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  • Hugh Seaton

How VR Learning Works

Updated: Jun 18, 2019



#VRlearning #XR

There is a growing consensus that, of the industries that will be revolutionized by Virtual Reality, corporate learning will be among the first. Whether it’s HR & learning industry luminaries like Josh Bersin, or technology press such as MIT’s Technology Review, we’re seeing more and more written about the potential and current value of VR for learning.

Why all the fuss? Virtual Reality is just a medium, no different in that respect from web video, podcasts, or downloadable PDFs. It allows thoughts, ideas & experiences to be conveyed for the benefit of learners, with a bunch of secondary benefits like analytics and engagement.


Unlike other media, however, VR has a history in gaming & entertainment that makes many L&D professionals dismiss it as simply a gimmick, not ready for enterprise learning. This is an unfortunate perspective, because virtual reality learning is being adopted by a wide range of companies for its ability to do things no other medium can.

“VR creates a much more immersive and engaging environment for training the workforce,”
- Chris Bunk, HCS chief operating officer

I’ve heard some thoughts on why VR is different, and often better, than the experiences it replaces. Here are the top five:


- Presence: This one is a catchall for the illusion that you are somewhere else, and it can lead to greater engagement, 3D perspective, and a host of other effects.

- Immersive 3D: The fact that we are placed within the scene often helps us internalize relationships and understand where things are. This is important for physical training, like welding, crane operation, etc.

- Blocking out the world: This helps us with presence, but is its own feature. By blocking out the rest of the world, we ensure focus and reduce the mental cost of distractions.

- Interactivity: While lots of other experiences are interactive, the immersive 3D above allows greater complexity of interaction.

- Complete control over reality: We are able to utterly personalize experiences for learners. We can put words into thin air, stop the experience, whisper in just one learner’s ear, and so on.


This also means we can completely recreate the same experience over and over. Imagine if everyone experienced a negotiation lesson, or a simulated feedback session, or public speaking practice, in precisely the same way, as many times as they needed. We would be able to refine these experiences to ensure they’re effective, while ensuring that the whole company or group had at least that experience in common.

In essence, we’re saying that by being immersed, you focus better, engage more and can still have full agency with a complex set of interactions. That’s powerful stuff, both exciting and scary in that we have literally limitless worlds to create and explore.

How does that make for better learning? Again, there are some obvious answers out there, and then there are some less obvious answers I’d like to share. Let’s cover three obvious ones:


Engagement: Most things we want to learn require that we pay attention when we’re learning them: we need to consciously process ideas to learn them. The presence and blocking out of the world both ensure more or less complete engagement, ensuring that we are paying attention and the right processing gets done.


Elaboration: This term refers to how much we think about what we’re learning, while we learn it. This is where the interactivity, 3D immersion, and blocking out the world all help, because we think about concepts in an entirely different way when we actually use them than when we’re simply reviewing them. Think of the difference between driving a car and watching someone drive in a video.


Repetition: Inherent in the ability to recreate experiences we mention above is the fact that we can repeat rich experiences over time. We know from studies of learning that it is always better to provide learning via a spaced repetition schedule than relying on just one exposure, no matter how impactful. While it is relatively easy to give a learner quizzes and text or video content in such a schedule, only VR makes it possible to inexpensively provide experiences in a spaced repetition schedule. Here we can show a manager how to provide constructive feedback, then have her experience either the exact same thing, or something related, in 48 hours, ten days, and thirty days, as is usually recommended.


Let’s pause a moment and readdress what virtual reality actually is: we are replacing the experience of reality with a completely artificial, or virtual, one. Even when it is a recording of reality, the means of presentation are completely artificial. So every engaged sense is reporting a world that is different from the real one, and of course the more senses that are engaged, the more complete the illusion.


And this is where I’d like to direct your attention next. Whereas every other medium we currently use presents experiences to the learner at one remove, VR does not. Virtual Reality places the learner into this virtual world, and does so completely. When we watch a video, or have a scenario read to us, it is up to our minds to supply the realism, and they do so in a limited manner.


