virtual reality training

Virtual Reality Training Offers New Ways to Replicate the Learner’s Work Environment

Facebook® recently announced that it is purchasing Oculus VR® in a deal worth $2 billion. Oculus VR is the Kickstarter-funded company that is developing Oculus Rift, the virtual reality (VR) headset that will change video gaming forever. Oculus Rift literally puts the wearer into the game — with a realistic 360-degree view of the game’s landscape. WOW!

But does virtual reality really have a place in training? You bet. And it’s being used right now.
One thing we know is that the closer you can replicate reality in your training environment, the more the training experience will stick. But how do you do this when you have to consider time, resources, and even potentially dangerous situations?

Enter virtual reality training.

One of the think tanks working on cutting-edge applications of virtual reality technology is USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies. ICT “brings film and game industry artists together with computer and social scientists to study and develop immersive media.” ICT is a Department of Defense-sponsored University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) so, not surprisingly, a lot of what they do is for the military.

A colleague and I recently toured the ICT facilities and got to experience some of these emerging technologies first hand.

For instance, they’ve developed a virtual reality program for post-traumatic stress therapy. Traditional PTS therapy involves trained therapists guiding patients to confront their trauma memories through a retelling of their experiences. ICT researchers added to this by incorporating virtual reality. The patient wears a virtual reality headset. At the controls, the therapist can “tailor” the virtual reality environment to re-create, as closely as possible, the situation that the patient actually experienced.

In the ICT studios, we watched a demo. The virtual-reality-headset wearer (representing the patient) described the situation. “It was night. We were driving in our Humvee when snipers started firing at us from the bridge ahead. My buddy sitting next to me got shot.” Magically, in real time, the display changed to mimic the virtual reality-headset wearer’s description.

The PTS program is currently being used in more than 60 VA hospitals, military bases, and university centers.
Another example they demonstrated was the use of animated avatars in complex, branched simulations to teach interpersonal communication skills to junior military officers. I was intrigued because I’ve designed similar approaches to teach problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in a corporate environment.

The designer who demoed the system for us came out of USC’s Film program with a degree in screen writing. He talked about the importance of the storytelling aspects: the need to build characters with authentic back stories that would drive real behaviors. To do this, he interviewed a lot of military personnel to get at what actions, moods, and motivations would be realistic.

Now, leave it to the military to do it up right with their big budgets. In this case, the avatar that the learner interacts with is life-sized. I asked about the number of possible conversation permutations that the system supports: I’m used to dealing with 20 to 30 conversation permutations, but this one supports thousands of possible outcomes.

Okay, so that scale is probably not feasible for corporate training, but the underlying approach is. And the value of having an authentic story to drive the simulation validated my own view. That’s been a critical success factor in the simulations I’ve designed.

Where’s all this going? Check out this recent Wall Street Journal video article that features Mark Bolas, one of ICT’s directors, talking about future uses of virtual reality beyond gaming and the military. According to Bolas, the lines between the real world and the virtual world will continue to fade.

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