H&R Block dons Oculus to test new office looks

Get your taxes done ...virtually
H&R Block tests virtual reality in market research   

Virtual reality is the new drone. That is, VR is potentially another game-changing technology that companies are trying to figure out how to exploit.

Could it even make one of your least favorite tasks better?

"We're reinventing the client's tax experience," said Laura Scobie, vice president of insights for H&R Block. The company sees about 13 million people a year in its retail offices, and it's researching potential changes in several cities. But instead of building a physical mock-up, which costs a lot of money, Block is creating a virtual mock-up. (Tweet This)

"We've done things like rethink the physical space, also how you interact with H&R Block employees," said Scobie. "We've added technology in the screen that the client will watch and follow along as they're doing taxes."

"John was foaming at the mouth." -Shari Zielbauer, H&R Block customer, on the avatar she "worked" with

In a room in Los Angeles last week, three women put on Oculus virtual reality headsets (and so did this reporter) in order to experience what the new office might look like. The women were either current or former Block customers, and they were paid as part of the research group.

Once the headsets were on, the women found themselves immersed inside a modern-looking office. The graphics were rudimentary but conveyed a sense of 360-degree space. The women were each greeted by an employee named "Suzanne." Suzanne took each customer to a semiprivate office to look over documents (not actually the real documents of the women but those of an imaginary client Block created for the project). Suzanne then gave a price for what H&R Block's services would cost. Finally, she matched each customer with the best tax preparer based on her situation.

Source: H&R Block

Next, the women meet their tax preparer, named "John." John walked each of them through the tax process with the help of a large screen. At the bottom of the screen was a marker denoting how much of the process had been completed. "That's new, that's not been done before," said Scobie.

Finally, the women were taken to a separate room to answer questions over how they felt about going through the experience using virtual reality, and, more importantly, what they thought about the potential changes to H&R Block offices. Scobie is betting the company is receiving better feedback from VR than traditional research would yield.

"I don't have to go into each individual piece and explain, 'So imagine now that somebody's going to come up and walk through your documents with you,'" she said.

Read MoreObama's tax return: His rate—and how he could save

Former Block customer Shari Zielbauer said she has participated in research before, but not with virtual reality. "The other ones were more watching something on a screen and then filling out paperwork, and this was, I felt like, interactive even though I didn't talk back. It felt kind of real."

To be clear, the virtual reality experience was merely used for market research. The results of that research may lead to physical changes in H&R Block offices.

The project was created for H&R Block by Lieberman Research Worldwide, which is charging in the "low six figures," according to LRW's Jason Brooks. "The software and the technology have really become a lot more affordable," he said.

The company once spent $40,000 per headset, $40,000 for tracking cameras and $20,000 for software to create a VR experience. That high cost limited the customer base. Now it's spending $300 per headset from Oculus and the software cost has also come down. "Next year you're going to see an entire arms race happening with headsets," Brooks said. "Already there's probably six to 10 different headset manufacturers that have already announced projects."

Read MoreIRS says thieves stole tax info from 100,000

Other companies in the financial space are experimenting with virtual reality. Fidelity, for example, has created a VR program called Stock City where customers can visualize their stocks as buildings in a city.

In addition to Los Angeles, H&R Block conducted the VR research in Chicago and Atlanta. Scobie said it's too soon to say what changes may move from virtual reality to ... reality ... by next tax season. The women who went through the program liked the big screens by each desk and the updated office look, despite the lack of Hollywood-caliber graphics. In particular, the avatars were not quite fully formed.

"John was foaming at the mouth," joked Zielbauer. Still, she called him "John," and referred to him as if he was a person. Scobie said she knew the experiment was working when people started talking about John. "Some said he isn't very friendly. Well, he's an avatar."