• Virtual Reality has promised to revolutionise training across a wide-range of industries. And yet decades after VR became widely available, widespread adoption has failed to materialise in many industries.

  • Increasingly, we are witnessing a level of “VR Fatigue” across industry. Early adopters bought in to the hype and jumped on board in a rush to be seen using the technology. But what they failed to foresee was that advancing technological capability was only going to work if they were able  to create valuable experiences that solve urgent problems.

  • Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

  • We’ve been designing immersive learning environments, including tactile simulations, blended models and pure software-based applications for over a decade now.

  • Every technological “leap” follows the same cycle - the technology gets cheaper, it becomes more accessible, and the experience gets more “realistic”. This is a good thing.

  • However, as the technology advances (courtesy of the entertainment industry) we are presented with new challenges. When the technology opens up new possibilities, through better graphics, richer data sets, AI integrations, smarter analytics etc. how do we decide what is relevant to the learning experience? How do we decide what to leave out? This is the Art of Design.

  • The technology can’t decide for you what is most important to engage learners, acquire knowledge, disrupt thinking, or develop innovative decision patterns. At the core of designing an immersive learning environment is… learning. We need to underpin all of our design choices through a model of how people learn, organise and coordinate. The question then shifts from “can we model this feature?” to “what learning experience does this feature drive?”

  • A recent example out of industry was a group explaining how “immersive” a training environment had been for their participants. One participant in the scenario “almost fell over when reaching for an artefact displayed in the virtual environment”. This was heralded as a resounding success because the participant was so immersed, he nearly lost his balance. But in the real-world interaction, balance isn’t an issue.

  • From a learning perspective, this is an own goal. What the trainee was now experiencing was a detrimental contradiction to their mental models - a dissonance between the real-world and the training environment. How do they decide which model to deploy? And how does that decision effect all of the other training efforts they have been through?

  • Underutilising the Opportunity (of Technology)

  • The same way that people focus too heavily on the physical environment they equally under-represent the decision sets that need to be modelled. The science of decision making is messy. It is beholden to the whims of all of the complicated emotions, irrationality and unpredictability that homo sapiens are prone to display when confronted with complexity.

  • Yet this is the space where Virtual Worlds deliver their true competitive edge: not simply reinforcing procedures, but exploring the fringes of decision making where the technology provides an experience not available in any other training environment.

  • An example of this is a “closed” training environment where the process is so heavily guided you can’t make a mistake. In these environments’ participants aren’t afforded the opportunity to fail constructively so the true consequences of a mistake are never realised. The learning experience is shallow.

  • Failure is your friend in a virtual world. Giving people the opportunity to make consequential mistakes is vitally important to ensuring real world transfer of the learning. If we don’t experience the consequences of failure, what inertia do we create to avoid the same mistakes in the real world?

  • Less is More

  • There is a prevailing assumption that additional training, even if not necessarily beneficial to everyone, can never be harmful. “If we run people through the simulation a few more times it can’t possibly be bad for them, we’re only reinforcing the existing procedures”.

  • This seems reasonable enough, but the truth is a little more complicated. The capability of the best chess players in the world will decay if they are forced to practice novice level decision routines and aren’t appropriately challenged at their skill level. The same holds for expertise in all domains. While it is important to brush up on key skills, over-training, or training at the wrong level is a critical mistake when trying to extract value from a VR training programme. If we have not calibrated the learning environment against the expertise of the individual we are training, we enter the expertise reversal zone. This occurs when an expert is pushed through a training environment well below their capability. It can also be thought of as accelerated expertise erosion.

  • If we aren’t prepared to the put the learning experience at the top of our agenda when implementing a VR training programme, we will struggle to realise the full capability of the technology.

  • As the technology becomes more capable the design team acquires more power to create deep experiences. But only when the learning experience is understood as the end goal and the technology is a meansto achieve it will we realize the full potential of both.