With all the hype and excitement around immersive technologies, it’s important to take a step back and dig into the fundamentals before you commit to building a VR training experience. Too often, we see learning content brought into VR that only provides incremental value. Things that easily could have been done using a flat screen. Prior to starting any VR project, you should always ask yourself “Will VR add demonstrable value to this experience? Will this be significantly better than using a flat screen or other traditional medium?” If the answer isn’t a clear “YES!”, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

Over the next decade, as spatial and immersive computing enters the mainstream, everything will transition away from our current tiny flat window computing paradigm. Given that we’re still early in this journey, we need to be strategic with where we put our energy and resources to ensure that we’re taking the biggest step possible with each move. To provide a framework for thinking about whether a certain subject will gain extra value by being brought into VR, we have developed 6 Key Indicators that should be considered before breaking ground on a new VR training project. The list is not exhaustive and the nuance of VR training is far more intricate than can be explained in a short article, but if these indicators are positive you’ll know you’re likely on the right path.

Physically Based

VR enables us to recreate a physical environment, then use the natural movement of our bodies to interact with the space and objects around us. For example, consider learning to perform a new surgical procedure. To operate successfully, one must be able to take the right physical actions. Of course other thought-based work is an essential part of these skills, however it would be impossible to have a successful outcome without understanding the physical movements and how certain actions drive different results. With this said, it’s no secret that haptics have a long way to go in VR before things like pressure, weight or density feel entirely realistic. However, even in its current form, VR has shown to be highly effective for surgical simulation and other physically based procedures like correctly using personal protective equipment.

Sequence Driven

VR really shines in its ability to help people become expert in the sequence and decision making process of a procedure. Take PPE donning and doffing for example, on the outside it may seem like a simple procedure, but in reality it consists of 30+ unique steps that must be performed in a specific sequence. Studies have shown that 90% of healthcare professionals are performing this process incorrectly, which has been a leading cause of the disproportionate infection rates of Covid19 among healthcare professionals. By having an environment in VR where you can physically practice the process an unlimited number of times, without wasting equipment, you can hardwire the sequence deep into muscle memory.

Resource Intensive

It turns out that bits are far less expensive than atoms when it comes to learning how to use expensive, fragile or otherwise resource intensive equipment. By virtualizing the learning experience you can provide users with access to learning scenarios that would otherwise be impractical or downright impossible. Imagine learning how to build a rocket engine. The cost of the parts alone could be in the millions, then you’re limited to having one student interacting with each part on their own, all while doing their best to avoid getting crushed by the turbine. Looking at the medical industry, if you need to practice with a cadaver, it can cost you thousands of dollars and be logistically difficult to procure and manage. With VR, you can spawn 100 cadavers, then practice on them with the ability to make mistakes. This can also lead to significant cost and waste savings even while learning how to perform basic procedures where equipment may cost $10-20 per session.

Dangerous / Unsafe

Now that we have access to high fidelity simulations, there is no excuse to put someone in danger during their foundational training. For example, imagine a doctor practicing a new procedure on an unsuspecting patient or a wind turbine technician climbing up hundreds of feet just to practice. Of course you need to do the real thing at some point, but so many training related injuries could have been avoided through the use of simulation. When thinking about unsafe environments, we should also consider psychological safety. Providing students with a safe place to fail can be essential, especially if they’re the type who suffers from social anxiety and finds themselves frozen when being asked to do something for the first time in front of a group. With VR, you can practice and make as many mistakes as you’d like until you’ve built up the confidence to perform in a more high-stakes environment.

Value from Embodiment

As the old saying goes, “You can’t fully understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” By embodying another person and being able to understand what things are like from their perspective, one can gain valuable insights and a greater sense of empathy for another person’s situation. For example, some VR training experiences provide users with a sense of what discrimination or harassment feels like first hand, or what it feels like to fire someone, or get fired. On top of this, there have been some interesting studies claiming that the avatar you embody can have an impact on your cognitive performance. For example, a recent study explored what would happen if students learned while embodying an avatar of Albert Einstein. ”The Einstein body participants performed better on a cognitive task than the Normal body, considering prior cognitive ability (IQ), with the improvement greatest for those with low self-esteem. Einstein embodiment also reduced implicit bias against older people. Hence virtual body ownership may additionally be used to enhance executive functioning.”

Dynamic Environments

When you are learning life-saving skills like medical procedures you may be able to learn and practice in a consistent environment, however when you get out into the real world things are rarely static. You must know how to respond under pressure and have the ability to keep your cool if your environment throws you a curveball. If you’ve only ever practiced in a sterile and fluorescent lab on a lifeless mannequin, you may be overwhelmed when things get real with a yelling patient, or some other unexpected turn of events. If you’ve been exposed to a number of simulated scenarios in VR, you’ll have a better sense of what to expect, thus being able to successfully perform when the time comes.

As mentioned above, these 6 Key Indicators are just an initial filtering framework for VR training, however if used intelligently, they can provide a powerful foundation for decision making and prioritization. If you are trying to teach a skill that is physically based, has a defined sequence of steps that must be completed in order, requires significant resources to practice, is dangerous if performed incorrectly, would benefit from being embodied, and is traditionally performed in a dynamic environment, you likely have a great candidate for VR training. As immersive technology evolves, the scope of these indicators will expand, however until then I hope this framework provides you with another way to evaluate whether you should be bringing certain subjects into VR. At Axon Park, we live and breathe VR training, so please always feel free to reach out if you’re interested in exploring the space further.