Virtual Reality e-Learning

Here we’ll provide you with a quick potted history of VR in training contexts, as well as the future of its technology and how your organisation can enhance performance by using virtual reality e-learning during 2018 and beyond.

Many media outlets, from the BBC to Forbes magazine predicted that 2016 would be the year of Virtual Reality (VR). VR is no new kid on the block, but advances in hardware and software, as well as a fall in price of the associated technology are bringing VR into the mainstream.

The last 10 years has seen many projects harnessing the power of VR for education and learning, but projects are stepping outside the confines of research and are becoming part of the learning mix. From medical and manufacturing through to retail and hospitality, training with VR can offer a more immersive, engaging and contextual learning experience.

What’s the VR Market Worth?

Deloitte predicted that 2016 would see the VR market worth reach $1 billion p/a for the first time.
VR industry revenues are are expected to grow to $15.9 billion by 2019.

Let’s look at the history of VR to see how we got here

  • 1962 Morton Hellig builds the ‘Sensorama’ a machine designed to engage multiple senses.
  • 1966 Thomas A. Furness III introduces the first visual flight simulator.
  • 1980’s the term virtual reality becomes popularized.
  • 1991 Sega introduce the Sega VR headset with visor, headphones and inertial sensors.
  • 2006 ‘Narrow VR’ transformed the fortunes of Nintendo following the launch of the Wii.
  • 2010 First prototype of the Oculus Rift is built – four years later, Facebook buy the company for $2 billion!
  • 2013 CyArk 500 is launched to digitally preserve 500 cultural heritage sites within the next five years.
  • 2015 Oneplus becomes the first company to launch a product using VR.
  • 2015 Google launches ‘Pioneer Expeditions’ – thousands of schools received everything they needed for a virtual expedition.
  • 2015 New York Times sends one million subscribers a Google Cardboard headset.
  • 2016 Royal London Hospital broadcast first live surgery using VR.
  • 2016 Stanford University Virtual Human Interactions Lab launch project with NFL on using VR for diversity training.

Tech trend or tech trajectory?

One of the most common questions we are asked by customers who want to know more about what virtual reality is in a training context and whether VR e-learning is really worth the investment – is it a trend rather than a medium that is here to stay?

Well VR in training isn’t new and anyone who has worked in aviation knows this.

Back in the late 1980s and early 90’s, Microsoft Flight Simulator gave the domestic market a glimpse into the type of simulation being used in the industry.

Of course, the industry standard simulations ran on recreations of the physical flight deck, creating an even more contextual, realistic environment in which to develop complex skills. VR simulations on this scale were costly, keeping the investments locked into just a few highly complex, high risk areas.

Virtual reality e-learning - the trends

However, VR hardware is now in the reach of the retail market. You just have to cast your mind back to the first cellphones or the price of the first HD TV and see how quickly the price drops and the next level of sophistication and refinement comes along. Along with this, the skills base to develop VR ready content is growing rapidly, opening up a huge opportunity for organisations to benefit from a deep engagement with VR. Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR and Google Cardboard are already out in the market.

With Google’s investment in Daydream (which includes a headset and development platform to bring more rich VR experiences to compatible Android phones), it could signal even more rapid content development and a wealth of VR learning apps.

What this means for organisations is that a technology that may once have been perceived as only within reach or relevant for organisations with huge learning technology budgets is now becoming an affordable and exciting way to engage people in rich learning experiences.

But really? …

One of the main challenges in getting buying is, without experiencing it, VR seems too esoteric or surrounded in too much hype. If you have the opportunity, try it out – in a white paper, it’s impossible to convey what the experience is like.

Once you’ve tried it, it’s very compelling and the level of immersion and engagement with the environment and content in that environment is a real step change.

Google Cardboard VR headset

(direct from Google, a Google Cardboard headset will set you back £15).

However, like all learning solutions, it is only as good as the clarity of purpose, the context and relevance that is built into it. In Wired Magazine April 2016, the editors panel made an interesting observation:

“For VR experiences to be worth putting the headset on, it’s got to be something that makes the most of you being somewhere”

So a quick video and how to guide is a more sensible suggestion to learn how to create a pivot table! Virtual reality e-learning, like any training technology, must be driven by the need and its relevance to the learning outcome, the learners’ preference and the organisational context.

So the analysis stage of any VR project is key – understanding the business imperative, performance challenges and learning outcomes are critical in avoiding VR being perceived as a fad, rather than a solid solution to developing skills.

Applications for learning and organisational performance

VR offers the ability to develop more contextual and interactive scenarios, enabling learners to interact with the environment and objects within it, not just respond to text or voice prompts (or flat on-screen interactions). It is arguably a more natural way to conduct a scenario – it becomes the difference between flat 2d drag and drop interactions or hotspots to handling objects and perform tasks the way it really happens in situ.

