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Unless your name is Mark Zuckerberg, you probably don’t think virtual reality is the future of work.

Yet VR and its sibling AR – short for augmented reality – are arguably playing a bigger role in workplaces than they are at home. While the most obvious use of these technologies is entertainment, platforms such as Microsoft’s HoloLens show that they can be useful in other areas.

An avenue of growth that may surprise people is virtual training. Just as online training took off during the pandemic, the return to classrooms is starting to be enhanced by new forms of technology. But could augmented or virtual reality training really be the future – and to what extent can you really teach practical skills in a virtual environment?

What are augmented and virtual reality?

Virtual reality is the standard bearer for futuristic wearable tech, with most people not having heard of augmented reality. While they are both similar in principle, they have wildly different applications and levels of uptake. To understand how both can be used for training, we need to briefly explain what each one is, the fundamentals of how they work, and how they are commonly used.

Virtual reality places you completely within a virtual world. Users wear a headset containing two screens, one for each eye. The effect is similar to 3D glasses in a cinema, but with the effect of completely immersing you, to the extent that the images you’re seeing feel like looking at something in the real world. You can turn your head and the virtual camera turns with you, allowing you to see the world around you, while controllers allow you to touch things and interact with them.

Augmented reality augments the real world by placing digital elements on top of it. An example of this would be Pokemon Go, the viral sensation that places Pokemon (fantastical creatures, for the uninitiated) in the real world for you to catch. Modern applications of AR use glasses or smaller headsets with a transparent screen that you can see through. A heads up display on this screen adds information or graphics to what you’re seeing, mixing the real world with the digital one.

Virtual reality in the workplace

Virtual reality isn’t something that the majority of people have used in any capacity, let alone within the workplace. When it comes to augmented reality, however, you may be surprised at how far it’s spread. Microsoft’s HoloLens headset is the market leader in an increasingly competitive space, offering relatively affordable and untethered augmented reality solutions for businesses whose workers benefit from the extra information.

AR has applications in areas such as the military, and the US government in particular has been a major investor. The idea that a headset could highlight targets or provide tactical information to soldiers – almost like something from a video game – is obviously appealing. But AR is also being used in a multitude of industries where hand-free operation is desirable. Electricians, plumbers, builders, and even doctors can benefit from seeing useful information in front of them, while still having their hands free to work on a task.

This extends beyond simply showing a list of tasks, some pictures or some instructions, and into the use of live data. Thanks to some clever tech that triangulates the position of a headset (and its wearer), it’s possible to use AR to overlay information such as the location of pipes, cables, or other structural elements within a building; or to guide people to a location for tasks such as maintenance. In this way, jobs can be sped up significantly, and the accuracy of work increased.

While VR hasn’t been deployed as widely, it is still finding some interesting uses. Outside of obvious areas such as filmmaking or virtual art installations, VR has been widely adopted by the real estate industry, and used to give people guided tours of properties from the estate agents’ offices, without having to visit multiple locations. Virtual reality is also increasingly prevalent in one very relevant industry – training and personal development.

The rise of virtual reality training

A lot of training can be completed online, as the shift to remote learning during the pandemic demonstrated. Training over video calls has proven popular even after the coronavirus lockdowns ended, thanks to the flexibility it offers learners and training companies. As well as not needing to get up early to travel to a training centre – and potentially rent accommodation for a few days – training companies have benefitted from national sales.

There is also something lost in online training, however. People can often be reluctant to participate in video calls, and it can be harder to engage your audience when they aren’t there in person. Many things are also difficult or even impossible to demonstrate remotely. A lot of training courses either benefit from practical demonstrations or require them, with learners needing hands-on and on-location training to develop vital skills.

This is where augmented and virtual reality training come into their own. In virtual reality training, you gain the benefits of learning remotely and the benefits of feeling as though you’re in a physical space. WIth augmented reality training, you can navigate a physical environment that has things such as hazards added to it. These elements could be changed between sessions, using the same environment with different digital ‘props’ to teach different lessons.

VR training is especially useful because it feels real in a way that regular online training can’t. A vehicle driving towards you in VR for instance feels just like a vehicle driving towards you in real life. The ability to turn your head and body to look around the 3D space makes it great for safety training, while being able to see and interact with people around you can help you to practice customer service and speaking skills, without the pressure or anxiety of a real life scenario. Being able to use controllers to manipulate objects can even allow you to complete technical training, from operating machinery to making repairs or modifications, all with no safety risks.

The future of VR training

While online training has sustained much of its pandemic popularity – both in terms of video calls and e-learning platforms – classroom courses also continue to do well. If the pandemic has demonstrated anything, it’s that people value both the flexibility to learn from home if they need to, but also the benefits of human connection. The evidence suggests that AR and VR training are just another weapon in the training provider’s arsenal, and another option for learners.

With that said, there are definitely some scenarios where AR and VR training may become the default method of training. Any training which involves either dangerous tasks or dangerous environments clearly benefits from these methods, as hazards can be replicated in a way that is both realistic and safe. If and when these devices make their way into more homes, it’s also easy to see a future where VR training eats into online training’s market share, merging the benefits of a classroom and the comforts of home.

For the kind of training we do, the future is less clear (but no less interesting). There may be applications for software training, but it seems largely unnecessary, given that much of this is already done on a computer. Training in areas such as customer service, sales, and leadership is more of an open question. As we mentioned above, there are opportunities here for people who might struggle with public speaking in real life to practice in the virtual world. But much of the benefit of this training is to do it with real people, whether that’s empathising with customers or connecting with colleagues.

Equally, it’s not hard to see a future where virtual reality becomes the default mode of training. With enough resources, and enough people owning the headsets, there’s clearly the capacity to explore new ways of learning that are more interactive, engaging, and perhaps more targeted than we are capable of providing in a room with some desks and a whiteboard. Thankfully for us – and the many people who benefit from classroom training – that looks like a far-flung future.

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Working in partnership with you, we provide insight and assistance to help you achieve your development goals. Whether you are looking to gain a better understanding of your training and development gaps, build training plans across multiple teams, or need bespoke training solutions for a particular challenge, we can help identify your options and the solutions available.

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Mark Fryer

21st February 2023

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