Using Virtual Reality to Create an Immersive Learning Experience

dreamstime_xs_55069116Although we are still waiting for virtual reality (VR) to “take off” in learning and development, we already refer to its potential to create a so-called “immersive learning experience”.  And while VR remains in its infancy, we will still carefully weigh up the alternatives, given the challenges of cost, time, a lack of VR design and development skills; and a degree of uncertainty about where it can deliver the greatest returns.

The early adopters have largely focused on high-end 3D solutions that have definitely created an immersive experience and which have suited the learning needs of the defence, medical, mining and engineering industries. But in order to reach a “tipping point”‘, we will need broadened its appeal and look at more simpler forms of VR delivery.

I’m particularly interested in using 360-degree VR to put the learner “in someone else’s shoes” and believe this has the potential to open up the use of VR for more mainstream learning applications.

Shooting 360-degree video is now within the reach of the ordinary consumer with a now constant stream of cameras arriving on the market, which should ultimately drive down costs and see more of us able to create our own immersive content. That’s not to say it’s easy to get good results, so we should still look for professional support to ensure we give our learners the best experience.

The power of 360-degree video to deliver an immersive learning experience comes from the idea that the camera – being at the centre of the action – can take the role of the learner. When the learner puts on their VR headset, they leave their current place and are transported to somewhere different. In VR-speak, the feeling of truly being somewhere else is known as “presence”.  You will only get to experience this for real when you remove the headset and momentarily feel disorientated.

I see two different ways in which the learner can be teleported into a new learning experience.

Exploring a new environment

Sometimes you need your learners to actually be somewhere so that they can become orientated to a new location or so that they can familiarise themselves with the essential characteristics of that place in order to be as effective – even as safety conscious as possible – in their role.

Whilst a 2D and static viewpoint could provide some level of instruction – as would be delivered by an e-learning module, for example – this is still an artificial (if not superficial) experience. Here the learner is generally led to the right answers or steered to the most important elements in the scene.   But true life doesn’t work that way.  Using VR to allow the learner to slowly look around and take in their surroundings can be more meaningful.

Consider scenarios such as orientating 100s of employees to their new headquarters building, or hotel staff to a next generation hotel resort that is in the final stages of construction and where there is a need to shorten the usual on-boarding process.  Maybe you’re rolling out a new retail store concept over the next twelve months and need to update your staff’s customer service skills in line with the new experience, but before staff will see their current store renovated. Or perhaps you are looking to train a rapid response team who need to travel at short notice to a new location, where they cannot risk getting lost on arrival.

Heath and safety training can be made all the more realistic using 360-degree video too.  Incidents don’t happen in 2D and, in many instances, prevention means being aware of your surroundings. Did you notice that customer slipping out through the fire exit door?  Did you spot the cleaner coming of the storeroom and not shutting the door behind him?  How long ago did the delivery man leave those boxes at the top of the staircase?  These are all scenarios where VR can immerse the learner in the heart of the action.

Becoming someone else

For well over the last two decades that I’ve been in the digital learning space, we’ve wrestled with how it can be used to support soft skills and behavioural development. But already we are seeing some interesting examples of VR being used in this space, in particular by enabling the learner to become someone else – to wear someone else’s shoes.

The US National Football League (NFL) – in conjunction with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab – will add VR to its employee and players’ diversity training by requiring them to don a headset and become a black female being harassed by a white male.  The Lab are also working on simulations that teach empathy towards those with disabilities and scenarios that address prejudice and bullying.  I understand that experiencing discrimination and prejudice first-hand in an immersive scenario is some of the most powerful learning you can receive.

At a simpler, but no less powerful a level, Alzheimer’s Research UK has just released its “A Walk Through Dementia” VR Android app that puts the user in the shoes of someone living with dementia, using both 3D graphics and 360-degree video. I put on my VR headset and experienced the fear and frustration of my virtual self, alone, lost and confused in the street. I then became some so immersed in my virtual self’s kitchen, struggling to make a round a drinks, that when I removed the headset, I’d forgotten I was still in my own real world kitchen. The fact that I was also hearing the voice of my virtual self only strengthen the immersion and sense of “presence”.

This app confirmed to me how valuable VR will be for training. Diversity training and supporting customers and colleagues with disabilities are clearly strong candidates for VR. But how about putting learners in the shoes of the first customers to your new look retail concept store?  Or experiencing a new transport hub for the first time through following a series of typical customer journeys?

I hope these few suggestions get you thinking about how VR and 360-degree video might support your future learning plans.  Remember to define what unique experience – that sense of “presence” – VR will offer over and above the training options you might have considered in the past.

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Using Virtual Reality to Create an Immersive Learning Experience

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