By building a VR training environment to explore a learning need, we can observe how learners really work with the objects and materials. So not only are we creating a more representative experience, it provides the opportunity to see how people really do things.

Take the example of exploring a manufacturing facility – do our predictions for how people will perform in the environment actually reflect what they do when they walk through the door? Will they take routes through the environment or operate equipment in a way we didn’t expect? What does that tell us and what as an organisation could be learned from that?

With VR you can break the rules and learn from it. This means you can measure performance through observing how people really work, which offers huge opportunities for more effective performance measurement.

Transforming live experiences

One question we are often asked is: can VR have any application in leadership or behavioral skills based training? As well as interacting with the environment, VR provides the opportunity to interact with others in a relevant context. It has the possibility to get as close as currently possible to seeing the world through someone else’s eyes!

Another huge opportunity is in reducing the isolation of online learning. VR enables us to work together; to learn from the ways others tackle the same challenge and to bring people from around the world in to one environment. We are current exploring virtual campuses for leading education providers, as well as virtual customer service environments to help provide real context to group interactions.

For synchronous activities – from product demonstrations and launches, it provides the opportunity for people to experience the product and ask questions of a live trainer/SME. Product developers, designers and marketing use VR to ask staff or consumers to interact with products and make observations that will inform product design and promotions. To support global collaboration, why not create a virtual ‘hackathon’ space? Your VR environment can include informal discussion spaces, creative spaces and more.

Further applications for VR in soft skills training are gathering pace. Watch this space, because as companies such as Microsoft Labs continue to refine their holoportation technology, you’ll no longer need to choose an avatar, cameras will capture your image and transport you to shared spaces.

It’s not quite time travel, but as hardware and software performance improves, the experience is really compelling and very smooth, helping learners really throw themselves into the environment.

How to get started

Like any learning technology, you need to be led by the business need, not the technology itself. If you apply a model such as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping approach, the questions you would ask in that process could be applied to creating a VR learning experience just as well as an e-learning module. Understanding the actions people need to take to meet the business goal is a critical element of the model – Moore argues that it’s not about the knowledge people need, but the actions they take. For critical business areas, VR could provide a more effective environment to test out actions, observe actions and identify actions you may not have expected.

Moore also postulates that each activity should mirror the real world as much as possible to deliver the best results. This is good common sense, but is inherently difficult to achieve in conventional e-learning. VR helps bridge this gap.

Another interesting reflection is the stage in action mapping that states that if the information in your learning solution doesn’t directly support the activity, don’t add it. However, Donald Clark, in an article back in 2013 makes an interesting related point – you can make mistakes in a 3d environment. The learner has more control over the route they take or the actions they perform, so we may observe learners using or needing information we hadn’t even considered in the planning phase. So to get started with VR, we would recommend starting with the board’s strategic objectives – what are the critical shifts as a business we need to make to see real performance change? If the need is important enough, then it warrants the investment in creating learning experiences that capture attention at a deep sensory level. VR, by its nature retains attention longer than other learning mediums and if we are looking for a real step change, creating spaces for exploration, experimentation, failure and collaboration could be just what you need.

Getting started with VR for business

So to get started with VR training, we would recommend starting with the board’s strategic objectives – what are the critical shifts as a business we need to make to see real performance change? If the need is important enough, then it warrants the investment in creating learning experiences that capture attention at a deep sensory level. VR, by its nature retains attention longer than other learning mediums and if we are looking for a real step change, creating spaces for exploration, experimentation, failure and collaboration could be just what you need.

But how do we know what’s important enough or relevant for treatment using VR?

High consequence training is an obvious application, which is why virtual reality has been in wide adoption for many years in aviation, military and medical environments. What can be more difficult to map is how virtual reality applies to across a broader range of learning needs, the more typical topics that arise in organisations.

Debbie Lawley and Lisa Minogue-White at WillowDNA have developed a model for analysing dimensions of the learning need and how appropriate VR would be as a solution.

Virtual reality e-learning - the trends

Using this model, you can map different learning needs onto each dimension and see how virtual reality fares as a suitable solution.

This model focuses on 3 Cognitive dimensions – with thought, experience and senses reframed as Risk, Practice and Sensory to bring it into the learning and performance context.

Risk is fairly self-explanatory and it demonstrates why applications such as learning to fly a commercial plane are common cases for VR. In contrast, not adjusting your chair carries some long term risk to the user, but doesn’t warrant a simulation using VR (and anyway, give it a few years and the Internet of Things will have that covered – Your chair will be able to adjust itself!)

Practice again is fairly clear – take for example learning to use excel. Now although with some practice, the functions become second nature, it is not an activity that requires lots of performance rehearsal. Any gaps in knowledge can be easily filled with some basic performance support materials and frankly, you don’t need to simulate Microsoft Excel, you can just use it! However, for a skill such as conflict resolution, the ability to practice and test your response in different outcomes can be very effective indeed. The more realistic and sophisticated the scenarios can get, the truer it becomes. VR enables this.

