A vast array of marketing and public service campaigns, eLearning modules, and educational campaigns share a goal: Changing people’s behavior. As anyone who’s tried to break a bad habit or learn a new routine can attest, changing behavior, really changing it in a way that sticks, is challenging.

By enabling L&D professionals to create visceral experiences, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) offer a potential solution. These technologies can trick learners’ brains into feeling as if a virtual experience was real. And, just as impactful experiences can change people’s behavior, early research indicates that such visceral virtual experiences could also drive behavior change.

The virtual experience might illustrate a scary, dangerous, or painful consequence that learners will be highly motivated to avoid. Or it could simulate a more mundane scenario: A workplace dilemma that the learner needs practice addressing—harassing behavior or difficult conversations with direct reports or providing feedback to colleagues.

Virtual-reality-based research and training are already exploring the possibilities: Participants in a research study can practice a desired response to a recurring scenario that has them feeling extreme fear or anxiety, for example. An educational simulation might bring learners into a place they otherwise couldn’t experience: a forest where trees are being harvested to create paper products or a coral reef harmed by ocean acidification, for example.

Whatever the scenario, these rapidly evolving technologies provide new options for instructional designers and developers to provide realistic experiences that could influence learner behavior.

360-degree video offers “budget VR”

For many L&D teams, full-fledged VR with responsive, navigable digital environments is still out of reach. That doesn’t mean giving up on immersive, visceral learner experiences, though; 360-degree video offers a more affordable option.

St. John Ambulance and a partner pulled together a low-budget—and extremely effective—disaster response training using 360 video. Video “in the round” has also been employed to provide safety training.

Several corporate and public safety organizations have created VR simulations that aim to reduce texting while driving, a significant contributor to traffic accidents and a very common behavior, especially among younger drivers. One example, the AT&T “It Can Wait” campaign, features a series of videos in addition to a powerful 360 video simulation.

These and other 360 video simulations can be viewed online; for heightened effect, immersive viewing is easily accessible using an inexpensive cardboard viewer and a smartphone. The ease of distribution and access are key benefits of the 360 video approach, as is its affordability. According to Learning Solutions columnist Matt Sparks, “A 360 video studio can be affordable, easy-to-use, and, surprisingly compact.”

Create budget-friendly visceral experiences with AR

AR also offers a budget-friendly way to create visceral learning experiences that could spur behavior change.

The Weather Channel’s storm surge simulation got considerable media attention during and after the large hurricanes that hit the US in September and October. By showing viewers the power and danger of a storm surge, the channel hoped to drive home to viewers the dangers of hunkering down to wait out a strong hurricane—and convince them to take action. The simulation ends with an exhortation to heed evacuation orders.

It’s not all about safety, nor is behavior change the only goal. AR, in the form of digital holograms, is educating visitors at various museums, such as the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, where visitors can virtually meet astronaut Mae Jemison. A more poignant application is preserving the testimonies of survivors of historical events; visitors to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center can interact with holograms of Holocaust survivors, asking questions and “meeting” these aging individuals. These interactions can be more impactful than reading text and looking at still images.

AR enhances museum exhibits in other ways as well, adding interactivity and animations to a longstanding exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s Bone Hall and allowing visitors to interact virtually with artifacts that would be destroyed by frequent handling.

Getting started

Don’t let budget and resource limitations inhibit your creativity or prevent you from considering AR- or VR-based eLearning. AR and VR can help L&D teams drive behavior change by building empathy, putting learners in touch with their future selves, allowing them to practice safety drills or technical repairs, or helping them rehearse responses to difficult workplace situations. Learn more about how your L&D peers are using these evolving technologies to enhance eLearning and change behavior in What’s Your Reality? AR and VR for Learning, a research report from The eLearning Guild.