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Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream for Learning

February 09, 2022 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Remember when virtual reality (VR) training was limited to astronauts and heart surgeons? The technology has always held tremendous promise as an immersive training experience, but its high cost made it prohibitive for all but the most extreme learning scenarios.

Until now.

“We have entered the cheaper, lighter, faster era of virtual reality,” said Derek Belch, CEO of Strivr, an immersive learning technology company in Palo Alto, Calif. “[Headsets] that used to weigh 30 pounds and cost $30,000 now weigh less than 3 pounds and cost less than $300.”

The drop in price coincides with a renaissance in corporate learning that is causing companies to make bigger investments in content and technology. C-suite leaders are making training a corporate priority, and L&D leaders are looking for new ways to engage learners who can’t be in a face-to-face classroom, Belch said. “Virtual reality fits into all of these trends,” he said.

Soft Skills Training and Virtual Reality

VR is surprisingly suitable for many training applications. “It’s not just for dangerous, complex or hard-to-reach environments,” said Kyle Jackson, CEO of Talespin, an immersive learning content creation company. “One of the hottest applications of VR today is soft skills training.”

Soft skills top the list of every in-demand skillset, but they can be difficult and time-consuming to teach. Training someone how to interact with customers, close a deal, de-escalate a situation or provide coaching requires practice and feedback in a safe space. The challenge is no one likes to role play, Jackson said. Role-playing is awkward, unrealistic and the feedback tends to be too vague and polite to add much value.

“Learners need a safe space where they can be vulnerable and make mistakes,” he said.

They also need detailed feedback on what they did wrong and where they can improve. “In role playing, no one is capturing your voice or tracking your decision points or providing feedback on how you could do better,” said Scott Stachiw, immersive learning director for Roundtable Learning, a technology-based custom training developer. “But that can all be captured in a virtual environment.”

Shadowing another employee also introduces problems, including deviations from the preferred process or behavior, lack of relevant customer scenarios and burdening other employees who are trying to do their jobs. In a virtual environment, trainees are free to practice their skills, make mistakes and learn through doing, all without impacting an actual customer interaction.

“You can teach repeatable skills, and if someone wants to go back and try again and again, they can,” Stachiw said.

Related Article: Where the Metaverse and Digital Workplace Meet

A Maturing Enterprise Use Case

While virtual reality is still a leading-edge learning trend, many big companies are making headlines for deploying VR to address surprising soft skills applications.

In one of its biggest projects, Strivr partnered with Walmart to create a Black Friday VR training program to support 1.2 million frontline workers. The program, which features 360-degree video captured in stores and Oculus Go headsets, gives trainees a realistic sense of the chaos on the busiest shopping day of the year. The company reports that the training has improved knowledge retention by 15 percent.

H&R Block recently partnered with VR training vendor Mursion to create an immersive program where agents interact with virtual customer avatars and receive feedback on their performance. The company says the training, which has been completed by more than 1,700 agents, has accelerated speed to competency, cut the amount time customers spend on hold in half and improved customer satisfaction. 

And PWC used Talespin’s VR technology to train new managers on unconscious bias, then compared the results to classroom and virtual versions of the course. The results showed that VR learners completed training faster, were more focused than learners using the other content formats and were 275 percent more confident to act on what they learned — which was a 40 percent improvement over classroom learners and a 35 percent improvement over e-learners.

Related Article: How Virtual Reality Is Helping Remote Workers

Lower Cost Entry Points to VR

The benefits of VR for training are clear, though Belch notes that cost will remain an issue for many companies. Large companies that need to teach 1,000+ employees can make a solid business case for virtual reality courses. But for smaller companies, the combination of virtual reality hardware and custom content may exceed budgets. He predicted that in three to five years, it will become more mainstream for mid-sized firms.

In the meantime, companies with smaller budgets can get the benefit of virtual engagement through augmented reality courses. These 2D programs allow users to interact with avatars, graphics and virtual content on a computer screen or iPad.

“It’s easy to scale and it is still immersive,”  Stachiw said. His company even provides inexpensive cardboard goggles where users place their smartphone to simulate a virtual experience.

It's a lower cost way to prove that immersive learning experiences work and create a path to scale up to 3D in the future.

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