Allow me to digress very briefly to discuss what that limit means.


Seeing through a window We have learned in the last few decades that much of perception uses the same brain regions to perceive and understand the world as we use to actually move about in it. Some of you may have heard of ‘mirror neurons,’ which reside in the somatosensory cortex, which is what moves the body. Apparently we not only understand another person’s moving arm by firing some of the same brain regions that would move our own, but we understand ‘chair’ by firing some of the same brain regions that would be involved in sitting.


All thinking, in a brain or a machine, requires creating a ‘representation’ of the world and the objects in that world that we’re thinking about. Our minds create these representations based on our bodies — which makes sense given that we’ve had bodies for longer than we’ve had brains.


This matters for VR learning because we treat things happening to others differently from how we treat things happening to us. Mirror neurons and the systems they represent are not built for reaction, but for comprehension. As a result, emotional reactions, and thus the impact emotions can have on learning, is much more muted.

In addition, we know from further studies of learning that the more ways we can be reminded of an idea or fact, the more likely we are to be able to remember it when we need to. These cues exist in non-immersive learning, but there are usually fewer of them.


Really being there  Above I mention emotional impact of non-immersive, vs. immersive, learning. Not all learning is, or should, entail emotion as commonly understood — and learning of a list, or a formula, probably doesn’t really benefit from VR anyway.


Much of what we do want to learn is emotionally relevant — whether it’s how to conduct a meeting, or how to create a weld. This is true because emotion is both more and less than we typically think. Emotions are not just the feelings we have about them, the two are distinct

processes. Emotions are nonconscious, whereas feelings are usually conscious. Emotion, as currently understood, is actually the body preparing for what it thinks is coming next. It is a program for action, neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’


Feelings are what happen when we recognize these preparatory changes, like shallow breathing, increased heart rate, rush of blood to the head, and so forth.

Emotions teach us what is important, because they are the subconscious mind’s reaction to what’s going on, and when we react emotionally, it tells the rest of the brain that something is important.


In his work on emotions and feelings, Dr. Antonio Damasio coined a term, “somatic markers,” to refer to the mark that an emotional episode has, and its powerful effect as a recall cue. Somatic markers are aspects of a memory that result from emotional episodes, and are why we have vivid memories of past events that made an impression.


The power of being there  As we consider why Virtual Reality will be a better way to learn some things than others, we can start with the list at the beginning of this post, but should also consider the power of fully engaged nonconscious reactions. The sort of reactions that come from the brain thinking that something is really happening to the learner.

When something is happening to someone else, or in a video, we can imagine how it is relevant to us, just like a story. This can be a cold, abstract relevance. In contrast, when learners are in a simulation, surrounded by stimuli that tell them this experience is real, and is really happening to them, there is no doubt about the relevance of what’s being experienced.


Suddenly an entirely new level of learning can be achieved, as if we were experiencing it in the real world, with one huge difference. Unlike the real world, where things happen slowly, often in a confusion of competing events & stimulations, in VR we can create simulated experiences that are cleaner, designed to focus the mind on what we’re trying to teach. We can dial up the emotional content, for example by showing what happens when things go horribly wrong, in a safe environment.


And we can do one more amazing thing. We can experience these things as someone else. Research into the “proteus effect” by Jeremy Bailesen and Nick Yee has shown that when we embody someone of a different race, or different height, we take on that persona, and can be impacted accordingly. This promises to be nothing short of revolutionary for development of teams and managers.

Imagine the impact on a manager’s development if their diversity training involved spending a half hour as a minority overhearing off-color jokes, or as a woman enduring inappropriate teasing and proposals. The degree to which any of this behavior would be tolerated would drop precipitously.


Virtual Reality has potential to dramatically speed up how certain skills are learned, and deepen the degree to which those skills are learned. Above we’ve explored some of how and why that will be true.


Now it’s time to go make some magic.

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