TOMS shoes CEO interview: VR is “greatest technology I’ve seen to create empathy”

by Todd Haselton | May 15, 2016

If you think about virtual reality right now, chances are you mostly associate it with gaming and consumption.

That’s because the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have been marketed in such a way that suggests we’re stepping into new worlds and leaving our own. Lifestyle company TOMS, perhaps best known for its shoes, and AT&T, see a totally different way to take advantage of virtual reality, instead allowing you to explore what’s going on in the real world, the one we live in.

The two teamed up on a brand new virtual experience that uses VR to tell a story.

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Dubbed “A Walk in Their Shoes,” the VR trip allows you to go on a ride with a TOMS shoes customer as he hands out shoes to a child in Colombia. The exhibit, built by TOMS and AT&T, was set up in an over-sized shoe box on the Santa Monica Pier last weekend. It’s a particularly compelling  if you know the story of TOMS, which gives a pair of shoes (or other items, depending on what you buy) for each pair that you purchase. Using virtual reality, you can see exactly where your money is going.

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We had a chance to chat via e-mail with AT&T and TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie about “A Walk in Their Shoes,” virtual reality, and TOMS’ relationship with AT&T over the past decade.

“The VR experience is unlike any other and is the greatest technology I’ve seen to create empathy,” Mycoskie told TechnoBuffalo. “To truly understand what someone goes through, it helps to walk in their shoes. If you can’t be there in person, VR is the perfect technology to share someone’s story. It’s an immersive technology, and with the powerful AT&T network, it’s something you can experience from virtually anywhere.”

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It’s a fascinating use of virtual reality, not only as a marketing experience – what better way to sell your product than to show your customers the benefits of buying it, right down to a trip to Colombia? – but also as an educational one. Google Cardboard offers similar experiences, allowing you to explore museums and other locations around the world but, until now, I haven’t ever seen VR to portray the feeling of empathy. It’s powerful, enough to make you better understand where your money is being spent. You don’t have to visit Santa Monica to try it, either (in fact, the exhibit is already closed.)

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The experience is available thorugh Oculus Video on the Gear VR and viewable using Google Cardboard on AT&T’s YouTube channel. As I mentioned earlier, it shows TOMS customer Tom Ryen as he takes a trip to Colombia to give a pair of shoes to a child. “Ryen’s experience begins in Venice, California, and ends in a schoolyard in Barranquilla, Colombia,” Mycoskie told us. “This showcases the One for One model and how a purchase of TOMS shoes can change a child’s life dramatically.”

Venice isn’t just where the VR experience starts, however. it’s also where TOMS began. Mycoskie credits AT&T with a lot of his success. The two have worked together since 2006 when TOMS had just six employees. At the time, Mycoskie said he ran his entire business right from his smartphone.

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“I was particularly proud to share that I was running the business from my phone,” Mycoskie said. “People loved that. And AT&T discovered how important the phone was to the daily operation of my small business. In 2009, AT&T told my story. They sent a camera crew with me – and my phone ­– on a shoe-giving trip to Uruguay. They documented the essence of TOMS and turned it into a commercial. Here’s this guy who’s using an AT&T phone to make a difference in the world through business. It was incredible. That spot ran nationwide, and our little business skyrocketed.”

You can check out the experience using the embedded video below with Google Cardboard. Or you can find it in the Oculus store.



Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...