Early adopters and tech trend spotters have long anticipated the day that VR—virtual reality—would become a mainstream member of the learning and development toolkit. Some say that that day has arrived.

“VR technology is now mature and companies like Walmart, Bank of America, MGM, Albertsons, FedEx, JetBlue, GE, Sprouts, and Verizon are now using it for frontline workers. Frontline employees are the most in-demand people in the workforce and these individuals need continuous training to be successful,” Josh Bersin wrote in April.

Travis Hoium, writing for Motley Fool, made the same argument back in July 2019: “Training may not have been the No. 1 application Facebook's Oculus or HTC's Vive groups were thinking about when they designed their headsets, but it's where the market is going. And it's an area everyone in VR should take more seriously.”

While they still represent a minority, VR-based training is definitely gaining acceptance. This article examines what’s happening, providing a starting point for leaders looking to understand whether or how VR training could fit into their strategic planning.

Not quite mainstream

Even where thought leaders are promoting the strides VR-based training has made, it’s worth reading the fine print.

Bersin provides useful data, stating that over a million individual employees have experienced virtual reality training developed by STRIVR, for example, and citing companies like Bank of America and MGM Resorts, who have deployed VR training. Other companies using VR training include FedEx and Walmart. One thing these organizations have in common? They’re large. Very large.

Another common denominator is the type of training: Many large-scale uses of VR training focus on physical tasks, enabling learners to develop muscle memory for processes and activities. This is true of VR use across several industries—whether for NFL players to practice without risking injury, enable pilots and surgeons to virtually experience dangerous or rare incidents to prepare for real-life equivalents, or allow airplane mechanics and factory floor workers to learn and practice safety protocols.

Before VR can be considered mainstream, it must be feasible for a broader range of organizations to use it for the types of training they need.

VR is becoming more accessible

The cost of VR equipment has decreased as the usability and quality has improved; as these trends continue, VR-based training will certainly become accessible to more organizations of all sizes.

Even so, VR training could be a hard sell. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of gaining buy-in from many folks in the industry that don’t believe the benefits outweigh the cost or don’t see it as a feasible option for one reason or another,” according to Kristin Torrence, Talespin’s head of learning engineering.

Data on effectiveness is trickling out

An advantage to early adoption by large companies and for educational uses is that they can provide data on how effective VR-based training is. STRIVR reports results showing that VR-based training saves time, as learners spend less time learning skills, feel more confident using those skills, and feel more prepared for specific situations following VR-based training.

Where is VR headed?

The experience of early adopters is helpful, and there are indications that VR-based training may become an area of focus for more learning leaders. Some L&D teams might begin to consider building VR-based training into their medium- and long-term training strategies. The wave is coming, but it may be premature to say that VR has become mainstream.

One area where there is growing interest, though only a small amount of data is available, is the use of VR-based training for “soft skills,” compliance training, and other types of content that are easily generalized.

There’s also interest in using VR and emerging “metaverses” to provide new, more authentic ways for remote and hybrid employees to connect. “I don’t think we’ll stop longing for human connection, and VR is a low-cost solution that enables folks to participate in the comfort of their own home,” Torrence said. The advantages that an immersive experience offer enhance connection beyond what’s possible in a typical Zoom call. Though, Torrence warns, “fatigue is still very real when it comes to VR. Best practice is to limit to 30 minutes at a time.”

Some eLearning vendors, anticipating a growing market, are already creating libraries of VR content for training that does not have to be customized to a particular company or physical space.

VR for soft skills

As VR-based training becomes more feasible, the use of VR for soft skills training is piquing interest among learning leaders. Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) has been studying the effectiveness of VR experiences for changing behavior for several years, with several studies focusing on the possibility that VR training or experiences could increase empathy or pro-social behaviors or change attitudes and perceptions.

And studies in educational settings have found that high-schoolers and students with autism benefit from VR-based training:

  • A program for high-school students that focused on workplace preparation, including communication, leadership, and collaboration skills, found that significant majorities of participants reported improved ability to communicate and understand others’ opinions.
  • School-aged children with autism who practiced emotional control and relaxation strategies using VR showed significant improvement in their social interactions and emotional regulation.

Research in corporate settings has been limited but there's at least one hopeful example: PwC surveyed employees across 12 US locations and found that employees who had used VR-based soft skills training reported greater confidence in applying what they’d learned and greater “emotional connection” to the content.

Benefits of VR-based training

Using immersive training offers learning leaders—and learners—an option beyond face-to-face training, which has yet to fully bounce back from pandemic-era closures and endless video meetings online.

“Employees, whether working remotely or returning to a workplace, will need training on new ways of working, but providing that in a classroom setting may not be safe. That’s where VR can step in,” Daniel Eckert wrote for PwC Australia. With the combination of better, less-expensive equipment and changing workplace needs, VR became a compelling option for his organization.

And the results have been encouraging, according to Eckert, with employees completing training up to four times faster and demonstrating higher confidence in what they’d learned. Eckert added that learners were more focused on their training and that “when learners are immersed in a VR experience, they can get more out of the training and could have better outcomes.”

Torrence attributes the improved focus to the immersive aspect of training: “Immersion helps to focus the learner and reduces the opportunity and likelihood of split attention.”

David Roe of ReWorked points to clear business benefits that companies saw with VR-based working and training during the pandemic. In addition to reducing in-person activities, VR “comes at a lesser economic cost in the long run, and it reduces the time commitment in training programs, allowing the employee to spend more time on their normal day-to-day tasks,” he wrote.

Where does this leave learning leaders?

The age of VR-based training is dawning, and many larger organizations are already on board. Learning leaders in smaller to mid-sized companies may want to watch developments in virtual reality training for a while longer before committing budget or personnel to bringing VR-based training to their learners.

Convincing those learners might be the next challenge. Only a quarter of respondents to a Myplanet survey said they felt comfortable with virtual reality workplace training or using a virtual reality workspace.

Torrence suggests that smaller organizations seeking to move into VR-based training start by looking for relevant content “and building a blended learning solution around it or integrating it into an existing solution, if appropriate. Purchasing off-the-shelf content is likely more cost-effective than creating a bespoke solution.” An alternative would be using a “no-code VR authoring tool that allows you to design and deploy VR solutions without needing to hire a software development team.”

Learn more

The Learning Guild keeps a finger on the pulse of innovations in corporate training, such as immersive training, as well as other issues of interest or concern to learning leaders.

Join the Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance to explore these and other topics with peers. The LLA offers a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders seeking to build their skillsets. An Alliance membership includes access to monthly networking and learning opportunities and exclusive digital events.