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The real world of virtual reality training

Virtual reality isn't just for holodeck simulations and lawnmower men. It's a useful tool when hands-on training needs an extra hand. As VR becomes the new educational reality, you need to study these five lessons.

For decades, onboarding employees has involved a lecture, an industrial film, or an information booklet, followed by a brief test to make sure your budding hires know their way around a cash register. But a greater degree of expertise is needed when prepping workers for a difficult, dangerous, mission-critical task, where one wrong move could mean explosions and some serious 'splaining to do at a review board.

This is where virtual reality (VR) training comes in. With its ability to immerse users in simulations of the real world without pesky corporeal ramifications —typically using HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headsets—VR is useful when hands-on training needs an extra hand.

For example, let’s say you’re training someone to use a forklift. Your new trainee is behind the wheel when suddenly a small child dashes out in front of the machine’s stabby maw. The worker could learn a soul-scarring lesson in regret while simultaneously teaching the kid a permanent lesson in Darwinism. But in a VR simulation, the test can be reset as many times as it takes the student to learn from their mistakes and, finally, Schrödinger’s kid lives.

It’s like practicing for a fire drill without having to set a building on fire.

With users ranging from defense contractors to healthcare providers, enterprises are making active use of VR to train their employees in real-life skills without real-life complexities. Here’s what we learned about this newer training method and why you (probably) should embrace it for real.

VR training goes where no educational film has gone before

VR training has serious advantages over training techniques involving pen and paper, says Tom Wilkerson, CEO of CertifyMe, which offers VR and online OSHA-compliant forklift safety training and certification. “It reduces risk by providing hands-on training without the dangers that are present when new employees need to hone their skills.”

Wilkerson says in the scenarios his trainees encounter, “the user experiences several types of accidents that are common in work environments with forklifts.” VR can accurately portray situations that are imperative to training, such as learning how to respond to a genuine emergency. This includes scenarios trainees would rarely experience in a controlled training environment that is not, repeat, not on fire.

VR can step in when a situation can’t be easily replicated in the real world. “With VR, we can simulate experiences, such as a cultural event, that only happen once a year in the real world,” says Leila J. Kamgar, a coordinator for outreach and communications in the Office of the Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). The FSI uses VR to train members of 50 U.S. government branches in diplomacy, foreign language acquisition, and program management.

In addition, Kamgar says, “the VR’s learning curve is minimal and is fairly intuitive.”

Shel Israel, a partner and co-founder of the Transformation Group, a consultancy focused on VR and augmented/mixed reality, says people trained using VR headsets and experiences have better job satisfaction. “[Companies] also find the employees enjoy the experience more and therefore find greater loyalty and higher morale,” he adds.

How did LTE Group create new digital education services?

Israel also says trainees retain more information from VR training than they do from training films. According to the (likely biased) creators of VR training software Strivr, “Learning retention rates can be as high as 75 percent, versus just 10 percent for reading or a lecture.”

So, if you’re concerned about the outlay costs to get started with VR training, consider the payback in terms of value for money, time and, particularly, appeal.

Wilkerson believes VR training is catnip to younger employees: “The millennial generation makes up the largest sector of the workforce, and with virtual reality being the newest technological advancement, pairing VR and job training makes sense.”

Training doesn’t involve only work processes

There’s more to VR training than expanding a trainee’s knowledge base. It seems it can also grow their hearts three sizes.

Israel says Walmart uses a VR program developed by Strivr—one based on another program designed at Stanford University to train quarterbacks without physically damaging them—to instill a sense of emotional sympathy in its employees.

During training sessions, one Walmart employee is placed in a VR headset while others watch on a large screen, Israel explains. “All of them suddenly find themselves in the San Antonio Walmart on Black Friday of 2016, where they see people who want to return things, want to buy things, and have questions, unable to get any help. A feeling of empathy rises up in the trainees that wasn't getting across elsewhere.”

When all is said and done, Walmart has trained employees to be more compassionate to the Halloween shopper who needs to exchange a sexy taco dress for a sexy Freddy Krueger dress.

According to Kamgar, the FSI is working on developing other VR experiential exercises. Among them is “an activity which will provide the opportunity for foreign affairs professionals to practice answering questions about American culture, holidays, and traditions, which they are often called on to do when living and working abroad.”

