How Virtual Reality is changing workplace training
Training and Development

How Virtual Reality is changing workplace training

Using state-of-the-art facilities in Svenborg, Denmark, and Houston, Texas, BP is using Virtual Reality to ensure that staff and contractors can learn how to work in the specific conditions of a drilling operation. The VR simulation features the same rocks, temperatures and pressures and even the same physical impact of the ocean currents to ensure that it truly replicates critical jobs on the rig.

According to BP, this training in the virtual world is helping BP to drill more safely and efficiently in the real world. The hands-on, scenario-based approach goes well beyond traditional classroom training and allows drilling teams to practice events and joint procedures together as an integrated unit. BP’s use of the technology in this way seems to point to the tangible possibilities of VR in employee training, but the capital costs are not cheap. BP has invested significantly in its training infrastructure across the world to make this VR collaboration possible and it is not alone.

Working on an offshore oil rig can be an intense and at times potentially dangerous endeavour, which is why Total, like BP, has turned to VR for training and is using Siemens’ 3D software in order to help train its staff before embarking overseas. The French oil and gas giant has been using Immersive Training Simulator (ITS), based on the Comos Walkinside software solution from Siemens, in order to increase overall safety and maximise raw material production. The technology sends trainees through an immersive 3D Virtual Reality replica of their working environments, enabling them to visualise tasks at hand and prepare for a number of emergency scenarios. More and more companies across a wealth of sectors are looking to VR for their training needs.

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Simon Wright, technology executive in charge of VR/AR for Genesys, believes that VR is a perfect fit for training. Genesys has been using the technology in its contact centre agent training and reaping good results. “The focus in agent training is, can we simulate ‘real-life’ customer engagements and experiences in the contact centre for agents so that when they speak to a customer they have almost been there themselves?” he says.

Wright cites the example of an agent able to articulate the benefits of a hotel because it has wonderful views of the ocean because she has seen it through VR training. Then there is the case of an emergency services contact centre employee who can understand or empathise with an older person because they have seen a day in the life of a typical senior citizen.

Virtual Reality brings the training to life and helps employees get to grips with the realities of situations that they might encounter in the course of their employment. “To be able to problem solve in real-time with VR is a fantastic way to do something you can’t do with PowerPoint deck and role play or at least not as well,” he says.

Wright stresses that in the contact centre environment, training time is money because if an agent is in a training course they are not able to handle calls, so it is vital that the training offers value for money. “VR is a really good way to do that as an alternative to classroom or coaching options.”

While initial reactions might be hesitant – having to put on “weird googles” and step into a different world can be disconcerting – Wright says, once people get over that they really love it.

“The problem with tech in the early days was that the headset quality wasn’t good enough, so people were feeling sick because of the latency and the tracking wasn’t that good. But with the latest headsets that problem has gone away pretty much. The use case is stronger because technology has improved so much.”

Interestingly, the technology means that users can be in the same virtual space together, like a three-dimensional conference call. “This is relevant for training in that you can have instructor-led training in VR; it doesn’t have to be all module,” Wright says.

The underlying infrastructure for VR these days is the same as that of gaming. Most of the technology is based on Unity or similar game engines, which are built for multi-player online gaming. “We are just using the same technology, but rather than shooting aliens we are trying to train people to sell cell phones or we are sharing a problem,” Wright says, adding that the technology means users can pass each other objects, see each other, and interact in different ways in the virtual realm.

He points to the new Star Trek: Bridge Crew Virtual Reality game, which he says is a great example of teamwork. “We will see a lot more of that in business, where employees will be able to do fun stuff like that together or like the BP example, work together to seal an oil well.”

Wright believes that there may be a business opportunity for a small number of training centres to build VR training rooms and set them up with generic content so that companies can hire them out rather than having to build their own VR training centres like BP has done.

Not all experts are as convinced by the potential of VR for training, though – at least not yet. Magnus Jern, Chief Innovation Officer at mobility company DMI, believes the main challenge is that VR requires a significant investment for a good quality, because of the need for creative, content creation and equipment as mobile devices do not have enough computing power for a high end experience.

“This means that training simulations will likely require employees to be physically present in the office, and while this may be how most offices currently run training, a major selling point for VR is that it holds the promise of a mobile workforce,” he says. “Until this problem is solved, it’ll be difficult to justify the investment in training VR for most companies.” Jern sees more short term opportunities with AR thanks to device reach and lower cost of content creation.

While not every company can afford to build custom training rooms like BP has done, overall the cost of VR has come down significantly, making it more attractive. Nathan Wrench, head of industrial and energy at product design and development company Cambridge Consultants, points out that it is now possible to leverage consumer-grade equipment from the games industry such as the HTC VIVE, and build an enterprise-level system for a fraction of the cost that was possible just a few years ago. This opens up opportunities for larger numbers of trainees to use the equipment, or for more emphasis to be placed on the virtual environments and training scenarios – the nuts and bolts of the training course.

“Exactly how large an investment is required will vary depending on the nature of the training being delivered - but the Pareto principle definitely applies and it's possible to deliver a benefit to the training system from a much lower starting point than was previously the case,” Wrench says.

For him the biggest change possible as a result of this price plunge is the ability to use VR to train all the staff – perhaps in parallel – in the VR environment. “This opens up opportunities in how the tool is used, how the course material is delivered - and most crucially where. It is now possible to have a distributed team receive training in VR without having to travel.”

The main cost, then, is developing the content for the VR training modules, which Wright says costs “10s of 1,000s to do a really good one, but you can obviously reuse it.” Those investing in VR training content are looking to create generic content that can be reused, rather than product specific content that might have a shelf life of only a year.

“Content is the big limitation – you have to design the content and the interactivity. It is more work than just building a PowerPoint deck. It is more like directing a movie. You have to think about scenes and characters. It is easy to do it very badly and put everybody off,” Wright says.

Wrench agrees: “Done right, VR can add a level of realism, immersion and engagement that delivers an unmatched training experience at a much lower cost than any alternative.  Done wrong, it results in an overpriced, unnecessary gimmick.”

The other important thing to consider when investing in VR training in Wright’s estimation is the analysis of the training and how people are doing with it. “There needs to be more work around scoring, so whether you use a passive watcher to track how a trainee is doing or record it, you need to build that assessment into the interactivity,” he says.

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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