realities of rapid growth cities in engaging and surprising ways into the heart of the business

b) Which tools could help us investigate the following environments:


  • Fast emerging cities:

    What is the experience of working and traveling in and around these cities?
    How does it impact people’s health and wellbeing?
    What does this mean for people’s healthcare needs?

  • Neighbourhoods:

    What is life like in these new and rapidly developing neighbourhoods?
    What challenges to people’s health does it present?
    How do people look for and access local support?

  • Home life:

    What does home life actually look like?
    How is health and sickness managed in homes (on and offline)?
    Where is homemade and branded medication stored? How is it prepared and consumed?


Case Study: Lagos: the African Mega-City of the future


With around 21 million inhabitants, Lagos is the largest city in Africa. It is loud, brash, sprawling and densely populated, choked and polluted by traffic, with an intimidating crime rate and maxed-out public utilities.

The research team faced a number of logistical problems at the start of the study. We needed the help and local knowledge of “fixers” in the film community to help us apply for and obtain government-approved filming permits. Under government regulations we had to have two armed guards with AK47 machine guns with us wherever we went. Fixers also recommended we hire private security to protect our camera gear, and to guard against the constant threat of "Area Boys” - organised gangs that roam the neighbourhoods of the city.

We lived with each family for two full days, exploring and recording their day-to-day lives.

We learned:

  • Children can contract malaria more than five times a year.
  • Electricity supplies cut out several times throughout the day.
  • Temperamental petrol-assisted generators made living with heat unbearable.
  • Rain and dry weather create dust and spread bacterial infections
  • Infested rivers and informal dumping grounds had become local health hazards.

The people in Lagos work long, hard hours. Many have their own business and leave for work in the early hours of the morning to beat traffic. Throughout the day, environmental toxins such as pollution, heat and dust, takes a toll on their immune system and energy levels. The fast pace of life means many working parents spend long hours out of home, increasing their chances of eating contaminated food.

From their neighbourhoods on the mainland to the roads that lead to the islands, we visited the hustle of the business district, wholesale markets and the collection of islands they navigated: Lagos Iddo, Ikoyi and Victoria - separated by rivers and connected by a network of expansive concrete bridges stretching across the city. All part of the daily grind.

Participants told us the entire ebb and flow of the city revolved around traffic. To help us makes sense of their day-to-day lives we mapped their daily commute to and from work, using photography and film, but in some instances we were constrained by security issues, the scale and density of crowds, cars and general commotion.


Drones: Giving us a new perspective on the city


Drones are already being used in innovative ways across Africa, from shipping medical supplies over difficult terrain, to tracking oil spills and monitoring wildlife in parks and nature reserves.

We decided to make use of the technology to reveal the enormity of the city, and the ways that people move through that environment: where they shopped, where they worked, and their routes from one location to another.

With the help of a licensed drone pilot we were able to film incredible footage which provided new perspectives of daily life in Lagos.

We could see life in the neighbourhoods we visited - Masha-Kilo and Aguda - from the ground and from the air.

We decided to share the footage with the participants in the study. They were fascinated, and it provided new insights in discussing to the spaces that surround them, both at home, and on their journey to and from work.

They began to tell us stories of what had happened in these different places, and pointed out things from the aerial shots that were previously hidden from sight. For example:

  • the lack of space children had in their neighbourhood in which to play
  • the state and repair of homes
  • where people congregate on weekends
  • the places they marked as no-go areas after dark
  • the distance of pharmacies, clinics and stores from their home.

Here are some snapshots of Lagos; you can imagine how these differing perspectives can generate new insights about a place:

Virtual Reality: Using sensory immersion to get inside the shoes, hearts and minds of people:

Many people within GSK’s team in Europe and the USA have yet to visit Lagos, Brasilia or Batam. Using virtual reality however, teams could go on 360° home tours, visit surgeries, and see what local pharmacies looked like.

Particularly in homes, individuals could step into people’s kitchens, look around the room, and watch while one of the mothers made homemade herbal remedies.

It wasn't needed needed in all cases though. Sometimes film could do the job just as well. For example, getting a view of people in their home, on the go, doing their daily chores looking after their children etc. But 360 VR immersion, for instance, enabled us to place the viewer in the middle of large-scale empty building sites in Batam, where apartments and shopping malls would soon be built.

In Lagos we placed the viewer in a sprawling outdoor market where counterfeit and traditional medications were being sold by street hawkers next to pharmacies stocking global brands.

These scenarios created a compelling impression of day-to-day life and fast-pace growth which couldn’t be experienced in the same way using film.

The VR work shared at leadership affiliate meetings received positive feedback. Google cardboard VR headsets were then distributed at larger events to engage more people across the business. About a year later we developed VR fieldwork tours using graphics and audio techniques to immerse viewers in the world of traditional Chinese medicine in Guangzhou and Chengdu.

In retrospect the really transformational element of this project wasn't the technology, but the way in which both client and agency pushed for research that challenged expectations and created new forms of engagement. All of these moments created delight, surprise and provoked new ways of thinking about how the research can be carried out in the future.  




The project caught the R&D team’s imagination. We demonstrated how VR and drones can complement ethnography, providing deeper insights into everyday life.

Sharing drone footage had a profound impact on the participants, helping them understand more about how their lives fit together with others, and enabling them to share more insights with the research team.

It also helped us to piece together a comprehensive picture of the scale and nature of change taking place in emerging cities and their local surroundings. The use of VR built on this further, and in other unique ways.

Our hope is that we can continue to experiment with immersive techniques that help us transform the way we tell stories and engage with teams right across the business. 

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