VR for Learning - SweetRush Case Study Webinar

Whether you’re a VR learning newbie or virtual pioneer, there are insights to be gained from the groundbreaking work produced by the SweetRush SPARK team and its clients. In this article, SweetRush’s experts answer questions that came up in its recent virtual reality case study webinar.  

Hello, everyone—JC here! I hope you had a chance to join us on June 20 for our virtual reality case study webinar—if you didn’t, you missed my feeble attempts to say “hello” and “thank you” in multiple languages, which may ultimately get my passport revoked.

If you missed our lively session, I encourage you to check out the recording available over at eLearningIndustry.com.

Before we jump in, I want to give a big shout-out to my co-presenter, Blaire Bhojwani, Senior Director of Learning Innovation at Hilton. Not only is Blaire an incredible partner, she’s a generous and caring friend, and we really appreciate the time she took to share the work we’ve done together. Thank you, Blaire!

Thank you also to our friends at eLearning Industry and their webinar hostess with the mostest, Mel Chambers! 

Now, on to your burning questions.

Virtual Reality! What is it good for? 

Several questions came in during our virtual reality case study webinar about use cases for VR for specific industries—health care and professional services among them. Truth is, I doubt there is an industry out there that could not come up with a good reason to apply VR as a delivery modality for learning.

VR has always been a great solution for re-creating environments to practice skills safely—especially environments that are dangerous or costly to create, or travel to, in real life, and many companies are piloting VR for these use cases. However, where we’re seeing a lot of interest—and this ties to the two projects we showcased in the webinar—is VR learning for soft skills and empathy-building.

Collaborating with Hilton, we created two VR learning programs for two different audiences, yet they share a key objective: increasing empathy and appreciation for others. 

  • One helps corporate team members appreciate the physicality and complexity of their fellow team members working in the hotels, through hands-on activities that give them a taste of those jobs.
  • The other helps the hotel team members empathize with guests encountering problems during their stay—and through scenarios has them experience the wrong and right ways to respond to a guest’s challenges. 

There are other learning modalities that address these objectives, from role plays to branching scenarios and simulations. What makes VR an attractive—and effective—option is the ability to fully immerse learners into situations, where they can literally walk in the shoes of others and generate a real sense of empathy.

Just as research has shown the connection between engagement and retention, I predict we’ll see more research on the connection between immersion and retention. “Being there” is an experience that’s hard to forget.

What advances are you working on for VR learning programs for soft skills?

OK, I’ll be honest: No one really asked this question, but I have some cool stuff I want to share with you. The pace of advancement in VR is incredibly fast and (shout-out to the SPARK team) we’ve got a lot going on.

Sentiment Analysis

With sentiment analysis, we’re picking up differences in the learner’s tone of voice and adapting the experience based on that input. 

Let’s say in the VR world you’re giving your “colleague” a performance review. You say the right thing, but your tone is abrupt or lacking warmth. The VR program can give you that feedback and ask you to try again, once again monitoring your tone to see if you got closer to the best practice.

In the near future (yes, AI), I predict we’ll have the ability to program the avatar to react based on your tone. Amazing!

Body Tracking

With body tracking, we have the ability to “see” the way learners are holding and moving their bodies, including hand and arm movements and posture. Body language is such an important part of how we communicate, and now we can monitor that within a VR experience.

Again, at this point we can incorporate that information into feedback and remediation, and in the future we’ll very likely be able to program a real-time response to body movements.

Rift, Go, Quest, VIVE, Cardboard . . . What headset should we be using?

Unlike many VR developers, we’ve done our very best to remain headset-agnostic. (As eLearning developers, we are also authoring tool- and LMS-agnostic.) This forces us to stay on top of the headset race for supremacy, and for our clients it means that we’re flexible to use whatever system works for you.

If you’re new to VR, you may not know which system you need, and all of these options can be pretty overwhelming. And, here I am writing this in the summer of 2019, and three or six months from now it could be a different story. 

