The combination of better hardware, generative AI and the ability to make experiences more personal for users will be incredible.
As employers look to support their employees and uplevel their skills, Fortune 1000 companies are finding training in virtual reality to be effective, efficient and most likely, more enjoyable than traditional e-learning programs. Global retail, banks and logistics companies are among the many industries finding virtual training to be tremendously valuable for onboarding, upskilling and reskilling.
Hardware advancements have brought down the price of a VR headset in parallel with the evolution in designs that have made the headsets easier to use and more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. Together, they are reaching an inflection point that customers are taking advantage of so they can deploy more headsets across additional locations so they can be used by more employees for a variety of new use cases. Apple’s announcement of Vision Pro, with its incredible mixed reality and spatial computing paradigm, has the potential to make immersive experiences part of an employee’s daily role with both VR and augmented reality.
Employers today are finding impressive results from VR programs already in use. A recent PwC study found that 51 percent of companies are already using VR or are incorporating virtual reality into their corporate strategy, while another 30 percent are in the research and planning phase. VR was initially targeted at training hard skills such as how to operate specialized tools or heavy equipment, but the PwC study found that companies are finding VR just as valuable (if not more) for teaching interpersonal soft skills.
These soft skills also apply to the type of encounters that employees have every day. How should they respond to a customer in a stressful or difficult situation? What listening skills will help an employee better understand what a customer needs? By practicing these scenarios in VR, employees learn in a safer environment before real-time interaction with a customer in a store. We saw a major retailer train 8,600 associates in three weeks with a new customer de-escalation program.
VR training reduces distractions and improves relevance
Employees, when trained in VR, can be trained up to four times faster than traditional methods, conveying what would take two hours in the classroom in a 30-minute VR session. PwC found that “in a VR headset, simulations and immersive experiences command the individual’s vision and attention. There are no interruptions and no options to multitask,” and the research found that students were four times more focused in VR compared to traditional programs.
Along with improved focus, VR learners were also 275 percent more confident in applying what they were taught. Training someone in an environment that looks and feels like their daily workspace can feel much more relevant than sitting in a classroom or at a computer. The experience of VR training is much closer to experiential learning when students learn inside a virtual environment that resembles their daily workspace.
There’s one other point I’d like to highlight. Seventy-five percent of the learners surveyed said that during the VR course on diversity and inclusion, they had a wake-up call moment and realized they were not as inclusive as they thought they were. By putting themselves virtually in someone else’s shoes, employees were better able to understand a different perspective. PwC noted, “Because it was a realistic simulation where they played themselves, learners reported making decisions based on what they would have done in real life.” This expanded perspective is really important in today’s workplace if we want to create a more supportive and collaborative environment for employees and customers alike, in any type of scenario, including high-pressure situations.
VR training for rare, impossible, dangerous or expensive scenarios
We use the acronym “RIDE” to describe scenarios where VR can have the biggest impact. These are situations that are Rare, Impossible, Dangerous or Expensive to recreate. These can include basic operational safety training, like how to drive a forklift, or how to stack packages properly. RIDE also includes situations like active threats, or how to respond in a robbery safely. These are skills you hope an employee will never need, but a correct response can help save a life. After a large cellular provider gave their employees training on how to respond to dangerous situations, 97 percent of the employees felt prepared to react appropriately and focus on the safety of employees and customers.
Rich data supports ongoing improvement in curriculum
We’re also discovering that VR can provide more in-depth metrics than other platforms. In the classroom, the instructor can look at test scores or evaluate participation. Two-dimensional e-learning programs can measure how long an employee spent in a section and which questions tripped them up. VR provides insights based on spatial awareness, head tracking, spoken comments, etc. that can provide a much more comprehensive analysis of how a student performed in training.
With this richer data including vision tracking, learning and development leaders can refine and focus training content over time to drive better performance and knowledge retention. After one of the top banks in the U.S. trained a cohort on how to detect fraud using the traditional approach, they exposed workers to a similar scenario in VR and found that 30 percent of their employees failed to notice signs of fraud, even though these employees passed the e-learning test. Retraining in VR led to a dramatic improvement in employees’ ability to detect fraud by making the experience more realistic.
Even something as simple as loading or unloading a truck can be improved and measured with VR training. For a nationwide retailer, a 1 percent improvement in spatial awareness and package placement can add up to over thousands of truckloads, especially in the crucial holiday season. When retailers gave employees specific training on how to quickly scan shopper’s carts during Black Friday madness, employees were able to improve their scan rate by 30 percent and help move customers through the door efficiently. VR creates a more realistic picture of how training is received, giving L&D officers a chance to improve their efforts with data on what employees are seeing during training.
What’s next for VR training
We’ve discussed how large companies are using VR to train workers on hard skills and soft skills. I’d also like to highlight where the industry is going next with new technologies.
- Vision Pro: Apple’s spatial computing headset is due to launch in 2024, and I think Apple’s track record of making new technology accessible to a wide audience of people could drive a seismic shift in adoption. Initial headsets will be priced for early adopters at $3,499, but Apple’s attention to polish and usability will draw many more to the field, and there are already hints of a lower-priced model in the future.
- Augmented and mixed reality: Part of what makes Vision Pro so interesting is this idea of “pass-through” video, the ability to overlay virtual objects on the real world. We’ve long thought of using this technology for remote assistance situations, helping someone finish a task in a remote location. But what if an instructor or subject matter expert could be sitting virtually “side by side” coaching an employee?
- New headsets: Along with Apple in 2024, the MetaQuest 3 is expected this fall, with a faster processor and slimmer design (and $499 price tag), while the $1,100 HTC Vive XR Elite offers mixed reality today in a small form factor. Samsung, Qualcomm and Google have also announced a new partnership to create immersive VR hardware.
- Generative AI: The new capabilities from artificial intelligence applications like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion are incredible. I think generative AI will be really useful for content creation. Instead of shutting down a warehouse to shoot a training video, trainers could just take a couple of pictures and create a realistic warehouse environment. In the short term, creating and updating content for learning experiences will get much easier, faster and cheaper. In the medium to long term, we will start to see AI being used to power conversational learning experiences in real time or being used to create content in real-time in the headset, with difficulty adapting as employees progress down the learning path. But L&D teams will need to think through how these can generate repeatable and consistent learning experiences across their learning cohorts.
We’ve touched on how Fortune 1000 companies are using VR technology to reinvent workforce performance and deliver an immersive educational experience. PwC has outlined the many ways VR training is more effective, impactful and helps improve employee confidence. Immersive technology for job training can capitalize on richer backend data to discover more targeted insights into employee skill levels and potential gaps and improved headsets will make this learning modality more prevalent.
Between the advances in hardware and AI, I think we’re going to see a few of the limitless possibilities come to life soon. The combination of better hardware, generative AI and the ability to make experiences more personal for users will be incredible. But hundreds of companies are already seeing significant improvements today, from speeding up task training to preparing for emergency situations, and I only expect interest and the improved training opportunities of VR to continue to grow.