Jeremy Bailenson is a true virtual reality (VR) pioneer. His Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), at Stanford University, is a leader in research on how virtual reality affects people, what it can do, what the limitations are—and how it can (or should) be used in eLearning. He’s also thought and written extensively about ethical issues that arise in the use of VR. Bailenson’s new book, Experience on Demand, as well as research published by Bailenson and others in the VHIL, points to areas where L&D professionals are right to see VR as a game-changer—and areas where caution must be exercised.

Simulators excel for skills drills

Immersive environments trick the brain. When a learner is immersed in a digital environment—even if the environment is obviously a computer-generated environment—the brain believes it is real. Bailenson describes the reactions of participations in demo VR experiences, from the real fear—complete with measurable physiological responses they experience when walking a virtual plank—to the incidents where participants fleeing from flying items in a virtual earthquake nearly ran into a real wall.

That realism is why simulation-based learning works. Bailenson has a formula: Use VR for things that are impossible, dangerous, or prohibitively expensive to do in real life. Why does the military put pilots through hours and hours of flight simulator training? Because mistakes in the simulator are free; errors that endanger real pilot trainees and real planes are not.

That holds true for a myriad of environments and tasks where VR training can dramatically improve the skills of learners—and make training available to many, many more learners. Once a training module is created, it can easily be replicated and made available. The ramifications of this for training surgeons around the world, for example, or providing employees of vast multinational corporations with realistic, effective training in procedures and processes, are almost unlimited. The primary obstacles are the cost and availability of headsets and suitable spaces for training.

While the cost of headsets has come down—and quality has improved—providing VR training to large numbers of learners is still quite costly, which is why it has primarily been adopted by large, wealthy organizations—the NFL, for example, and Walmart.

STRIVR, a project that grew out of the VHIL, was quickly adopted by NFL and college football teams. STRIVR has since expanded its offerings to other sports—and beyond sports. Early users quickly realized that the immersive practice facilitated mastery of several skills:

  • Muscle memory—players could practice moves and plays over and over, developing that automatic muscle memory that enables experienced bike riders or drivers to engage in those tasks without having to think about each physical step.
  • Skilled, almost automatic execution of the physical task frees up attention for other key details. Seeing a bigger-picture view allows players to notice other players’ movements, expressions, and gestures that might indicate what they’ll do next; practicing these skills made players better at noticing these essential “tells” in real game play, improving their overall performance. Creating accurate mental representations also allows players to develop the expertise to know what movements and activities they can safely not pay attention to.

Walmart signed on with STRIVR to create employee training, attracted by the possibility of having all trainees experience the same training in the same virtual scenario on demand. The first module, according to Bailenson’s book, was a virtual supermarket. Deli counter managers can practice handling multiple customers at once, including challenging customers. Floor managers can realistically experience the multitasking the job demands—without angering actual customers or making costly errors. While developing the modules requires a significant investment of time and resources, Walmart could then use these modules across all 200 of their training facilities. For Walmart, this training is less costly than setting up actual stores to train employees, and the training is consistent for all employees in all sites.

Heightened emotional impact

Immersive experiences pack more of an emotional punch than visualizations or more passive learning media, such as video or text. While in some sorts of eLearning, that could be an advantage, Bailenson cautions that, for other types of immersive experiences it is a drawback or, at minimum, something that designers need to consider carefully.

An example he provides is weapons training. While training soldiers to use weapons and to be aware of the risks of a realistic environment is appealing for many reasons, other applications of realistic and violent scenarios likely have more risk than benefit. Bailenson raises concerns about the emotional impact on learners who feel as if they have personally carried out the action. Describing the feeling of playing a “surgery simulator” which allows players to “torture” a virtual alien, he wrote, “I simply felt bad. I had used my hands to do violence. The experience of performing surgery on a lifelike entity stayed with me—I actually felt remorse hours after the experience.”