Sensory relates to a factor highlighted earlier – the importance of sensory feedback from the environment. This can be in the form of haptic feedback (user feedback based on touch, as used in devices such as the Apple Watch). New VR devices such as the HTC Vive includes haptic controllers with the headset. This can help with deeper levels of engagement or provide feedback on physical activities, using varying levels of pressure and touch feedback in reaction to an interaction with an object or the environment. Sensory can also be interpreted emotional engagement.

Scenarios such as diversity training, as currently being trialled with the NFL and Stanford University, use the immersion that you experience in VR to help learners experience a perspective different to their own. Seeing the world through another’s eyes can be a deeply powerful emotional experience and because the visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimuli of a VR environment is so immersive, it gets you very close indeed to truly seeing through someone else’s eyes.

To help demonstrate the model in action, we have worked through some realistic examples:

Presentation skills

Something as ubiquitous as presentation skills has the potential to benefit greatly from VR. At first glance, it may seem quite a pedestrian topic but the stakes can be extremely high both at an individual and organisation level. From securing a promotion to major contract negotiations, presentation skills can be a critical success factor (if you’ve seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’ it demonstrates just how high the stakes can get). If we plot this onto our model, taking a situation such as contract negotiations, you can see that the risk is high, the need for practice (depending on experience level) could also be high and certainly a successful outcome will benefit from adequate preparation.

Practising skills with VR

One of the most common methods deployed in presentation skills training is role play – however for those who are already not comfortable presenting or lacking in confidence, a role play can be a very unpleasant experience. That’s not to underplay the importance of practice, in fact it’s vital. So, if you contrast that with watching examples of good presentations, it may be easy to identify what works and what doesn’t but translating that into your own practice is a whole other matter.

Observation of others giving presentations doesn’t mean that a learner will move from ‘they do that’ to ‘I can do that’, whilst the crushing embarrassment of a role play in front of peers may also not be the most conducive environment for personal growth. A virtual environment can provide an ideal environment for practice, feedback and observation, all housed in a safe but realistic setting.

With effective learning design, you can simulate different scenarios, adopt the perspective of different audience members, observe others and receive feedback. This could be done via a pre-programmed asynchronous VR scenario but could also be used as a synchronous activity to provide live feedback to the learner as their practice progresses. There are already some great examples of apps and scenarios being built tackling the subject, including Public Speaking For Google Cardboard.

Business Continuity

Many companies who predominantly or even exclusively operate as an online business (such as Amazon globally, BlueApron and Proflowers in the USA or ASOS and Ocado in the UK) are in essence logistics operations. Business continuity is of key importance and preparation, mitigation and management of operational issues is key to maintaining effective business and profitability. Therefore, being able to create effective simulations of critical incidents and ensuring regular practice could save huge amounts of money.

Although organisations conduct regular fire drills, being able to run the whole gamut of incident simulations is too costly and given they are unpredictable by nature, training may occur weeks, months maybe even longer prior to an event. It is also difficult and costly to make mistakes even though they provide great learning opportunities. Standard e-learning or video can tell the stories of other’s failure, but the huge advantage of VR is that you can actually observe as close to real behavior as possible.

Virtual reality for business continuity

You can train a procedure for dealing with an accident in a warehouse, a security breach or weather issue, but is that how people really behave when the incident actually happens and they are responsible for resolving it? As we have explored using our model, risks can be high and depending on the situation for which you are training, practice and retest can be important. Sensory can also be very important, when you have situations that may involve effective operation of equipment to resolve the issue or where you are dealing with heightened emotions.

New premises (such as major office relocation, new retail fit out or production line)

Moving to a new office location for a large organisation or to roll out a new retail environment to encourage sales can be a significant investment. Detailed CAD designs, moodboards and 3d models can help, but being able to move around the space from the perspective of different stakeholders can, in the long term, find flaws in the design or uncover opportunities that you would not have been able to capitalize on until you’d actually built it! So from induction through to full rebrand and layout, VR can be a very sensible investment. Another good example here is where you work in what could be regarded as a manufacturing environment that involves ‘Craftsmanship’ (i.e. not a fully automated production line). For many luxury products such as high end car brands or clothing, the materials and equipment used can in itself be very expensive and require a great deal of practice (and mistakes are costly!). Creating VR production lines can be a great medium for induction into these environments to create a safe space to fail before going live.

VR design applications

In Summary

VR isn’t the solution for all the performance needs in your organisation, no one particular approach ever is. However, it is becoming an attainable and practical solution that can now be put into the mix when the need warrants it.

You can download the original 2016 version of this report as a PDF.

For help in conducting business analysis to identify whether VR will benefit your organisation and achieve the performance change you are looking for, our team can conduct analysis and solutions mapping in partnership with you to help identify the right solution for your needs.