As VR becomes an increasingly viable and popular technology for eLearning and training use, a host of safety and ethical issues arise. The irony of safety incidents becoming more numerous on account of unsafe safety training, for example, is unlikely to amuse insurance company representatives, managers, or injured learners.

Safety considerations in VR

Most eLearning strives to engage learners’ “full” attention. Even so, a mobile app or laptop-based eLearning module does not completely block learners’ awareness of their physical surroundings, headphone-induced obliviousness notwithstanding.

The goal of immersive experiences, though, is total immersion and “presence.” That requires careful consideration of the physical space where learners will use VR training. In Eight Rules to Help You Stay Safe in Virtual Reality, Jeremy Bailenson suggests staying seated, removing objects from the space, and other steps to minimize risk, including having a “spotter,” a second person to ensure that the immersed learner remains safe.

He also encourages limiting VR sessions to 20 minutes or less to allow participants to re-engage with the physical world. “Have a drink of water. See some natural light. Remind yourself of where your body actually is. Unlike the real world, that VR sunset isn’t going anywhere, and it’s worth taking a short break to avoid disorientation and possible simulator sickness,” he wrote.

Ethical issues in VR

Managers and L&D teams implementing VR training should also consider ethical questions that arise with the use of immersive training. Particularly in an era where collecting data is all the rage, deciding what to collect and track; how the data will be used, stored, and protected; and what learners can control is essential—before the training is even designed.

An avatar can mimic a learner’s gestures and reflect choices, intentions, feelings. Collecting data on a learner’s quiz scores or time spent in a video is one thing—recording intimate details about their emotions is in a different class entirely.

It’s not only learners’ privacy that could be compromised. Creating virtual spaces allows for exploration of spaces that are not open to the public, whether homes, businesses, or cultural and heritage sites. While it’s easy to dismiss the virtual environment as “not real” and therefore believe that visiting a space virtually is not an invasion of others’ privacy, a cavalier approach to exploring formerly restricted spaces risks dismissing valid concerns about invading privacy, exposing information, and more.

Double plays

Some issues raise both ethical and safety concerns. For example, practice in VR creates the potential for learners to overestimate their physical-world skills based on virtual practice. While the risks of this for children are obvious—a child who can fly in a VR simulation will not have the same magical experience when she leaps off the garage roof—more mundane training simulations are not without risk. Driving a virtual forklift using a controller or computer keyboard is not the same as maneuvering an actual forklift into a tight space in a warehouse full of expensive equipment and merchandise. The closer the VR controls are to the physical object controls, the more valuable the simulated practice, of course, but even the best simulation is still only a simulation.

VR might significantly improve skills and reduce the amount of costly and potentially dangerous real-life practice needed, but for some skills, it’s only a starting point, not a complete replacement. Carefully consider what skills you’re training before deciding how much of the training process the VR simulation can realistically cover.

A safety and ethical consideration that many might dismiss as less relevant in corporate training than in consumer VR experiences is that of desensitization. But Bailenson has written extensively about the difference between a violent game in a 2-D environment and an immersive violent game or simulation—and an example provided in his book Experience on Demand describes the visceral feeling of cutting into another (alien) being in a surgical simulation.

And training aimed at increasing empathy or exposing learners to the perspective of a person of a different gender or ethnicity can backfire. Overdoing the “empathy training”—especially immersive training—or poorly constructed simulations where a learner is intended to experience discrimination or sexism can exacerbate a diversity or cultural inclusivity problem rather than help remediate it.

The risks of sensory deprivation and social isolation, while real concerns associated with virtual environments, are less likely in a corporate training environment where learners will probably spend smaller amounts of time in VR environments and debrief and discuss their training with managers and colleagues.

Explore VR-based training

None of these warnings are intended to scare off L&D from considering immersive training; the goal is to encourage a realistic consideration of what is and is not possible or appropriate in VR-based training. Explore these questions more deeply and benefit from the experience of L&D professionals and others with extensive experience in developing and deploying immersive training at 2019 Realities360 Conference. This eLearning Guild event, June 25–27, 2019, in San Jose, California, focuses on using augmented and virtual reality in eLearning.