Transforming learning with virtual reality

Mark Lyons looks at virtual reality and its role in real-world success.

Imagine a week at work when you have successfully put out a fire in the post room, adeptly handled a complaint from an irate customer and demonstrated perfect judgement when presented with an ethically ‘iffy’ opportunity.  

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Virtual reality is now developing at such a pace that you could soon be experiencing all these situations in training scenarios through the safety of your very own virtual reality (VR) headset. Added to this the bonus of taking it off to see colleagues tackling the same training simulation, mouth-agog, ‘VR face’ and goggles both firmly strapped on.   

The birth of VR
The virtual reality industry has finally burst into life after a number of false dawns through the latter decades of the 20th century. It is almost 90 years since Edwin Albert Link unveiled his flight simulator to the world. However, the first head-mounted display wasn’t produced until the 1960s, when Philco Corporation released its Headsight hardware for helicopter pilots, before the American aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas tried to move the technology on further in the late 1970s.  

Around the same time, the potential uses of VR were being tested in a range of industries and institutions. In 1978, students at MIT developed the Aspen Movie Map, a precursor to Google Street View.  

NASA has been using the technology for many decades and today it routinely prepares its astronauts for the harsh realities beyond Earth’s atmosphere at its VR Lab at the Johnson Space Center.

The first time NASA made meaningful use of VR was more than 20 years ago, in readiness for a mission to repair the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope. Now VR helps to ensure that when astronauts need to conduct mission-critical work for the first time in space, it’s not completely unfamiliar to them as they have already practised in the lab.   

So from the start, our tentative steps into this brave new world were not driven by consumer brands or entertainment companies but business and academia. 

Back on Earth, virtual reality can help transport us to another place for the public benefit. For instance, Staffordshire University is currently testing virtual reality technology to see whether it could be used to allow jurors to enter a crime scene.  

Ubiquitous uses
Of course, when most people think of VR, their immediate thoughts are of entertainment. One of the earliest examples of this was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama. In the early 1960s, this machine had a screen that gave the illusion of depth within an enclosed booth, with other elements that the user could feel, hear and smell. 

All of Hollywood’s major studios are now dabbling in virtual reality experiences, with favourites from Batman to Star Wars recently getting the VR treatment. 

Of course, the gaming industry has also had a long interest in the use of virtual reality technology. There was a lot of hype in the early 1990s that quickly dissipated. However, the invariably nauseating experience of nigh on 30 years ago is totally unknown to gamers today, who are being blown away by vastly superior hardware. 

With Facebook declaring its appreciation for the technology by buying Oculus VR for more than £1 billion in 2014, and PlayStation and HTC also releasing quality kit, spectacular and affordable virtual reality experiences are now within touching distance. 

Meanwhile, the general public is responding. Deloitte estimates that about 2.5 million virtual reality headsets will be sold worldwide this year, while other commentators expect that there will be 50 million VR users in the world by 2017. 

The business case
Consumer brands have been quick to follow the boom in the entertainment industry to try and capitalise on their customers’ growing interest in virtual reality. For many it’s an irresistible sales tool, with the likes of Nike giving football fans the chance to step into the VR boots of superstar players.

For others, virtual reality is a marketing medium and trendy new service in one. Marriott Hotels, for example, has been checking out the technology through its Teleporter, VRoom Service and VR Postcards, allowing guests to experience other travellers’ journeys while they’re on one of their own. 

It’s not only marketing that is now utilising VR, but manufacturing too. Ford, for instance, has been using Oculus Rift technology to enable their engineers and designers to carefully assess new cars, inside and out, ahead of production. That has real benefits and cost savings in the workplace and within R&D.

Virtual reality today is not all technological advancement, thrills and delights – as, more recently, we have seen it being used to immerse the user in darker scenarios. The New York Times used the technology to make a film from the perspective of three children in different parts of the world who have been uprooted by war in their homelands.

On this side of the pond, The Guardian created a solitary confinement experience that aimed to provide a small insight into the trauma that an extended period of isolation can inflict on a person. 

The technology can clearly offer valuable new experiences that increase empathy with others and understanding of important issues. Achieving these aims is a daily battle in the workplace and that’s why we should be giving our employees the chance to put themselves in someone else’s digital shoes.

VR training at work
For industries that have technology in their DNA, or where it’s a matter of life and death, virtual reality is being widely used to train staff. Similarly to the dress rehearsals for NASA’s astronauts, healthcare professionals are gaining insights into what they’ll experience before working on a real body by using realistic virtual environments or virtual models of human anatomy.  

Meanwhile, the use of the Oculus Rift headset by the military has been widely reported. It aims to train and test soldiers for the most challenging combat scenarios, within a safe – yet challenging and shocking – virtual world. 

There are, of course, costs associated with the software and hardware. But these will certainly decrease with time. As the market matures, we are likely to see more producers creating content and a new range of organisations making VR a core part of their training programme. 

As with any form of training, there is a danger that the learning objectives might get lost within the virtual reality experiences and fail to impart the knowledge and hone the skills that the L&D teams intended.  

Buyers beware and look out for an onslaught of companies offering a VR world that looks amazing. Does it really do what your organisation may need it to do? It’s a hot topic but suitability must be the watchword.

If you need to train large numbers of people across different destinations, and deliver an immersive experience that face-to-face training can’t offer, then VR-learning will soon be the most powerful and cost-effective way of doing this – especially when compared to the budget needed to gather everyone together in the same location. 

Elearning is still a relatively new idea and, unfortunately, much of it is remembered (or, worse, completely forgotten) for being uninspiring. The last recession saw training budgets slashed so it is only in the last couple of years that we have seen online training start to fulfil its potential, with a growing number of organisations bringing it to life and making it more compelling. 

It is most successful when it’s visually engaging, breaks down complicated information into bite-sized chunks and enables trainers and managers to use data intuitively to assess their learners.  

Imagine how a blended learning approach could mix up VR training with digital learning and bite-size engagement all delivered after you’ve been placed on the shop floor, trading floor, oil rig platform or aircraft hangar, from the safety of your own desk.

VR can take things up a notch – or ten – because of its ability to help us learn critical skills in a realistic but safe environment. The fact that it can be so enjoyable and memorable means that learners usually love every second of the session and, crucially, retain the knowledge. 

There will, of course, be subject matter that is not taught best through virtual reality. It’s also important to ensure that it’s not an isolating experience, with the software offering an opportunity for learners to connect with one another or trainers. 

There is no reason why it can’t be used in the recruitment process in the future as well – from the interview stage to the induction days for successful candidates. For instance, every new starter at Google Inc. could have a VR one-to-one employee engagement session with the CEO, Sundar Pichai, before they’ve even sat at their desk for the first time. 

Virtual reality training is akin to time travel. It has the power to take learners to career-defining moments in their work life before they happen. It can give them the chance to make mistakes, without significant consequence or regret. 

We might look silly with that awe-inspired VR-look on our faces but that’s precisely how we should look in those moments when we find ourselves enjoying and benefiting from learning again. 

About the author 

Mark Lyon is the co-founder of the Remote Group.


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