How Effective Are Immersive Virtual Simulation Technologies for Skills Transfer?
Published on July 24, 2019
As recently as a decade ago, virtual reality and other immersive simulation technologies were struggling to answer the question: Can we make it work? Since then, with advances in areas such as 3D rendering tools, latency, games engines, hardware, bandwidth, and AI, that question has been put to rest: sophisticated, immersive, multiplayer virtual technologies will play a role in the future of entertainment, gaming and training. But increasingly, people have been asking the questions: What role will they play? What value do they add? Are they effective? Of particular interest has been the role of immersive technologies in the learning and training space, especially for organizations looking to increase learning engagement, accelerate employee development and reduce the training cost burden. Robust analyses and case studies are beginning to emerge that answer the question of effectiveness.
In this article, we will highlight some of the successes across various industries and explore some of the design elements and psychological mechanisms that create the optimal conditions for effective learning and training experiences in immersive virtual simulation technologies.
Can Immersive Synthetic Environments Improve Skills Transfer?: The Evidence
The effectiveness of simulation-based training is measured by the degree to which skills developed in the simulated workplace transfer to the real-world workplace. Effective skills transfer using simulation-based training has been well established for many years in many fields, including aviation, military and nursing. But as virtual simulation technologies emerged, trainers began experimenting with translating live simulation-based training to virtual environments. While full scale wargames, flight simulators with replicated cockpits and hands on medical simulations proved invaluable to expertise development in these respective fields, it remained an open question whether virtual environments could adequately capture the experiential components that make physical simulation-based training exercises so valuable.
Because the effectiveness of simulation-based training is highly dependent on the specific simulation design, the task being trained and the skills required, general scientific consensus about the method in itself is difficult to pin down, especially given the novelty of designing in virtual environments. However, numerous case studies provide firm evidence that virtual environments provide a valuable platform for learning and skills transfer.
Published by: Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division
Published by: Brigham Young University
Published by: The Boeing Company
Published by: University of Maryland
Published by: US Marine Corps
The table above gives examples of ten different case studies that examine the effectiveness of using synthetic simulation environments to drive learning and training, in medicine, maintenance, military and memory recall. In addition, several meta-analyses that evaluate results from dozens of case studies in both medical and military contexts have found significant effect sizes for training effectiveness using synthetic environments. These meta-analyses, combined with numerous individual case studies, provide evidence that using virtual environments can have at least the same if not better outcomes for recall, error reduction, time efficiency, and, most importantly, skills transfer across various workplace and task environments. While these cases provide evidence for the value of training in virtual environments, as mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of any given simulation-based training is only as good as its design.
The Critical Design Challenges: Fidelity, Buy-In, Immersion and Presence
A “good design” for effective virtual simulation-based training may be an art more than it is a science. However, researchers generally agree on four primary factors that ensure real world transfer of skills and knowledge: 1) fidelity, 2) immersion 3) presence, 4) buy-in (Alexander 2005), and a fifth factor that encompasses the other four, 5) narrative transportation.
Fidelity is “the extent to which the VE emulates the real world” (2005) and can be broken down into several categories. "Physical fidelity" refers to the similarity of sensory and perceptual elements between the simulation and the real world. These similarities can occur across haptic, aural, visual and proprioceptic dimensions. Functional fidelity specifies how similar the structure of the virtual activity is to the real-world equivalent. Appropriate hierarchies, commands, modes of communication and rules all increase functional fidelity. Many virtual environment providers assume that if they capture physical and functional fidelity they will create a valuable training experience. However, classic research on skills transfer questions this assumption. The research suggests that the “surface elements” (impressive graphics) of the training environment are not as important as “deep structural features” (logical connections and underlying decision-making principles). And often full replication is either not feasible or can distract from the learning goal. The missing link between these pieces and a valuable learning experience is psychological fidelity.
Psychological fidelity refers to “the capabilities of the simulator or simulation to elicit the cognitive, behavioral, and affective responses relevant to the behavior in actual task environments” . It is made meaningful by the extent to which the simulation creates a decision environment that activates the same mental models that are applied to critical decisions in the real workplace. As such, the physical elements of the simulated environment matter only to the extent that they place the participant under similar cognitive and behavioral demands as the real world. The simulation must not only map the cognitive tasks of the real workplace but also evoke similar emotions to those encountered in the real-world activity, especially stress and arousal
Immersion is a natural outcome of sufficient levels of fidelity and refers to the degree to which the individual feels involved or absorbed in the simulation. The user must be engrossed in the task enough to activate the same neural patterns and mental models as though they were actually carrying out the real-world activity.
Presence is the feeling of “being there” in a plausible virtual environment. Presence is achieved by producing two essential illusions in the virtual environment: the place illusion, which is the degree to which you feel transported into a virtual space, and the plausibility illusion, which is the degree to which the environment feels credible to the learner and relationships among decision elements make sense. To create a place illusion, it is not necessary to replicate all aspects of the environment, only those that are needed to enable action and interaction. Creating a plausibility illusion, designers must not focus too heavily on realism, but replicate essential features of the tasks that psychological fidelity is realized.
Buy-in or acceptance will occur after a sense of presence is sufficiently established and refers to the degree to which the user actually believes that the training they are experiencing is useful for future applications in order to develop the appropriate skills. After Buy-In and acceptance of the simulated environment are achieved, we move on to the most important aspect of virtual environment design.
5. Narrative Transportation
Narrative Transportation is the experience of being fully engaged, immersed and transported within a highly compelling story. An essential ingredient to motivating learning and behavior change, narrative transportation helps frame a new way of making sense information through the power of story. The cognitive scientist Dr. Melanie Green and her colleague have found that there are four essential ingredients that make narrative transport so powerful.
Receptivity relaxes our existing beliefs and makes us open to new information.
Identification engages empathic responses that relates the experience to one’s own life.
Emotional involvement recruits charged emotional states to help reinforce memory and recall.
Perception of realism helps us encode memories in ways very similar to actual events, helping a feel like something that happened to us.
Effective skills transfer from synthetic training environments requires exploiting the cognitive dimensions of presence, immersion and narrative transportation. These elements help increase engagement, challenge existing beliefs, and reorganize and encode new knowledge in unprecedented ways.
The early days of virtual simulations were characterized by rote style learning focusing predominantly on an individual user. As the technology has progressed and the applications of virtual simulation have expanded, cognitive science and psychology are playing a larger role in determining the efficacy of a virtual simulation. Now, everyone has access, more or less, to the same technology. While the science on the effectiveness of training in synthetic environments is becoming clear, the art of designing experiences that induce constructive learning is what separates a successful training program from a mediocre one. Understanding the fundamental mechanisms that motivate behavior change in these expanding environments will drive the future of the industry.