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Challenging assumptions around VR in learning


At its best Virtual Reality is a tool that can be used to boost learning outcomes with immersive, engaging and unique experiences. At its worst, it can be an expensive distraction, perhaps even a negative experience that can make learners motion sick.

In our last article, we discussed how VR in learning isn’t as hard as you might think. Today we’ll discuss common VR assumptions and how by challenging them you could unlock all sorts of possibilities for VR learning.

What is VR?

What if, at the snap of a finger, you could take your learners anywhere in the world, to any point in time, to take part in any event?

That’s what VR is all about. Using a collection of technologies in tandem, VR tricks the senses into producing a believable sensation that the user is somewhere else, doing something else.

VR isn’t just about what you see

VR works by enveloping as many of the user’s senses with artificial stimulation in coordination. The more senses you can engage at once, the more immersive the experience.

Vision is, by a long way, the most complex sense, responsible for transmitting vast amounts of information. It’s almost impossible to create any sort of sense of place without it. That's why you’re plunged into darkness when you put on a VR headset and why so much technology goes in to producing sharp and realistic image. Deciding what to display and why will be the main challenge in planning what you do around VR.

But sound is also important. Feeding a user sound enhances their sense of removal from the current setting and the use of surround sound can give an improved impression of space and movement.

Touch is an area of rapid development, where researchers are rapidly investing in a new wave of devices to introduce physical sensation to virtual reality. People are even using taste and smell to enrich virtual experience. Guinness recently did a “virtual reality” tasting experience, illustrating the tastes using immersive, psychedelic art.

Less commonly discussed senses are crucial. The senses which drive sensations of movement and place (kinaesthetic and vestibular) boost immersion enormously. That’s why, rather than using video game controllers, many VR systems let you walk around the scene, seeing things from different perspectives as you do. Conversely, poor activation of these senses can cause confusion and motion sickness.

Tip: VR works at its best when you coordinate multiple senses. Always consider adding positional audio to your virtual experience. It’s a low-cost way of really boosting immersion.

Avoid: Similarly, do not contradict the user’s sense of motion or place. Your seriously run the risk of making people feel confused or even sick.

VR doesn’t have to be passive

Cognitive senses, which don’t depend on a specific sensory organ, such as time, agency and familiarity are particularly important to learning. Many VR platforms allow users to interact with the environment they find themselves in, making decisions and changing outcomes.

A virtual environment is a great place to practice a task or do revision. If an engineer needed to review the inner workings of a jet engine the night before an exam they’re unlikely to be able to do so on a real engine. Likewise, if a safety expert needs to prepare for a dangerous procedure in a nuclear plant, being able to practice in a realistic but safe virtual environment would be invaluable.

You can also record and review people’s experience in a virtual world. Just as the pros review each facet of a golfer’s swing, you can record and re-play a learner’s performance in a virtual environment. This gives you a valuable opportunity to review and coach delegates.

Tip: Consider designing an experience that gives your learners agency.

Tip: Carry out reviews and exams in virtual environments.

Tip: Consider what analytics you can take from a virtual experience, who performs well and how, what people concentrate on and how long they take.

Tip: Focus on high value, high volume (hopefully both) scenarios to improve ROI.

VR shouldn’t mean isolation

You don’t have to completely remove somebody from the current setting. Augmented reality is a similar technology that allows you to take the real world and layer additional information over it. Think “Terminator” vision.

For example, if you were learning to replace computer parts, an AR app running on smart glasses could highlight what goes where as you do it. This can also be used in a “peer-to-peer” context with an instructor and other delegates seeing the same overlays on their own device as the exercise is carried out.

Pokemon Go was a huge AR success last year built on similar ideas. With that in mind AR will really take off in the following year, with Apple and Google both releasing smartphone capable developer toolkits to bring AR experiences to a wide audience.

Tip: Consider the full gamut of technologies and platforms when planning immersive learning.

Tip: Don’t be afraid of designing experiences many people can take part in at once.

VR doesn’t have to be literal

We’ve discussed quite literal applications to AR and VR. Where these technologies really come in to their own is when you decide to do something impossible in the real world. You can send your users back in time to an important event in your industry.

You can send them forward in time to see a building that’s not yet built. You can have them tower over a vast supply chain, seeing each part come together. Or you can shrink them down to see the microscopic inner workings of your product.

Tip: It’s important to be imaginative in considering VR and AR scenarios. Plan knowing you can do almost anything. Don’t simply re-produce existing content in new technology.

VR and AR could change the way learners take on new challenges. Challenging common assumptions and really getting to know how it works, how it can be applied and what to avoid, you can start your journey on virtual learning.

You’ll soon be delivering unique, compelling and engaging experiences that allow your delegates to learn and do more.

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