The Role of Virtual Reality in L&D: Immersive learning that goes beyond the buzzwords

Search for ‘virtual reality’ on Google trends, and you’ll see a non-linear journey: almost nothing, until a slight uptick in searches from mid-2015 (the year Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR created an accessible form of virtual reality using smartphones), then a significant spike in December 2016. This was a watershed year for virtual reality (VR) as a commercial product, as three high-end virtual reality headsets hit the market: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR. Clearly, they made good Christmas presents. 


Source: Google Trends 

VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift, have long been the poster children for virtual reality, and most consumers today have been conditioned to think of the headsets when they hear VR. As a concept, however, virtual reality has been around for much longer than the tech peripherals. 

What is virtual reality?

Although virtual reality is well-served by many tech innovations, as a concept it goes beyond delivery modes. Virtual reality is an immersive, simulated experience that can be similar to, or completely different from, the real world. For VR to work, it requires engaging the participant in a situation or alternate reality to the point that the user suspends his or her disbelief and is motivated to participate in the simulated realm. While a lot of VR experiences take advantage of cutting-edge media elements, by definition virtual reality can be created effectively with very low media fidelity. Who remembers the View-Master? Patented in 1939 and still produced today, this special-format stereoscope can still be considered VR. 

As a fundamental premise, immersion matters when it comes to VR. In the current market, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest technology and forget that it’s possible to immerse people in an experience without expensive hardware. We maintain the premise that the principles of VR transcend delivery mode—which means that it’s possible to create an immersive learning experience that’s affordable AND scalable.

From there, the question about VR shifts: When is the right time to use virtual reality in L&D, and how do you use it effectively?

To help answer these questions, imagine VR as a continuum. On one end (the left) are relatively low-tech experiences that take you to an alternate space, such as the good ol’ View-Master. In the context of corporate learning and development, a good example at the lower end of the continuum would be a role play or a simple branching simulation, which immerses learners in a scenario in which they need to make decisions to move forward. Further along the continuum, you may find branching that uses a complex algorithm to distribute nodes to make that experience feel more real. Add the ability to recognize voice, and you move more to the right. Add video, artificial intelligence, and 3-D environments, and you’ll continue to move to the far-right end of the continuum. VR headsets are one incredibly powerful way to deliver 3-D environments.  

When it comes to practical application, where should your L&D initiatives fall on the VR continuum? 

We know that engaging, immersive learning experiences are key to knowledge retention and behavior change. By that statement, you’d likely assume that the far-right end of the continuum offers the best possible outcomes for business training needs. However, when you move from left to right, adding immersive media elements, you give up scalability because costs increase exponentially. For this reason, organizations need to be judicious about when, where, and how they apply the stuff on the far-right end of the continuum, and consider whether a well-designed immersive learning experience can achieve similar behavior change while also being scalable across a large population. 

Situations in which learning outcomes increase in correlation with the richness of media elements are highly valuable in training for high-risk jobs, such as performing surgery or working on an oil rig. When it comes to developing leadership skills, influencing business culture, and other business transformation initiatives for large populations, we recommend immersive custom training solutions that target desired outcomes while remaining scalable. Team-based discovery in a synchronous environment can drive significant behavior change without lots of expensive tech peripherals that make deployment a complex trial.

Put another way—corporate L&D can achieve the training outcomes similar to those made possible by VR without the cost and scale challenges presented by the elements at the far-right end of the continuum.

If you need help evaluating the potential return on learning investment (ROLI) of your immersive learning initiatives, you may be interested in downloading our free guide, Building the Business Case for Immersive Learning.

What questions should L&D be asking about virtual reality?

If you’re tempted to start snapping up VR goggles in the hopes of outfitting your entire learning center, answer the following questions:

  1. What are your desired learning outcomes?
  2. What does success look like for this initiative?
  3. What skills do you want to convey? Or, what behaviors do you want to change?
  4. Who is the audience? 

Now, consider the size of the learner population, context, and budget, and work out where on the continuum you’ll find the appropriate intersection of costs, scalability, and creating the most immersive experience possible. 

At Blueline, we have experience delivering training solutions along the full VR continuum, but we don’t believe that moving to the far-right end is always the best solution. Sure, those rich media experiences using VR headsets are really cool. They also introduce a long list of challenges if you’re training any more than a small group of learners. We’ve been experimenting with innovative and disruptive learning technologies for decades, and we know that a fancy headset is not the holy grail. In fact, when it comes to skill transfer and behavior change, an effective learning design trumps sexy tech every time.  

The team-driven simulations powered by Blueline’s ExperienceBUILDERTM digital design platform can be found near the middle of the continuum—in the sweet spot between scalability and cost. ExperienceBUILDER uses real-world simulations to invite learners into a storyline, in order to deliver highly immersive and engaging synchronous learning experiences. Each scenario is carefully crafted to maximize participant engagement and drive knowledge retention and skills acquisition. The real magic happens in the conversations between team members as they work through complex problems without clear right or wrong answers. Our solutions are scalable and customizable, and they have become a darling for organizations embracing a hybrid workforce. We’ve identified very few learning needs that an ExperienceBUILDER simulation can’t meet. 

Immersive learning offers answers to so many difficult training questions. That explains why virtual reality is getting an outsized share of attention right now, but leveraging virtual reality is so much broader than deploying VR headsets. Contact the learning experts at Blueline Simulations for help finding your sweet spot on the VR continuum.

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