So let me share what we’ve seen from our experience as of today. Fair warning: this is by no means a comprehensive comparison of headset features—just a quick hit on some of the bigger players that our clients tend to gravitate toward.

Cardboard

Many people want to get started with Cardboard. I get that—it’s (seemingly) an inexpensive way to get started. And that’s what it’s best used for—getting started. It’s a quick way to get people into experiences and trying VR very easily. Good use cases for Cardboard might be marketing, prototyping, and tours of environments. 

For VR, it’s very limited in terms of complexity and experience. It’s 3DOF (3 degrees of freedom), which means you can’t walk around, you can only look around. It’s limited by the phone’s CPU and the available Wi-Fi.

Here’s the real kicker if you’re thinking about Cardboard for enterprise: the equipment is really the phone. So you need to look to your mobile learning strategy—are your employees using their own phones? Are you providing the phones? Phones are as expensive as a nice VR headset!

Oculus Rift

When Rift came on the scene, it was really exciting to see a system with some real horsepower and 6 DOF (six degrees of freedom), which means you can also walk around in the VR space, not just turn your head. That’s because it’s designed to work “tethered” (connected) to a nice gaming laptop (which gives us the horsepower) and has external sensors to track the position of the person wearing the headset. Our first VR learning program for Hilton was designed for the Rift.

Today, the new headsets on the market are untethered (mobile VR), and don’t require a gaming laptop, meaning they store the VR programs on the headset itself. An untethered 6DOF experience is obviously a lot more convenient, but for high-end VR experiences we may still choose the Rift (or HTC Vive Pro) to utilize the horsepower of the connected gaming laptop. Though, generally speaking, especially as untethered devices become more powerful, that is clearly the way of the future.

Oculus Go and Quest

Go, and the latest addition to the Oculus family, Quest, are these types of headsets—mobile, untethered. Just like the evolution of phones, each new headset is able to store more data and process more information faster—which makes the VR experience richer and more interactive.

The Quest is more powerful than the Go—and more expensive. And, for now, higher quality is more expensive. But because overall the headsets are getting more powerful, that won’t be a limiter for long.

Others: VIVE, Pico

VIVE is a strong competitor of Oculus and has its own line of products doing battle with Oculus—and that’s a good thing for the consumer. While more options means more to consider, it also means a continuous push for better products and market forces driving  prices down.

Our first VR learning program for Hilton was developed for dual delivery: the Rift and the VIVE, and that’s entirely possible if that meets your needs. Often VR development is happening in multiple areas of the company (sales and marketing, learning and development) targeted for different equipment, and there’s a definite advantage to sharing among these teams.

Pico is a new player coming online with a focus on the enterprise market—one that we’re watching closely.

How to choose?

When we work with clients who are new to VR, we often recommend starting with our SPARK XR Workshop. This is a full-day session in which we bring the different headsets to you, so you can try them hands-on.

The decision you make about headsets should factor in both your enterprise needs (and budget) and the learning experiences you want to provide. We can help you find the sweet spot! As consultants immersed in a quickly changing technology-driven marketplace, we have to pay close attention and advise clients. Our leaning at this time is that Oculus is emerging as the market leader and they have a lot of momentum . . . but the game is on, which makes being on the playing field challenging but also engaging and exciting. 

How many VR users can you have at one time?

OK, let’s start here: Each user needs to have his or her own headset. 

Now, let’s talk real estate. If you’re using the Rift, remember you also need a laptop setup, so that’s going to take more space. The untethered headsets require less space, but you still need some room. For example, the Quest recommends a 6.5’x 6.5’ space for game play.

Let’s say you have a big room—like a ballroom—for your VR location, and you want to pack ‘em in. Now you need to consider sound and voice. Each user needs to be able to hear the VR program, and, assuming there’s voice recognition in your program, the program needs to be able to hear the user clearly.

