Is virtual reality the next big thing in corporate training?

Most people are familiar with the term “virtual reality” given the media coverage it’s received over the past couple of years. We keep being told how it’s “the future” and how it will change our lives, but many people struggle to actually see real-world applications for it.

However, that could be about to change, as you could soon be undergoing company training in virtual reality (VR). A number of companies are exploring the option as a way of increasing engagement and retention levels for employee training.

VR uses 3D-generated images to immerse a user in a simulated environment, making them feel like they are actually there. VR can be broken down into two types—mobile VR and desktop VR. For mobile VR, users insert their phone into a VR headset and they are immersed into different environments through applications on their phone. Headset brands include Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, and with prices as low as US$10, millions have been sold worldwide. Desktop VR is powered by a high-end desktop computer or laptop and tends to be a higher-quality experience, with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR being the main players in the market. However, the high price of the computer and headset required for desktop VR makes adoption impossible for many.

For corporate training, the cost of uptake may not be of concern if the ROI is sufficient, but are managers willing to take the chance to find out?

The benefits of VR in corporate training

One of the greatest challenges in corporate training is keeping employees engaged. This is a key benefit of VR. With a headset over their eyes, employees can’t look at their emails, social media, or anything else except for the training. The value of experiential learning also cannot be underestimated. It’s long been argued that learning by doing increases retention levels because students have to use logic and problem-solving skills to act out the theories they have learned. VR can simulate real-life situations that employees may encounter at work, such as a sales pitch, or a difficult customer, and practice them in a safe environment. It’s much better for employees to make a mistake in a training simulation than on the job.

This is especially true when training employees for dangerous or high-stake situations. For example, BP worked with Igloo Vision to train their employees in start-up and emergency exit procedures at their oil refinery in Hull in the U.K. Employees can learn from mistakes in the virtual world and thus reduce the probability of making the same error in the real world—an error that could cost money or even someone’s life.

Not only is VR training a safer, more effective way of learning (when compared to e-learning or reading alone), it can also be cost-efficient. Companies can train people from around the world in a practical, immersive way, without having to rent multiple venues to do so. If employees are located on different continents, they can still attend the same workshop virtually, and learn from the same great instructors who teach there. This would save significant time and money by cutting travel expenses for attending in-person workshops.

Even though the market for VR is still up-and-coming, it is already being used for training in some applications. STRIVR, a company born out of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, trained NFL athletes and other sports clients in VR before entering the corporate space and offering training such as how to build machinery.

Other companies, such as VirtualSpeech, provide training that focuses more on transferable skills, including public speaking, negotiation, sales and communication skills. Employees benefit from learning these skills in VR training because they require practice and VR provides a new, practical way to learn them and build employees’ confidence.

Barriers to adoption of VR training

The short-term cost of implementing VR training may be higher than traditional methods. Costs add up from the operational aspect of purchasing the headsets, even if companies choose mobile VR training. Although headsets are much cheaper, companies would still have to ensure that employees have access to modern phones that are compatible with VR.

When compared with desktop VR, however, this price fades into relative insignificance. Desktop VR generally provides a higher-quality experience, but is less geographically accessible and the cost of computers and headsets is much higher.

It’s not just the purchasing of hardware that you need to consider when balancing the budget. You’ll likely want a level of customization for your learning so that it is in line with your own branding, company values, and training. It’s also time-consuming to ensure that the VR training complies with your existing teaching materials and can be integrated into your learning management system. There will be a lot of liaising with your VR developer, and not everything you require may be possible in VR because the technology is still evolving.

The main reason for introducing VR training is to benefit employees, but there is a risk of backlash, especially from older generations who tend to be more reluctant to adopt new technologies. That’s why I believe VR training shouldn’t be compulsory in the near future and should be an option within a company’s training catalogue so that people can opt in. Millennials make up a significant proportion of the workforce and they may find VR training to be a more enjoyable way of learning.

While the set-up costs, accessibility and immaturity of the VR market could make VR training more of a risk for managers, the benefits it can provide outweigh the drawbacks. VR training is likely to play a key role in corporate training in the future, especially as the VR industry develops. However, implementing a new form of education can be time consuming, and I suspect a lot of large companies are already considering it. Is your company looking to use VR training in the next couple of years? Or do you think the technology is too early to be used at the moment?

Written by Sophie Thompson for CW Magazine.