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“As technology drives social and cultural change, training provision must keep up with shifting generational attitudes and expectations. Rigid training in fixed workspaces will make way for courses that offer the flexibility to learn wherever and whenever is convenient. Most importantly, technology can vastly improve the quality of learning by tailoring courses to students’ individual competencies and circumstances. Employers can reap the rewards of a highly skilled workforce at lower risk, and be confident of an excellent return on their investment in people.

-Helen Dudfield, Chief Scientist for Training & Human Performance, QinetiQ

Having a highly skilled and trained workforce is essential for every successful business or organisation. Doing, and having the ability to practice and learn from mistakes is an effective means of both learning and retaining information – and harnessing immersive technologies to re-create real-life training scenarios has the potential to revolutionise the world of training. And that is exactly what London-based tech company, Immerse is doing, by creating multi-user training environments to address the complex training needs of its clients.

Immerse’s clients are increasingly turning to virtual reality as an effective way to train their staff and customers. For many businesses, allowing trainees access to business critical and expensive equipment, sometimes in remote environments is not practical. It can also benefit companies as training is not limited by geographical location and learners no longer have to be in the same physical space to access training at the same time.

“VR training can provide a realistic environment where it would usually be expensive or logistically impossible to train staff, as it would mean taking essential equipment out of service” explains Jay Freeborn, Marketing Manager at Immerse. “Virtual reality gives people the chance to learn by doing which is an effective way to learn and retain new skills.”

For many health & safety and operational roles, gaining hands-on, practice-based experience is crucial, as inadequate skills and training could be both dangerous and costly. This is highlighted in a project for QinetiQ, who tasked Immerse with re-creating conditions in a submarine control room for training purposes, complete with working displays, VR boat operators and multiple interaction points. “This provided a multi-user experience that replicated a difficult to reach real-life environment” comments Jay.

Immerse submarine training

“Using VR is brilliant – it’s intuitive and really immersive. I think the biggest selling point was when we reached the stage where we started to behave like we would at sea – concentrating on the task but having a laugh with colleagues as well. It is not real and we know it – but it is real enough to get totally immersed in it. You could take a couple of headsets and a computer and rehearse basic drills, for example, bringing people on much faster rather than having to wait for time in a simulator or on a submarine. It’s fun – and that must be a big selling point for younger generations.”

Paddy, a coxswain in Trafalgar-class boats and a submariner for 30 years

As many of the training experiences developed by Immerse focus on technical training on specific pieces of kit, having a high level of interaction that is easily repeatable can help to reinforce the learning. For some clients, in addition to training their workforce, it can also provide a useful marketing and sales tool, by giving their customers additional support in using equipment. This was the case for Inmarsat, a leading supplier of mobile satellite communications. It tasked Immerse with re-creating its Cheetah™ II terminal in a desert scenario. The experience trains participants to put together 14 different component parts of the terminal, including connecting cables and learning about its switches. This allows participants to practice using the kit without risking damaging expensive equipment.

How it works

Immerse has developed a unique VR platform that can be used to design and develop VR scenarios. This starts by building the specific training experience in their Unity SDK. The SDK is directly linked to the Immerse platform and real-time services and has libraries of scripts for easier implementation.

Once the content has been developed, it is distributed to users across the world in both VR and web browser. Live, multi-user sessions can be accessed by up to five participants on HTC Vives, as well as an additional 10 participants using the web browser. Sessions are shared via a URL and accessed via a browser-launched Immerse VR application or WebGL.

The integrated platform allows for powerful insights into user behaviour, giving Immerse’s clients the chance to analyse the effectiveness of training programmes and feeding into any changes that may be needed to improve them.

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Challenges

Selling the benefits of VR

Decision makers within companies may be skeptical of the effectiveness of virtual reality for training and this is coupled with the perception that VR content creation is prohibitively expensive. Providing evidence of a return on investment is crucial to persuade people to change their perceptions.

“Convincing potential clients that VR is worth the investment can be challenging. There is often a long chain of people involved in making the decision, which can potentially mean there is a lengthy process of changing a number of people’s mindsets to get their buy-in” comments Jay. “Effectively communicating the benefits of a VR environment for training can also be difficult; VR really needs to be experienced for people to really see and feel the benefit for themselves.”

Providing authenticity in the VR space

VR training programmes need to contain content that is 100% realistic to be fully effective. Indeed, as many of the projects that Immerse work on cover health & safety issues, or working with complex machinery, to get something wrong could be catastrophic.

As every client is different and has unique training requirements, making sure that these are understood and fully addressed is key. “We work closely with our clients to make sure that the experience accurately portrays real-life equipment or scenarios. At Immerse, we have star producers who will research and learn everything about the subject matter, and who work closely with our broad range of clients to ensure that real life challenges are effectively replicated in the VR space. This is coupled with our in-house team of developers and designers who bring all the component parts to life in VR, for example, replicating what a piece of machinery looks like and how it works” says Jay.

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Knowing what works/doesn’t work

A universal challenge for all forms of training programmes is knowing how trainees will react to the training and what works/doesn’t work. This is no different for VR programmes, however it is something that can be more easily identified and addressed. “We send 30 messages a second for every single user – all of which can be captured and used to track and assess learner performance. This means we can monitor literally everything a user does – where they look, how quickly they respond to a given task, whether they follow the right sequence, if they are distracted at any point and so much more. The insight available is extraordinary.” notes Justin Parry, COO at Immerse.

The limitations of technology

“You do VR a disservice if you pretend it can do everything”

-Justin Parry; COO, Immerse

In spite of advances in immersive technologies in recent years, there are still limitations to what is possible. For example, creating convincing computer-generated characters for role-playing is still very challenging, particularly if emotion plays a part. Simulating realistic problem behaviours in these characters requires a degree of semantic nuance that cannot be achieved at this time, although with developments in artificial intelligence his may be possible in the future. For companies to embrace immersive technologies into their training mix, it must be able to supply an effective solution to the problem, which can mean turning away work, as creating a sub-standard experience would, as Justin notes, “be bad for our business in the long term and for the industry overall”.

Impact and future

Immersive technologies have the potential to transform the training sector, revolutionising the way we think about employee onboarding and development. As training can be tracked and amended, it provides an efficient tool to monitor, assess and improve the skills of employees. Through learning by doing, training is more effective at producing a highly trained workforce in a cost-effective way, with the potential to lead to a safer and more productive workplace.