- By Andrea Murad
- Business reporter
Imagine you have been transported to Mars as a robot avatar.
Around you in this virtual reality (VR), computer-simulated world, other people also walk around like robots.
Your mission is to work together to overcome a series of challenges and escape the planet in a space pod. The mission only succeeds if all the robots manage to get away, and not if one or two blast off on their own.
However, this is not a video game. Rather, it’s a training session where you and your colleagues all wear VR headsets.
As the day goes by, it sounds more fun than sitting in a conference room for hours while your bosses tell you about your organization’s exciting plans for the next year.
The trip to Mars is a team-building exercise called Apollo that was built by a British company called Jenson8, which specializes in VR-based training platforms.
Each workplace team gets three or four tries in the simulation to figure out how to escape. And the participants can experience Apollo from different perspectives – in a leadership role, as a standard robot or as an observer.
Afterwards, when the VR goggles are removed, the group is asked to discuss the various dynamics that helped them fail or succeed.
“When people are in this immersive experience, it removes a lot of preconceived notions that they carry with them when they’re in the workplace,” says Bryan Barnes, head of research and development at Jenson8. “And it allows them to show themselves as themselves instead of trying to play that work character.”
He adds that the participants can gain a greater understanding of their role in the group, for better or for worse. And that this can lead to honest conversations that help build a more successful team.
Pandemic lockdowns introduced millions of workers to home working and video conferencing, and now education is changing, too.
The regular Zoom calls since March 2020 made us all realize that we don’t actually need to be in the same room for meetings. And it is now increasingly the same for education courses.
Add in the increased development of VR technology and an increasing number of companies are asking staff to put on a pair of VR goggles when it’s time for them to take a day off or refresh their skills and knowledge.
Mike Wynn, is responsible for VR-based training at Bank of America. He says it especially appeals to younger employees who are used to the technology thanks to years of playing immersive computer games.
“We’ve relied on the same traditional training methods for the longest time, but people have changed and the way they absorb and digest information has definitely changed,” he says.
“Attention spans are not the same as they were a decade ago and even longer. Now we want information quickly, and we want to be able to see things instead of just reading it.”
But is there any evidence that VR training is actually more effective? Staff who learn via VR do so four times faster than if they are in a classroom, according to a study last year by auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. The report also found that employees were 1.5 times more focused during the VR classes.
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Edwina Fitzmaurice, is responsible for VR technology at fellow global audit firm Ernst & Young. She says that another advantage of VR-based training is that users can more easily keep practicing.
“People like the idea that they can try again, they can learn again,” she says. “You get much higher retention rates, you get much better engagement scores.
“You get much better results because people are able to do it over and over and they feel like they’re in it. We all know you learn by doing more than reading.”
Others point out that VR training is often more cost-effective and safer than real-world training, especially if you’re teaching someone to do a dangerous job. Instead of putting someone directly into a high-risk environment, such as an oil rig, a chemical plant, or a hospital emergency room, they can first go through a VR simulation.
In addition, many VR training systems provide feedback to the user rather than a human boss. One such provider is London-based VirtualSpeech, which offers VR-based training for public speaking and leadership skills.
Some people are said to be more receptive to negative feedback if it comes from a computer. And VirtualSpeech founder and CEO Sophie Thompson says computers are often better at providing it.
“People aren’t good at giving honest feedback and you have to ask explicitly. Whereas a machine isn’t concerned about your feelings.”
However, VR training is not without its critics. For example, some users are said to find the experience of wearing VR glasses uncomfortable or it makes them feel dizzy or nauseous, others complain of headaches or eye strain.
Ernst & Young’s Ms Fitzmaurice agrees that the sector needs more regulation. “The key is to get the balance between governance and innovation,” she says.
“You have to allow enough to allow the innovation to happen, and you want enough governance—in fact, one feeds the other.”
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