VR can also help you train to be a better you, by helping you meditate, manage anxiety, and even retrain a lazy eye.

VR training can save time and money

Setup is relatively simple. “All you need to train people in any skill using VR is for them to have access to the headset and VR-enabled PC,” says Lyron Bentovim, CEO of The Glimpse Group, a VR/AR company comprised of multiple VR and augmented reality (AR) software and services start-ups. “Once the training VR experience has been created, there is no limit to how many people can go through it or to how many times people can refresh their training.”

Plus, training can take place anywhere: an office, an event, a home, or in yet another VR simulation, for those who really liked the movie "Inception."

VR can minimize the time and expense of hiring an in-person trainer or transporting employees to a training facility. In fact, it has the potential to disrupt the training industry, which in 2015 was worth $160 billion in North America and $355 billion worldwide (your loyal author writes while rethinking her life choices). “The cost savings from using VR training could be very significant, especially for organizations that fly employees to special locations to be trained with specialized equipment or in well-crafted scenarios,” says Bentovim.

VR is affordable by even the most upstarting start-up. Although you need to purchase training software, or hire developers to build it for you, the cost of VR headsets themselves is decreasing. At the time of writing, the HTC Vive costs $599 (or $1,200 for a business edition with dedicated phone support) and the recently reduced Oculus Rift costs $399. Facebook has also announced the wireless Oculus Go, which will cost only $200.

It’s more common than you think

If you think VR training is only for officers on the Enterprise, think again. VR training is used by or for:

And those Walmart employees getting trained with VR? There are an astonishing 140,000 of them.

According to market researcher Tractica, enterprise VR will be worth over $1 trillion in 2017 in five sectors, one of which is training and simulation. By 2021, the company predicts, VR will hit $9.2 billion worldwide.

It's surprising you’re not being strapped into a VR headset to train to read this article.

VR is still not as good as real-world training

Without a doubt, VR training can enhance your current training processes. But there’s nothing better than really real realness.

“VR is still a great introductory measure,” Wilkerson says, “but nothing will ever truly replace hands-on training.”

Some of this is a matter of programming. But there are technical challenges yet to overcome as well. Bentovim says, “VR’s biggest current weakness is there is no way to get quality haptic feeling—touch—at this stage of the industry’s development.”

Although one company, Neurodigital, is selling haptic gloves (with others in development), most VR gear is limited to oversized goggles and hand controls that vibrate at key moments to simulate physical contact. This means a VR program for mechanics cannot replicate the amount of force trainees need to turn a nut with a wrench. When police officers in Hartford County, Maryland, are “shot” in a VR scenario, they know they’ve been hit only because they wear an extra piece of equipment that stuns them (and possibly tells them “lol noob”).

In other words, haptic peripherals are the next frontier in this barely colonized landscape.

Kamgar suggests there isn’t enough software to meet the demand. “There are a limited number of off-the-shelf educational activities,” she says, which means both the public and private sector have to fend for themselves when it comes to training applications. The FSI’s workaround is to “adapt a gaming technology to be used in a training environment.”

Because of this, “the majority of projects have to be designed and developed in house, which is time consuming,” Kamgar notes. This means FSI trainers are more likely to reach for a real-world educational tool. On the plus side, this means VR training software, at least when it comes to the U.S. government, has potential for explosive growth.

In addition, Israel says, “There’s going to be job displacement in some areas and job increases in others.” But it’s unclear if the job gains will outpace the job losses.

But importantly, Israel points out, “The biggest danger we face is messing with the human brain. The downside is there’s a blurring between truth and fiction, the long-term effects of this we don’t yet know. We’ll know more in 20 years.”

And if we aren’t welcoming our virtual overlords by then, we’ll know VR training works without consequences.

Plug in, turn on, drop in

Let’s say you had a choice: You could see a yawn-inducing training film and perform a few exercises. Or you can strap into a VR headset and explore the scenario you’ll be experiencing on terra firma.

The first situation requires your trainer to learn CPR for when you flatline with ennui. The second one teaches you a difficult or dangerous task inexpensively and free from consequence. We know which method we would recommend.

Yes, VR training isn’t perfect (yet). But it’s the next best thing to reality. In other words, if hands-on training were a bicycle, VR training is its training wheels.

We expect VR training for bicycle riding any day now.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.