Many media outlets, from the BBC to Forbes magazine, predicted that 2016 would be the year of virtual reality (VR). VR is no new kid on the block, but advances in hardware and software, as well as a drop in prices of the associated technology, are bringing VR into the mainstream.

The last 10 years have seen many projects harnessing the power of VR for education and learning, but projects are stepping outside the confines of research and becoming part of the learning mix. From medical and manufacturing through to retail and hospitality, VR can offer a more immersive, engaging, and contextual learning experience.

Consider recent articles that have highlighted VR and its uses, with headlines such as “Deloitte predicts 2016 will see VR have its first billion-dollar year.” The most common types of VR are likely to be “full-feature” (high-resolution screens for use with compatible devices) and “mobile” (incorporated into high-end smartphones).

Tech trend or tech trajectory?

One of the most common questions that customers who want to know more about virtual reality ask my colleagues and me is whether VR is really worth the investment—is it a trend, rather than a medium that is here to stay?

Well, VR isn’t new, and anyone who has worked in aviation knows this. However, VR hardware is now in the reach of the retail market that puts it in the hands of a much greater audience. You just have to cast your mind back to the first cellphones, or the price of the first HD TVs, to see how quickly the price drops and the next level of sophistication and refinement comes along. Along with this, the skills base to develop VR-ready content is growing rapidly, which is opening up a huge opportunity for organizations to benefit from the deep engagement that VR brings.

Transforming the learning experience

For synchronous activities—such as product demonstrations and launches—it provides the opportunity for people to experience the product and ask questions of a live trainer or subject matter expert. Product developers, designers, and marketing can use VR to ask staff or consumers to interact with products and make observations that will inform product design and promotions. To support global collaboration, why not create a virtual “hackathon” space? Your VR environment can include informal discussion spaces, creative spaces, and more.

Further applications for VR in soft-skills training are gathering pace. As companies such as Microsoft Labs continue to refine their “holoportation” technology, you’ll no longer need to choose an avatar—cameras will capture your image and “transport” you to shared spaces. It’s not quite time travel, but as hardware and software performance improves, the experience is really compelling and very smooth, helping learners really throw themselves into the environment.

But is it really worth it?

Like all learning solutions, virtual reality is only as good as the clarity of purpose, the context, and the relevance built into it. Peter Pashley, head of development at ustwo, made an interesting observation in the April 2016 issue of Wired magazine: “For VR experiences to be worth putting the headset on, it’s got to be something that makes the most of you being somewhere.” So a quick video and how-to guide is a more sensible suggestion to learn how to create a pivot table! VR, like any learning technology, must be driven by the need and its relevance to the learning outcome, the learners’ preference, and the organizational context.

You need to be led by the business need, not the technology. If you apply a model such as Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping approach, the questions you would ask in that process could be applied to creating a VR learning experience just as well as an eLearning module. Understanding the actions people need to take to meet the business goal is a critical element of the model—Moore argues that it’s not about the knowledge people need, but the actions they take. For critical business areas, VR could provide a more effective environment to test out actions, observe actions, and identify actions you may not have expected.

Donald Clark, in a blog post from 2013, makes an interesting related point—you can make mistakes in a 3-D environment. The learners have more control over the routes they take or the actions they perform, so we may observe learners using or needing information we hadn’t even considered in the planning phase.

So to get started with VR, I would recommend starting with the board’s strategic objectives—what are the critical shifts that we, as a business, need to make to see real performance change? If the need is important enough, then it warrants the investment in creating learning experiences that capture attention at a deep sensory level.

But how do we know what’s important enough or relevant for treatment using VR?

My colleague Debbie Lawley and I have developed a model for analyzing dimensions of the learning need and how appropriate VR would be as a solution (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Mapping the learning need against these three cognitive dimensions can help identify how appropriate VR would be as a solution

This model focuses on three cognitive dimensions (thought, experience, and senses, reframed as Risk, Practice, and Sensory) to bring VR into the learning and performance context. By mapping different learning needs onto each dimension, you can see how virtual reality fares as a suitable solution.

Risk is fairly self-explanatory, and it demonstrates why applications such as learning to fly a commercial plane are common cases for VR. In contrast, not adjusting your chair carries some long-term risk, but it doesn’t warrant a simulation using VR (and anyway, give it a few years and the Internet of Things will have that covered—your chair will be able to adjust itself!).

Practice, again, is fairly clear—take, for example, learning to use Excel. Although with some practice the functions become second nature, it is not an activity that requires lots of performance rehearsal. You can easily fill any gaps in knowledge with some basic performance support materials. You don’t need to simulate Microsoft Excel; you can just use it! However, for skills such as conflict resolution or presentation, the ability to practice and test your response in different outcomes can be very effective indeed.

Sensory relates to a factor highlighted earlier—the importance of sensory feedback from the environment. This can be in the form of haptic feedback (user feedback based on touch, as used in devices such as the Apple Watch). One new device, the HTC Vive, includes haptic controllers with the headset. This can help with deeper levels of engagement or provide feedback on physical activities, using varying levels of pressure and touch feedback in response to an interaction with an object or the environment.

Sensory can also be interpreted as emotional engagement. Scenarios such as diversity training, as currently being tested by the NFL and Stanford University, use immersion experience in VR to give learners a perspective different from their own. Seeing the world through another’s eyes can be a deeply powerful emotional experience; and because the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli of a VR environment are so immersive, VR gets you very close indeed to truly seeing through someone else’s eyes.

To help demonstrate the model from Figure 1 in action, here’s an example:

Contract negotiations

In a situation such as contract negotiations, the risk is high, the need for practice (depending on experience level) could also be high, and certainly a successful outcome will benefit from adequate preparation. Plotting this onto the model in Figure 1, we get Figure 2. At lesser levels of experience, VR could provide negotiation practice in a risk-free environment.

Figure 2: Contract negotiation plotted onto the cognitive dimensions

One of the most common methods deployed in presentation skills training is role-play—however, for those who are not comfortable presenting or are lacking in confidence, a role-play can be a very unpleasant experience. That’s not to underplay the importance of practice; in fact, it’s vital. So, if you contrast that with watching examples of good presentations, it may be easy to identify what works and what doesn’t; but translating that into your own practice is a whole other matter.

Observing others giving presentations doesn’t mean that a learner will move from “they do that” to “I can do that,” while the crushing embarrassment of a role-play in front of peers also may not be the most conducive environment for personal growth.

Virtual reality can provide an ideal environment for practice, feedback, and observation, all housed in a safe but realistic setting. With effective learning design, you can simulate different scenarios, adopt the perspective of different audience members, observe others, and receive feedback. There are already some great examples of apps and scenarios being built to tackle the subject, including Public Speaking for Google Cardboard.

VR isn’t the solution for all the performance needs in your organization—no one particular approach ever is. However, it is becoming an attainable and practical solution that can now be put into the mix when the need warrants it.


Clark, Donald. “Oculus Rift: learning machine that will blow your mind!” Donald Clark Plan B. 8 October 2013.

della Cava, Marco. “Virtual reality tested by NFL as tool to confront racism, sexism.” USA Today. 10 April 2016.

Franklin-Wallis, Oliver. “What’s the future of VR? We asked the experts.” Wired. 23 March 2016.

Moore, Cathy. “Action mapping: A visual approach to training design.”

Nafarrete, Jonathan. “Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking in Virtual Reality.” VRScout. 23 March 2016.