· 4 min read · Features

Does AR + VR = (better) L&D?


AR and VR are going mainstream. But what are the possibilities for HR?

For the uninitiated the summer was bamboozling few months. Hordes of people abandoning vehicles at Central Park, children even more unwilling to unglue themselves from their smartphones, and downright baffling references to catching and evolving Squirtles, Growlithes and Slowpokes.

Most of course will be well aware of the Pokemon Go craze that recently swept the globe – a craze that has finally put augmented reality (AR) firmly on the map.

But it’s not just games companies harnessing this burgeoning technology. As Pokemon Go’s popularity attests, AR, along with virtual reality (VR), has huge potential to engage people, with learning and development an obvious business application.

The ‘wow’ factor

The technology behind AR and VR is in fact not new. It’s been used by the military and airline industry for decades. But a continued drop in the price of equipment has brought it now within range for many. A headset necessary to experience high-quality VR is currently available for around £800. At the lower end of the market, Google Cardboard, which pairs with a smartphone, costs only £15.

The benefits promised by its evangelists certainly make it seem like VR is the future. “It’s going to be the next big thing in learning and development,” says Tim Drewitt, product innovator at learning and talent solution provider Kallidus, and author of a report into VR and L&D. “Engagement levels are very high when people use VR. It’s got that ‘wow’ factor.”

The potential to enhance the effectiveness of technical training is enticing. Surgeons who train using VR make 40% fewer mistakes than those who are conventionally trained, according to research by the University School of Medicine Atlanta. Meanwhile, Stanford University/Technical University Denmark’s research found learners recall more when using virtual teaching laboratories than with traditional methods, with a 76% increase in learning effectiveness.

It’s much safer too. Using a simulation, trainees can practise carrying out maintenance in potentially lethal situations on an oil rig without exposing themselves or their colleagues to any danger. Telecom companies are experimenting with VR to simulate what it’s like to be at the top of a telecom mast.

“Used correctly, VR can be extremely effective for training in what would otherwise be complex or dangerous environments,” says Roy Kalawsky, director of the Advanced VR Research Centre at Loughborough University and one of the pioneers of VR. “It puts people in the environment, rather than allowing them to just watch.”

Although VR is most commonly being explored for use in technical training, the possibilities of using the technology more widely, in soft skills, is currently also getting attention.

In conjunction with Stanford University’s Interaction Lab, the American football league (NFL), for instance, has experimented with using VR for diversity training, allowing users to experience what it’s like to be a black woman confronted by racists. The Alzheimer’s Research Society’s recently released VR smartphone app ‘A walk through dementia’ is designed to help the public get an immersive insight into what it’s like to suffer from dementia, and gives further insight into the kinds of diversity and inclusion training the technology opens up.

Fast food is also getting in on the act, with McDonald’s planning to use VR to “bring the restaurant into the classroom and give staff the real customer experience as part of their training programmes,” says Mark Reilly, head of corporate training at McDonald’s UK. “VR is great if you need to train people to be somebody else, or to be somewhere else,” explains Drewitt.

Other uses being explored are ethics training, where subjects are put under pressure in the virtual world to take bribes or override safety regulations. Then there is the perennial favourite, presentation training, with half-a-dozen UK companies developing a virtual environment that simulates the nerve-wracking experience of presenting, without having to bore a real audience with overly long PowerPoints.

Hype or here to stay?

But just how optimistic are the experts, and L&D professionals themselves, about this new kid on the block going more mainstream? A survey by Kallidus, suggests it could be on the brink of doing just this, with 30% planning to use the technology in the next three years and only 2% seeing the technology as ‘hype’.

But other experts preach caution. Louis Jebb, founder of virtual reality news app business Immersiv.ly, wonders if the quality of the technology might not be quite there yet for most. He suggests that the aesthetics of the experience might be a drawback: “It’s about the quality of the image. You get a different emotional connection depending on the quality of the image.”

Kalawsky underlines this point. “The audience may have expectations of the superb graphics they’ve seen on things like the Xbox but people have spent thousands of hours to make those environments seem real. Without that quality, there’s a risk that the user might treat your VR experience as a Noddy system.”

Another early adopter, Laggi Diamandi, head of L&D at architecture and design agency Foster & Partners, agrees. “We wanted a presentation training package,” he explains. “But when I looked at what was on offer off-the-shelf, the quality wasn’t good enough. The audience was two-dimensional. So we’re developing our own system.”

Rentokil Initial has similarly decided the technology’s not, at the moment, quite right for them. Buoyed by the success of its desktop-based 3D simulations of workplace environments, to train for identifying and dealing with hazards, the company piloted converting this to VR.

But the results, measured in terms of hazard recall rate, were no better. There were also issues with convenience; for the full VR experience, staff would have to be brought to a central location, unlike the desktop version which can be used anywhere. Global head of U+ (learning and development) & HRIS at Rentokil Richard Gregory says: “I couldn’t justify the investment just for the hype of using VR. In the future it’s going to be revolutionary, but at the moment I can’t see the benefit.”

So the cost of the technology seems likely to limit it to small groups for small periods of time in the immediate future. Even the most ardent admirers of VR admit that it can’t really be used for sessions of more than 15 minutes, and that three to five minutes immersion in a virtual environment is probably the ideal. Which explains why, particularly for soft skills training, VR is at the theoretical or beta stages.

Kalawsky offers the following advice to L&D professionals: “It’s very easy to get carried away in this field but you need to be wary. Don’t be seduced by the technology. Stand back and think about your real requirements. Carry out a Training Needs Analysis first, then think about what technology you need to deliver that.”

But, driven by the gaming industry, the costs of VR will continue to fall, the weight of the headsets will decrease and the resolution of the virtual worlds will improve. Which means if the application – as well as the price – is right, things could get exciting.

“There are incredible opportunities,” says Kalawsky. “Future uses of VR are only limited by our imaginations.”