You may have heard that Walmart recently bought 17,000 Oculus Gos to train their more than one million associates.

Walmart has its finger on the pulse. Enterprise training is quickly becoming a potential killer app for virtual reality (VR). VR fills the demand from companies to increasingly invest in their employees rather than allowing churn. Training can also help avoid terrible situations from arising. Starbucks is realizing this in the wake of their arrest of two innocent black men, and have implemented a day of racial bias training.

Corporate training as it stands now suffers from low engagement. 42% of employees report feeling that their company’s training programs were “useless or boring.” Boring training is no fault of the designers. Curriculums typically have had to trade-off between scalability and effectiveness. For instance, the scalability of a training document sacrifices the effectiveness of an intimate one-on-one mentorship. Lastly, it is difficult to measure and quantify the effectiveness of training, as most tools cannot accurately collect significant data, or are so intrusive as to impede the actual exercise.

HR Training in VR

VR is effective in training anything from soft skills to hard skills, onboarding to operations, and sales to diversity & inclusion.

Virtual Reality through Head Mounted Displays (HMD) present solutions to all of these problems. VR has the characteristic of being engaging due to its immersiveness. The level of engagement can be measured by the retention of the knowledge after exposure to training. A Walmart blog post reports that VR training “boosts confidence and retention” and increased test scores 10-15%. Even the trainees who didn’t partake in VR training, but simply watched others experience it, benefited with the same increase in test scores.

Tyson Foods published positive findings after utilizing VR in their safety training. Going in with a goal to reduce injuries by 15% after training their employees with VR, the company found an injury reduction of more than 20%. Internal surveys demonstrated participants were very engaged: 89% said they felt “more prepared” after experiencing safety training in VR.

VR is also extremely scalable, hence the successful adoption by supersized corporations Walmart and Tyson. Below is a diagram from a STRIVR white paper mapping the capability of VR training to scale with the same ease of distributing an employee handbook, while still retaining the level of involvement usually reserved for one-on-one mentorship:

Transforming the Enterprise Training Landscape

VR is also the most trackable of any digital medium. A field study conducted by STRIVR collected gyroscopic and accelerometer data from headsets to track participant’s head motion. They were able to discern “staring time” and “head movements per second,” then cross examining the two to infer the level of engagement.

Head movement is just one metric that HMDs track. As the sensors on HMDs continue to multiply, managers of these training programs will be able to process trainee eye movement, pupil dilation, brain activity, facial expression, galvanic skin response, and — with increasing focus on interactive VR experiences — they’ll be able to process click-through rates, reaction times, and hesitation.

But is VR that much better than other mediums? A 2016 study out of the University of Maryland compared the recall performance between VR HMDs and desktop monitors. They discovered an 8.8% higher overall recall performance in HMDs versus desktop displays. HMDs had a 11.91% higher median recall performance than desktops, clocking in at 90.48% recall performance over desktop’s 78.57% recall performance. In training for industrial operations such as construction or manufacturing, a 9% difference in a worker’s ability to recall proper safety protocol could mean the difference between dealing with safety litigation, or worse, bodily harm.

HMD vs desktop display information recall performance

Recall performance was significantly higher with Head Mounted Displays than desktop monitors.

The salient difference between theses types of displays is the spatial awareness gained from HMDs, which leverage human vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (positional) senses in conjunction to vision. “This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said Amitabh Varshney, co-author of the study.

Now, why does VR training have such a great impact on our psyche and behavior? Psychological studies have inspected the effect of immersing oneself in virtual environments on ones real-world behavior. A well known test of this is the “Superhero Experiment.”

Stanford researchers devised an experiment to test VR’s ability to affect social behavior in the real world. They gave a series of subjects a HMD with one of four simulations. The subjects either flew around a city arms outstretched like Superman, or sat in the passenger seat of a helicopter toured around the same city. Half the subjects in both the Superman and helicopter simulations were given a mission to find a lost diabetic child in the city and get them their much needed insulin.

The Stanford Superhero VR Experiment

A still from video footage demonstrating how a participant would behave in the experiment.

After the simulation the subjects were asked to sit down to allow the experimenters to pack up the equipment. During this clean up period the experimenter “accidentally” knocked a cup of pens off a table. Experimenters measured how quickly subjects left their seats and began to help pick up the pens.

The results showed that flying participants were significantly quicker to help pick up the pens than helicopter participants. There are speculations as to why flying is more conducive to the prosocial behavior of helping retrieve the knocked over pens. The researcher hypothesize that subjects are conditioned to associate flying arms outstretched with Superman, who is a hero who helps people. They may then emulate their flying avatar’s social expectations in the real world (called the Proteus Effect).

Regardless of exactly why flying promotes prosocial behavior, the results demonstrate VR’s potential to promote prosocial behavior. It is also clear that some experiences are better at changing real world behavior than others. For that, it is important to look at educational methodologies to get the most out of corporate training.

There are two methods of teaching. The first is a Traditional education. This style of teaching is exemplified by the didactic lecture: the teacher is the authority, a moral and intellectual role model, and the students learn through close observation and study. Ultimately, it presents knowledge as static, and that understanding is gained through mimesis.

The other method is a Progressive education. This style is embodied in a dialectic between teacher and student: the classroom is a democratic environment in which the teacher is simply the facilitator of student’s questions. Students “learn by doing,” not through observation of a model, but by poking, prodding, and debating by will of their own.

John Dewey, education reformer and early proponent of a Progressive education.

John Dewey was an early proponent of Progressive education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By and large today’s HR training employs the Traditional method of education. The company models a set of principles, guidelines, and procedures that the trainee ingests and copies in their behavior. This method has been cost efficient and scalable. A Progressive method of training would require the company facilitating the trainees as well as listening to them. Until now, that has been impossible to do. Using VR companies can utilize a Progressive model of education. It delivers a sense of involvement and participation. It gives them the ability to fly, and not just sit in the passenger seat of a helicopter. It also is a way for companies to “listen” to their users through analysis of data captured from HMDs.

It is not that Progressive is a better educational tool than a Traditional education. The jury is out on which is better; ample research supports both methods. However, this is the first time that a Progressive style education is even possible to use at scale. Initial studies, like the Superhero experiment, point out the effectiveness of an involved and Progressive-style VR experience.

Training is in need of improvement. Derek Belch, STRIVR CEO, explains the reality of training in the enterprise space (@8:35): “Whether you are doing operational training, sales training, unconscious bias training, soft skills training… The reality is that for the past several decades training has been a check in the box. Corporations themselves, other than a few, can’t tell you what the [Return on Investment] is on their training and learning.” Training has been under-acknowledged, and companies like Walmart, Tyson, and Starbucks, are beginning to realize its importance. And clearly there’s no better way train than in VR.



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