Now let’s say you want all of those users to be “inside” the same virtual world at the same time. Totally possible! How many users are in that experience will depend on what makes sense for your learning objectives and the activity we design.

Can you see what the user is doing when they’re inside the VR program?

We’ve learned that being able to direct users—particularly those new to VR—is often an essential need for facilitators. Our Controller App includes some cool features to help you do that.

Facilitators will be able to connect to a headset and see what the users see, as well as cast that to a TV screen with Apple TV. Imagine using this technique in the classroom, with one user in the headset and the others watching what’s happening on the screen. Great stuff.

Do I need a developer to get started with VR?

If you’re at least somewhat familiar with eLearning authoring tools, you know there are many, many tools available out on the market to help you create eLearning. The easiest tools to use—that just about anybody with pretty good technical skills can pick up and get started with—are also the most limited in terms of their capabilities. If you’re trying to accomplish something more complex and interactive, then typically, yeah, you do want to get some help from a developer.

The same is true(ish) for VR tools. The majority of the easy authoring tools are designed to work only with 360-degree video or photography. If you’re interested in using 3D environments, having users interact with 3D objects (as we showed in the case study webinar), that will most likely require a more sophisticated tool.

The greater the complexity and quality, and the more interaction you desire, the more you’ll need to start using more complicated tools that require more and more advanced programming skills. The VR design and development space and the tools that support it are just not as mature as the eLearning space, and the pace of change is daunting. This may sound self-serving, but I believe it to be true: Except for doing rudimentary development, you’ll need a developer. In every project we’ve taken on we’ve encountered problems and challenges that are technical, creative, and even extend to how instructional design fits in. At this point in the evolution of this modality, all these things demand highly skilled teams that have the expertise to work through the inevitable issues that will arise. 

Yeah, but how long is a VR project going to take?

Again, just like eLearning, the design and development timeline is really going to depend on the complexity of the end product.

At the low-complexity end, you’ve got your basic tour. That means you pop on your headset and explore a virtual environment. Tours use 360-degree photography and/or video that is shot and then “stitched together.”

At this end of the spectrum, we’ll do a storyboard, the shoot, the stitching, and then upload the final experience. That can take as little as a few weeks, assuming the environment you want to shoot is generally available.

So that’s very simple. Moving up the spectrum of complexity, you might add actual scenes with live actors and interactive elements. That will require storyboarding, casting, shooting, stitching, and programming. And of course all of this means more testing. Now you’re looking at closer to a few months to produce your VR learning program.

To create a custom 3D environment and 3D objects with which you can interact, you’re moving up the spectrum of complexity quite a bit. 

You’ll need to take pictures of the environment and then recreate them in 3D at the level of quality you want—the higher the level of quality, the more time it will take to get the textures and details just right. You might also add characters (avatars) and objects,  which also will need to be designed.

And if you’re using 3D, you most likely want to make it interactive, so there’s programming involved as well. These projects are typically four to six months, but depend a lot on the complexity and quality.

Where should I go to learn more about VR?

The community of VR users and developers is rapidly expanding. Here are some resources to keep you up to date on all the latest:

Well first, a shameless plug for our Emerging Technology Trends for L&D eBook, which I hope you’ll download—lots of good insights on VR, AR, and AI. And please do subscribe for regular updates from SweetRush.

Within L&D specifically, the Realities 360 conference is a great way to see some of the work that’s going on. We’ll be at Oculus’s OC6 conference in September participating in various ways . . . perhaps we’ll see you there! And the XRDC conference in San Francisco in October has a training track—we’ll be speaking, so if you attend, please come say hello!

Medium is subscription-based, but does tend to have a lot of articles published about VR and AR. The social media platform Reddit has a subreddit (discussion forum community) for virtual reality.

Also, follow the headset manufacturers on social media for the latest announcements about their products: Oculus, VIVE, Pico.