Is virtual reality (VR) technology a solution in search of a problem, as some people have claimed? That is, is VR just for playing games and exploring Google Earth? Absolutely not, as there are fantastic business and science use cases, including many types of training simulations and serious games. However, VR is certainly not the right tool for every project. VR is immersive, meaning visitors see and hear a virtual world that exists in 360-degrees all around them. As a result, this unique medium has pros and cons that may not be immediately obvious but could impact the decision to use VR for your eLearning project. The following factors may help you decide if VR is a good fit.

What VR does well

  • Deep immersion: Being in VR feels real. The memories of a VR experience can even be confused with actual experiences. For example, I once viewed a concert in VR, and later I incorrectly remembered having been there in person. To this day, in my memories, it still feels like I was actually there. Many people have noted similar experiences.
  • Accessing the inaccessible: VR is great for providing visitors access to remote locations (e.g., deepwater oil rig), expensive real-world training (e.g., flight simulation), equipment training (e.g., manufacturing equipment that can’t be taken offline for training purposes), risky or dangerous environments (e.g., firefighter training), small environments (e.g., inside a circuit board), and large environments (e.g., the outer atmosphere).
  • Empathy: VR experiences can evoke powerful emotions, which can enhance learning.
  • Novelty = Wow Factor: VR has a strong wow factor, especially for first-time users. As a result, VR experiences can be memorable and fun. For example, I remember the Coco VR experience far better than I remember Coco the movie, even though I enjoyed both at the time.
  • Agency: With VR’s nonlinear design and unique narrative structures, visitors can freely choose their own paths, paces, actions, etc. within the experience. Each visitor’s experience will be different.
  • Exploration: Visitors can virtually explore “physical” spaces or 360-degree environments (e.g., a building, a crowded room, a neighborhood). Similarly, visitors can explore inside and around physical objects (e.g., a human body, a jet engine, a fire, a product design).
  • Replayability: Visitors can replay an experience many times. Each play-through is different, providing new opportunities for learning.
  • Data collection: Managers can track eye movements, hand movements, and record the entire experience for later review.

What VR does not do well

  • Duration: Many visitors do not enjoy spending extended periods of time within VR experiences due to nausea and headset fatigue (i.e., a VR headset is a heavy box hanging on the user’s face).
  • Typing: Typing in VR usually requires extremely awkward methods such as opening a virtual keyboard, pointing the hand controller at a key, pulling the trigger, and repeating, one painstakingly slow keystroke at a time.
  • Conversation: It’s not that VR is a particularly bad medium for conversation, but if your training experience centers around decision-making that involves conversation (i.e., management, sales) rather than exploring and assessing an environment, then a 2D game experience may be a better, cheaper, and easier option.
  • Cross-platform connection: Multiplayer experiences across multiple VR platforms (i.e., Oculus, Vive, PlayStation, etc.) are difficult and often impossible to execute.
  • Haptics: Unless you have an enormous space, enormous staff, and enormous budget, today’s haptics (i.e., devices that provide additional sensory input such as touch, smell, and taste) are mostly limited to the vibration of hand controllers, a far cry from the full-body, multisensory haptic suits in Ready Player One and other science fiction stories.
  • Affordability: VR headsets and VR-ready computers aren’t cheap, unless you’re using Samsung Gear VR or another mid-range headset, which are extremely limited in their capabilities.
  • Ubiquity: An issue related to affordability is ubiquity. While consumer adoption of VR is growing, few people own VR headsets yet.
  • Novelty = Confusion: People aren't used to VR as a medium, and it can take time to get them up to speed to simply try an experience.
  • Technological stability: VR technology is evolving rapidly. There are multiple platforms and software changes quickly, meaning that the simulations you create today may no longer function next year.
  • Development time and cost: VR experiences can take longer to develop than equivalent 2D experiences, requiring specific expertise that may be hard to find. If you don’t have time to learn the necessary skills or can’t build that kind of team, you can contract an educational game development company that can build VR experiences, such as Filament Games. These companies often produce great work, but the costs can be higher than keeping development in-house.
  • Developer availability: Most larger, tech-centric areas such as Silicon Valley and Austin boast small communities of game developers with the skills needed to build VR experiences. However, few if any of those developers have experience in corporate settings, developing serious games, or the eLearning industry.
  • Accessibility: Generally speaking, VR is not very accessible for people with vision and hearing impairments and people with limited mobility.

So what does this all mean?

If your planned eLearning simulation will require trainees to read, memorize, and type lots of information or even simply engage with the experience for an extended period time, VR is probably not the right medium for your project. If the visual field for your project can easily fit within a standard 2D screen, don’t try to force it into being a VR experience. If a fully immersive experience isn’t necessary to achieve the learning objectives, then VR isn’t a good fit.

However, if you have a shorter training experience where trainees would benefit from visiting an immersive 360-degree environment or from exploring a physical space, and if a 2D screen simply won't do it justice, then virtual reality can be fantastic medium for your eLearning experience. In situations like these, VR can be more effective and powerful than any other medium. I say go for it!