Last reviewed 31 October 2018

While virtual and augmented reality may not have started 2018 as the hottest L&D topic, as the year has progressed both are now getting a lot of attention and for very good reasons. In this article, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at why these technologies are being used for learning and how they are being used.

The popularity and use of both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has been mainly driven by the technology available today. VR has been around for decades but the technology now exists that makes it truly accessible to many people. The increasing use of AR has come about because it can be accessed through the devices, such as smartphones, that people carry around with them. It is hardly surprising then that learning and development (L&D) professionals are now realising the potential of both for learning.

What’s the difference?

VR and AR are not one and the same, as there is a marked difference between them. VR puts learners in a truly immersive environment, one which is an entirely digital environment, while AR adds computer-generated content as a contextual overlay to the real world. “AR allows the user to see the real world, with virtual objects superimposed upon or composited with the real world … With AR, users are interacting with on-screen digital objects, which are positioned over a live camera display of the physical world.” (Ronald Azuma, 2018).

As with most innovations in L&D, both VR and AR have their protagonists and antagonists, for example, “VR views the physical world as a distraction, whereas AR views the physical world as an asset” (Dan White, 2018). This is because during a VR experience the user sees, hears, moves, touches and potentially smells a world within a head-mounted display (HMD). The HMD is a screen visor that blocks the user’s vision of the physical world and focuses their visual experience to its display. In other words, interactions occur only in the VR environment and users are not aware of their physical surroundings.

Nevertheless, both VR and AR have the potential to deliver new ways of learning using existing methods, such as in scenarios, simulations, performance support and induction (onboarding).

Virtual reality

For people who have tried VR, they will know that it provides the sensory experience of touch, vision and sound to make the brain suspend disbelief and feel a complete sense of presence, just as if they are going to another place. VR simulations can be used in areas where real-life practice is limited due to factors such as cost or safety. Plus, learners can practice job performance or emergency scenarios over and over again until they feel ready to do them for real.

For example, learners can drive a forklift with a physical steering wheel, physically walk around a factory, or even simulate an electric shock with the vibration of a hand controller. Moreover, managers can step into the body of a colleague and experience a coaching conversation from their perspective. Many uses have shown that an individual’s behaviour in a virtual world is changed by the appearance of their avatar. In this way, diversity and inclusion training and sexual harassment training can be taken to new levels.

Does it work?

There is a growing body of evidence that VR does indeed work. Some notable results are as follows.

  • Training professional American football quarterbacks has shown to improve their decision-making by 30% and help them to make decisions about one second faster.

  • Reducing the fear of public speaking by almost 20%.

  • Almost 90% of participants reducing their fear of heights.

  • When compared to using a video, 36% of customers had a better recall of how to complete a tiling project.

  • Walmart tested VR in 31 centres and in 2017 rolled it out to all of its 200 employee training centres in order to train annually 140,000 employees.

  • An equipment rental company shortened a week-long training programme by half through the use of VR.

All the evidence thus far shows that VR offers embodied cognition, allowing people to learn with both their mind and body, and with the capability of activating muscle memory.

Augmented reality

By superimposing digital information on the real world, AR enhances what people see and offers additional information for better understanding. There is no need for any wearables (such as a HMD), all that is needed is a smartphone. This means, for example, retail employees can simply point their phones at a product they need to sell and receive immediate training specific to that product. In fact, AR got its name from a performance support tool created by Tom Caudell and David Mizell while working at Boeing in the 1990s, where their general idea was to augment the visual field of the user with information necessary in the performance of the current task.

Although AR is not currently as popular as VR, its use is on the rise, with users increasing from 60 million in 2013 to 200 million in 2018. It is also anticipated that L&D will be one of the areas to attract the use of AR over the next year. One of the main reasons for this is that AR will become even easier to develop and implement as more smartphones become “AR-ready”, so that using AR will become far more cost-effective and a lot more accessible to learning audiences.

Some good uses for AR

Here are some of the uses to which AR is currently being put.

  • Induction (onboarding) — with new employees scanning AR symbols placed around the building with their smartphones, in order to obtain all the information they need about a specific area or how to perform new tasks.

  • Equipment/machinery training — by using it as training tool for equipment or machine operators, whereby beginners can learn how to use a piece of equipment in the physical space by overlaying digital information about how to use it.

  • Performance support — by providing just-in-time help instead of more traditional means (eg laminated job aids), such as guiding surgeons through a procedure and engineers repairing a piece of machinery.

  • Enhancing traditional learning methods — by replacing videos or diagrams with AR symbols in the classroom, so that learners can gather information by scanning these with their smartphones as part of a group activity or social learning, ie interactive instructor-led training materials.

Implications for L&D

VR is capable of taking learners to any place, while AR can bring anything to them. Both can empower learners to play an active role, to take control of their own learning and, by so doing, boost their performance dramatically. VR and AR are now ushering in a new era of experiential and visceral learning that could be a major turning point for both training and human performance.

L&D professionals would be well advised to explore the use of both VR and AR in their organisations if one or both is not used currently. Both these immersive technologies support putting the learner at the centre of their learning experience, which is why they are now coming to the forefront of modern learning strategies. There is little doubt that both will be key technologies in the future, simply because no other technologies simulate real work environments and scenarios right where learners work.