As VR-based training moves into the mainstream, data are accumulating on its use, effectiveness, and viability as a training approach for different roles, different types of training—and for workers of different ages. It’s time for L&D managers and executives considering VR-based training to move past myths to evidence-based evaluation of VR as a training medium.

A conversation with Michael Casale, the chief science officer at STRIVR, focused on the ways large companies are using VR-based training—and took aim at five myths, while revealing some surprising benefits of immersive training.

Myth #1: VR-based training appeals only to younger workers

Through extensive use with large corporations, including Fed-Ex and Walmart, STRIVR has trained tens of thousands of employees—old, young, seasonal, permanent, tech-savvy, and tech-novice.

Older employees are as engaged with, as successful with, and as attracted to VR-based training as their younger colleagues. Or not. But the divide between employees who eagerly embrace VR and those who are hesitant has little to do with age and much to do with exposure.

“We've noticed is that there really isn't as strong of a generational divide as we would have thought in terms of the training or effectiveness of training, how training's been received—and even performance on some of our training,” Casale said. “ We haven’t seen any strong effects when it comes to receptiveness of the technology, the ability to use it, the ability to learn from it and enjoy it.

“The real differences come initially with exposure to different and new technologies and that doesn't always break hard and fast along generational lines,” he said.

People who have used VR-based entertainment or been exposed to their children’s and grandchildren’s use are more comfortable with the technology and less hesitant to don a headset and try it out. Others come around when, in group trainings, they see others try the VR training and hear their—generally very enthusiastic—response, Casale said.

Myth #2: VR is only useful for entertainment, not serious training

Simulations are a proven method of developing and improving skills; airline pilots have used flight simulators for decades. Virtual reality extends this possibility to countless skills and processes where people need repeated practice.

A key advantage of VR-based training is the ability to practice dangerous activities or prepare for rare or emergency situations—which cannot easily be replicated or safely practiced in the physical world. That makes VR-based training ideal for safety training, for example. Walmart’s Black Friday simulation prepares scores of seasonal employees for a once-a-year event. The ability to practice enables employees to face the event feeling more confident and less stressed, and prepares them to respond more appropriately to any incidents that may occur.

Verizon has used VR simulations to prepare employees for a potential store robbery. “Giving employees a real-time experience of an armed robbery allows them to experientially go through the critical steps of de-escalating a high-risk moment,” according to a STRIVR document, Disrupting L&D with Immersive Learning.

This has to be done carefully, of course. “I can see the value of practicing your response and feeling that you maybe know what you're going to do better than if you've never experienced it,” Casale said, but there is also the danger of it being “too realistic.”

Casale describes the company’s approach as a “general principle,” applied to even lower-stakes training than preparing for an armed robbery: scaffolding. You don’t want to “overwhelm” the learner emotionally or cause cognitive overload. “You kind of want to figure out where that sweet spot is of being able to challenge people in the right way, at the right level—and then kind of go from there,” ramping up to a more realistic experience. Casale said that VR enables the training managers to gauge and track learners’ responses and escalate and repeat exposure as appropriate.

Longitudinal studies of physicians who use VR-based training show that inexperienced surgeons learning laparoscopic procedures using a VR simulation retained their skills over a six-month period even without performing actual procedures. And ultrasound technicians trained using a VR-based program to detect and diagnose fetal abnormalities outperformed colleagues trained using only more conventional methods—lectures and articles. The doctors who had the added VR training answered more questions correctly and solved test problems more quickly. The advantage was even more pronounced one and four months after the training.

VR-based training is also showing great promise for soft skills training. Much soft-skills training entails communication—mollifying an angry customer, providing feedback to direct reports, raising a performance problem in a one-on-one, practicing interactions that could cross ethical or legal lines and teaching employees where those lines are. Learners can even try on different identities, allowing them to experience harassing or discriminatory behavior from the perspective of a person of a gender or race different from their own. These scenarios require only a trainee using a headset and communicating with virtual colleagues and managers. Learners can refresh their training on demand, too.

VR simulations combine elements that are impossible to create in the physical world with elements that are cumbersome or impossible to repeat. “If we find that learning is decaying sufficiently or substantially over a three-month period, we can get people back in the headset,” Casale said—where it might not be feasible to re-create a role-playing training workshop often or easily.

