Will virtual reality feature in your L&D department in 2017?

| By Terence Brake

A few Christmases ago - when the gift pile rose to the ceiling – my extended family decided to move to a Secret Santa System (SSS).  One of the toddlers at our first SSS event was very distraught by the change; by comparison to the gift mountain he had actually climbed every year, the new present pile seemed an uninspiring lump. “Doesn’t Santa love us anymore?”

In 2016, my secret Santa was one of my sons.  He plays video games on his phone, and the perfect gift came to me in a flash – a Virtual Reality headset.  I contacted his wife to check he didn’t already have one – he didn’t!

Spilling over from the world of gaming, virtual reality (VR) and by extension augmented reality (AR) technologies, are becoming mainstream tools in business, reshaping activities like product development, sales and marketing, manufacturing, collaborating, field testing, advertising, and training.  We should also acknowledge Mixed Reality (MR) – the combination of VR and AR - which may have the biggest impact of all.

How do VR and AR differ?

VR typically requires the use of a headset, and utilizes a fully immersive 3-D virtual world – one that is totally imaginary or is a simulation of the real-world.  Through VR a trainee surgeon can be given a ‘true feeling’ for being in an operating room or a trainee oil rig worker the experience of working on a rig.  AR is a quasi-virtual experience in which layers of contextual data, images, text and other communications augment the user’s own un-simulated reality (often via smartglasses). 

The technologies themselves are not new; NASA has been using virtual reality to train astronauts for space walks since the 1980s.  What is revolutionary is the commercialization and reduced cost of VR and AR.  According to one estimate, combined VR and AR sales are forecast to be $150 billion by 2020, with AR alone being in the region of $120 billion.  According to Rotem Bennet of the Israel Institute of Technology, 2016 has been the year of VR with “most of the leading technology companies releasing VR devices and software, PC makers offering ‘VR ready’ machines, and VC’s investing an all-time record of $1.2 billion in the first quarter of the year alone.”  Vincent Fung, Investment Director of China’s Net Dragon, believes the adoption of VR will be faster than the adoption of smartphones.

While VR/AR/MR are trending, many companies are still feeling their way into the opportunities.  However, a 2016 PwC survey of US manufacturers looked at the most popular applications of VR and AR.  Note that respondents could choose multiple answers:

·         Product design and development – 38%

·         Safety and manufacturing skills training – 28%

·         Maintenance, repair or equipment operations - 19%

·         Remote collaboration -  19%

According to the same study, about one in three manufacturers could adopt VR/AR technology by 2018. 

The technology is moving fast.  Forms of interaction are evolving from point/click/type to touch/swipe/talk to gesture/mood/gaze.  The challenge is to ensure that as professionals we don’t get seduced by the ‘next shiny things’ without considering how value will be added.  In the form of a question, we must ask: “What value does a VR/AR/MR environment add to the learning, development, and application of work skills and concepts?”

Recently, I was reading insights from Prof. Jeremy Roschelle who is Executive Director, Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International.  His thoughts were inspired by his visit to the SxSW Education Conference in Austin, Texas (March 2016), and I would like to reinforce three of them here:

Learning from the setting, not just a 3-D object

We know that many work scenarios are difficult, if not impossible, to simulate in a 2-D world.  Two dimensions cannot convey the influence of the real-world settings in which the work takes place, e.g. operating room, mine, oil and gas facility.  Roschelle says, “It seems to me VR has more value when the learner has a meaningful purpose in exploring the setting, taking a role or perspective, or making choices in a realistic wrap-around context.” 

Learning transcends the goggles

Roschelle recognized that what he experienced through the goggles at the conference was only one part of the overall learning experience.  Too often, the VR was passive watching without active engagement; the real engagement was provided by activities external to the actual VR, e.g. discussions, writing, drawing, and reading.  More work needs to be done on enabling learners to do, make, and construct in VR.

Learning is social and constructive, VR is not yet

We learn a great deal in interpersonal contexts through social observation.  Roshcelle talks about the “weird social disconnect I frequently experienced when people next to me donned goggles, and suddenly were socially unavailable, lost in some other world and experience that I could not see.”  Learning in isolation is often impoverished learning. 

To make the most of VR/AR/MR, learning professionals must pay attention to how business colleagues are utilizing the technologies.  When Ford engineers – from anywhere in the world - put on a VR Oculus Rift headset they enter a 3-D world where they can explore a virtual car’s design and collaborate on making improvements.  The 3-D collaborative space provides a more interactive and immersive experience than does screen-based teleconferencing.  This reduces the need for expensive physical prototypes.

Bechtel is using AR to view and synchronize building design, construction, and operational modeling information where it’s most needed – on location.  

Lowes – the home improvement store – is transforming the customer experience of home remodeling.  The customer begins by entering the dimensions of the space they want to renovate, and then selects the features they want to incorporate, e.g. flooring and countertop options.  Customers then enter a Holoroom which projects a realistic 3-D rendering of what the room would look like.

Audi has integrated AR into its brochure for the 2016 Audi TT.  Place your smartphone on a brochure page and you can experience/learn the TT’s Virtual Cockpit, i.e. dashboard.

Let’s keep our heads and focus on creating learning value while also imagineering the potential of a training future with VR/AR/MR capabilities.  Great way to start a new year!