Virtual reality is sweeping the nation and savvy executives are already seeing it as an innovative tool to train their workforce. Almost every article concerning enterprise use cases for virtual reality lists training as one of the easiest ways companies can use this exciting new technology to improve their business.
And why not? Virtual reality allows for flexible environments, infinite replicability, global communication, and high engagement. Just have your employees strap on a VR headset and simulate their way to becoming better employees. Who wouldn’t want that?
The truth is virtual reality is still a relatively new technology with things it excels at and things that still need improvement. Sure, in five or ten years if we have ubiquitous headsets, photorealisticgraphics and effortless input, virtual reality could be the way almost all training is conducted. At that point, virtual reality will be able to exactly replicate any type of employee training on both a massive scale and across vast distances for a fraction of the cost. But for now, virtual reality training is best for specific use cases.
The best way to understand whether a type of training could be done in virtual reality is to understand what virtual reality does well. In fact, different types of virtual reality training excel in different ways. Only by understanding the advantages and limitations of different virtual reality set-ups can we begin to make use of this exciting new technology in an effective way.
The most immediately impactful type of virtual reality training is scenario based. It’s what people tend to think of when they think of virtual reality training: soldiers in VR headsets training for combat situations or surgeon using a VR headset to learn the latest surgical techniques. This is the type of VR training that governments and companies have been doing for years.
Virtual reality is especially adept at scenario based training because it’s possible to create entire virtual environments specifically tailored to the type of training you need. Whether it’s disaster preparedness training or teaching HR policies and procedures, virtual reality can closely replicate the real world.
The virtual environment can not only look like the real world, it can also include interactive elements that will respond to the user’s actions. Users can pick up virtual tools, respond to virtual people, and make decisions just like they would in real life. The best part is, unlike traditional scenario training, these scenarios are infinitely replicable and scalable to an entire company.
These types of training can use a range of VR headsets depending on the scenario. High levels of interactivity require a virtual reality input solution ranging from game pads to tracked controllers to simply using your hands. This means that a desktop with an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive would work best. For more passive experiences or ones that just require a trainee to talk, a mobile VR headset like the Gear VR could work. Either way, virtual reality scenario training has finally become accessible to most companies.
Another common use case for virtual reality training is learning how to use complicated and expensive equipment. This is how virtual reality got its earliest start: in flight simulators for the air force. The air force didn’t want to risk teaching new pilots how to fly its billion dollar aircraft by actually flying planes. So instead they had recruits sit in exact replicas of the cockpit as they wore a virtual reality headset that would simulate flight.
Recently, this type of virtual reality training has exploded. There are virtual reality training rigs for everything from operating a crane to de-icing a plane. It makes sense. Why risk using your expensive equipment when you can use a relatively low-cost VR headset instead?
In this type of training, the user wears a virtual reality headset while interacting with a real world replica of the cockpit or controls. The controls are mapped into the virtual reality scenario so that interacting with the replica feels and responds like the real machine.
The one issue for this type of training is that while the headsets come standard, the cockpit or mock equipment needs to be custom designed. While this is usually much cheaper than using the equipment, it does limit the scalability of this type of training. Still, when done right this can be incredibly informative and cost effective.
One of the most powerful aspects of virtual reality is the ability to make you feel like you’re in the same room with other people. Multi-user virtual reality simulations feel far more like talking to someone face-to-face than even a Skype call.
Of course, there are plenty of limitations with current virtual reality technology when it comes to multi-human interaction. The biggest is that avatars, or the 3D representations of users, don’t look like the users themselves. This is further hampered by a lack of facial and full body motion capture to make these avatars move like real people.
Still, in team based training or training that involves conversations with multiple people, virtual reality offers significant benefits. In a conference call or videoconferencing, it’s often difficult to know who is speaking and when to interject. In virtual reality, audio comes from each person’s avatar and heads can turn towards a speaker creating a more fluid conversation.
We build these types of multi-user training scenarios at Agora and we’ve found them to be incredibly effective for increasing engagement and collaboration. Training works best when it’s not just a one-way information dump but a real conversation and virtual reality can help facilitate this interaction.
That’s the real power of virtual reality training. Sure, it can save an organization money or decrease training accidents, but most importantly it can dramatically increase engagement and retention. With virtual reality we can finally replicate the exact jobs people are training for, making the training far more impactful. If employees feel like training is useful, relevant, and interesting they’ll be far more likely to remember it. And in the end, isn’t that what good training is all about.
Matthias McCoy-Thompson is the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Agora VR, a software company using virtual reality as a corporate communication tool for everything from marketing presentations to training seminars. He also runs the DC Virtual Reality Meetup Group, the third largest virtual reality organization on the East Coast. He publishes regularly on the impact of virtual reality in enterprise on the virtual reality blogs The Metaverse Muse and Upload VR.