Myth #3: You need a large space for people to take VR-based training

According to Casale, STRIVR takes enormous care in creating virtual environments for training so they feel real.

“We really emphasize the look and feel of the experience because—and this just goes back to what we know about learning and how people learn—it's so critical that for a lot of this training it's seamlessly real, right, that you really can't distinguish between the environment you're in and the environment that you're getting in VR,” Casale said. The environments create what he called “perceptual fidelity”—a familiar feel and similarity in appearance, feel, and navigation between the virtual and actual environments.

However, this does not mean that trainees need a large space or expensive “untethered” VR equipment to effectively complete training.

“In many instances, our training doesn't require you to move a whole lot,” Casale said, noting that some spatial navigation is accomplished using only head movements. “So you're kind of looking around, back and forth, and that's usually sufficient for you to be able to get the same—certainly visual, and auditory—information that you would get in the real world environment.”

The headsets usually offer tracking in three degrees of freedom, which means they wouldn’t track a learner’s movements throughout a virtual environment. The virtual environment might be an entire Walmart store, but most training doesn’t require the learner to navigate the entire store, he said. But, “if you're in a store, and you're interacting with a customer, but then you want to go check out what's happening in a different part of the store, typically what we do is allow you to transport yourself there,” Casale said.

Myth #4: VR training is prohibitively expensive

Developing a high-quality simulation does require an initial investment, but when compared with other training options, VR-based training can be similar or even more cost-effective. And Casale points out, the cost of equipment and even of developing training is coming down as infrastructure grows.

When comparing VR with other training, L&D managers should keep in mind the cost and amount of time needed to develop several comprehensive eLearning courses or to design and deliver face-to-face training. A simulated environment—a one-time investment—can be used for multiple training modules.

Consider also the relative effectiveness and the amount of time learners spend in training, whether in a classroom or using eLearning. Learners may spend only a short amount of time in a simulation: One STRIVR customer, United Rentals, reduced training time by 40 percent while boosting effectiveness. Another customer, Nationwide Insurance, reports that a three-hour training was reduced to a 25-minute simulation.

Learners can repeat the training on demand, which is not feasible with instructor-led training. Repeating a three-hour eLearning course is unappealing to most learners; a 20-minute refresher using a VR simulator is easier to fit into a busy schedule.

“I think as we start to demonstrate value—certainly with these bigger companies—and show that there is real ROI associated with it, I think it's going to be compelling,” Casale said. “[Learners] feel more prepared—and not just the anecdotes—some of the data that we've been able to capture and show comparability to real-world one-on-one training or even exceeding that … we do want to go after those real world impacts and business impacts that we're helping companies make.”

Companies that hire lots of seasonal employees or experience high turnover are particularly likely to find that VR-based training makes economic sense for two reasons:

  • Once the training is developed, it is easy to scale it up and quickly train lots of employees, as Walmart and FedEx are doing
  • Highly effective training can reduce employee churn

“The reasons people leave are varied, but there's enough individuals who either don't feel prepared or aren't actually performing the way that is ideal for the organization,” Casale said. By enabling employees to practice, polish their skills, and develop confidence, “we feel that we're actually going to help reduce churn,” he said. “If we can even make a little bit of a dent, we think there's enough of a value proposition there.”

Myth #5: Learners will feel isolated in a VR headset

VR-based training, like VR gaming and entertainment apps, is highly social. Walmart, Verizon, and other STRIVR clients introduce VR training to small groups of employees, then let each employee try the headset and use the simulation—still in the group setting. Learners can then repeat the experience on their own, on demand.

Walmart has about a half-dozen headsets per store, Casale said. Introducing the training to groups helps the more reticent employees ease into it, as they watch bolder or more VR-savvy coworkers go first. Employees then discuss their experience, and “it becomes this kind of shared experience for these individuals,” he said, making the training a social and collaborative experience, even though, after the initial training, learners become “self-sufficient” and do additional training on their own.

Plan ahead: Realities360 2020 explores VR and more

Plan ahead for 2020: Realities 360 2020 Conference & Expo will take place March 31–April 2, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. This focused event dives into all aspects of AR, VR, MR, and XR for corporate training and higher education.