In addition to the emotional impact of committing virtual violence, Bailenson worries about the behavior modeling aspect. His work with STRIVR and other simulators leaves him “little doubt that VR can effectively teach the skills required to succeed at violence (emphasis in the original).” Violent VR simulations enable players to train for committing actual violence. “None of this should come as a shock,” Bailenson wrote. “These effects are why the military has flight simulators and uses VR to train soldiers for combat. It works.”

Everything in moderation

Like any tool, VR and its characteristics can be used in positive or negative ways, and the technology can be used—or overused—in harmful ways. In Experience on Demand, Bailenson raises several areas of concern, including the potential for overuse of VR and the use of VR to escape or avoid social contact.

The immersiveness and increasing realism of virtual environments heightens their appeal and therefore increases the likelihood that people will want to spend time there. Extended time spent in virtual worlds could impact social norms and in-person interactions in ways yet to be seen. One feature of time spent in virtual worlds, though, is already evident on a lesser scale: distraction and lack of awareness of the physical world. Distracted walking and driving are real hazards in the smartphone age. Participants in VR can (and do) run into physical walls, and bump into or even hit nearby people. “In spite of what proponents of multitasking say, attention is zero-sum,” Bailenson wrote. “We only have so much of it to go around. And VR demands one’s total attention.” He has personally had to intervene to stop participants from unwittingly hurting themselves or others in the lab.

The increasingly engaging nature and draw of VR highlights an additional area of concern: potential for overuse. One hazard of spending too long in VR is simulation sickness, though as technology improves, fewer people experience this phenomenon. Eyestrain remains a hazard, though, and Bailenson offers a brief explanation of the problem: When we’re not using a headset, each of our eyes adjusts individually to accommodate changes in distance when we focus on different objects or we (or the object) move. In a headset, the focus—sharpness—of a scene doesn’t change, no matter how the wearer moves her head or which element she focuses on.

Physical effects aside, spending large amounts of time in VR can lead to confusion about what is part of the real world and what is part of the virtual world. This concern is chiefly relevant in VR use among children, especially young children who, Bailenson points out, are not yet developmentally able to reliably distinguish reality from fantasy and who are “notoriously susceptible to acquiring false memories.” He also calls attention to the “astonishing” lack of significant research on the effects of VR on children, given that emerging VR content will “include many games, educational programs, and VR experiences that will be aimed at children.”

The good, the bad …

Bailenson examines VR with a clear-eyed understanding of both its potential benefits and harms, and in the book and in journal articles, Bailenson and his team present a balanced picture. For example, studies that featured participants inhabiting avatars that were elderly or different races found nuanced results indicating that, along with the potential to arouse empathy, VR simulations can also exacerbate stereotypes and biases. And a look at VR “field trips” found both the potential for facilitating learning through exploration that is not possible in any other medium—and increased opportunities for pupils to become distracted or goof off. Much of their work points to areas that need further study, such as the effects on children or longer-term impacts on all participants.

Bailenson ends the book with a plea for developers to consider the ethical impact of their work and adopt a set of “loose guidelines”: Ask yourself whether what you are creating needs to be in VR; don’t make people sick; and be safe. He shares his rules of thumb for working within these guidelines, such as, “VR is perfect for things you couldn’t do in the real world, but not for things you wouldn’t do in the real world. Flying to the moon like Superman is okay. Participating in virtual mass murder—especially if it is designed to be realistic—is not.”

As VR seems set to become a transformative force in the eLearning arena, Bailenson’s experience and guidelines offer much for L&D professionals to think about. Experience on Demand, as well as a long list of research papers that VHIL researchers have published—and generously made available on the VHIL website—explores the uses, effects on users, and potential benefits and limitations of VR. Learning Solutions will dive deeper into the potential of VR to impact eLearning in areas ranging from training volunteers to respond to a mass casualty event  to driving behavior and culture change; The eLearning Guild focuses on the potential of VR in the eLearning arena at its annual Realities360 conference.