• Hugh Seaton

VR Training: It works because it happens to you

Virtual Reality for training works, and we have increasingly good evidence of when it does. Let’s discuss why Virtual Reality is a better way to train than other options. Some of the reasons are obvious: the immersion, the sense of being there, the lack of distraction are all important and are immediately felt when you get into an experience.

However, what isn’t always obvious is that in almost all VR, the experience is happening to you. In video, in text, in stand-up training, you are a spectator. You’re watching or hearing about things happening to others, and drawing lessons from this. It turns out that as humans we are very good at learning from stories, so video & verbal training does have an effect.

Google Earth in VR is a totally different experience from video or their web app.

As good as stories are, though, nothing beats actual experience. And here is where VR isn’t just better than alternatives, it is fundamentally different. In VR you are the protagonist, you are the center of the action, and things impact you as if you were really doing them. This has at least three surprising impacts: we believe our training, we can build empathy, and we retain learning better. Let’s look at each of these and the evidence for them:

Belief Strength

Just because you know how someone wants you to do something, doesn’t mean you believe it’s the best way to do it. One of the key issues with all training is that sometimes learners just don’t think it’s for them – instead opting to do it ‘their way.’ In fact, a study from 24/7 learning found that of the employees they’d surveyed, only 12% had applied the training they’d recently received. These are not people saying they’d forgotten the training, but that they simply weren’t applying it.

This is one of those times where learning from marketing can help us in the training world, because marketers have long had a similar issue – consumers often know a product or brand can provide certain benefits, but they don’t believe it’ll work for them. In fact, this is such a well studied problem that one of the key findings was published back in the 1980’s. Two marketing researchers, Robert Smith and William Swinyard, looked at what makes for strong beliefs, and what makes for weak beliefs, all in the context of communications. Their work was called the “Integrated Information Response Model,” and it is fascinating if not surprising.

Smith & Swinyard looked at the various way that marketers try to communicate their messages, including text in print ads, visuals in those print ads, video, in-store demonstrations, and sampling.

It turns out that the closer to sensory experience a communication can be, the stronger our beliefs about it will be. So if you hear about something, beliefs will be weak. If you see a message, those beliefs are a bit stronger. But if you are able to actually do something, beliefs are strongest.

So here we have our first unexpected outcome of VR training – people are more likely to believe they can do the skill that’s being learned, and believe it is relevant for them when learned in VR vs. other media. In a world full of advice on what to do and how to do it better, this can make a huge difference for employee performance.

In sum, when training materials are happening to you, it has great impact and relevance.

I feel like I look

Part of Virtual Reality is the ability to act in the virtual scene – a sense of agency adds enormously to the feeling of being there. To really act, though, you need a body.

It turns out that as we inhabit this virtual body and get used to it, we take it on as an identity. Research at Stanford University has shown that we not only take on that identity, we can take on other identities through different avatars.

It has been found, for example, that when the user is taller than others, they will behave with greater confidence. This of course is another outcome of being the protagonist in the VR ‘story.’ Learners are the center of their action, and because they can act, and act as people other than themselves, they are able to experience the virtual world through new lenses.

Seeing your avatar in the mirror adds to the effect (Nature, 2015)

This effect isn’t just about being tall. Experiments have shown it to apply to different ethnicities, genders, and physical traits. In fact, one set of experiments had the subject treated as if they were more attractive, and of course in-VR mirrors showed the person to be as attractive as an avatar can be.

These users not only felt more attractive, but behaved in a more social manner. In other words, the way they looked, and were treated, in virtual reality, had a measurable impact on their social behavior.

Imagine how powerful this can be for all manner of workforce learning, from sensitivity training to understanding how ill & infirm customers view the world. Indeed, VR is being used for these sorts of projects as you read this.

Emotion-based Memory

In recent years, neurologists have shown that we remember things that have evoked an emotion in us better than we remember things that do not. In fact, we tend to remember full experiences, even if we’re most focused a particular fact or idea. Our minds are built to remember what happened, and what it meant to our survival or well-being.

At the same time, we now understand that emotions aren’t just feelings. They are in fact what neurologist Antonio Damasio explains is that emotions are the body’s way of reacting to what it thinks is about to happen, a way of getting ready. So we remember things that seemed to matter to us, because they caused our minds to automatically react, and in so doing caused a deeper memory to form. Damasio calls the resultant memory a ‘somatic marker,’ in that the memory comes from what the body does, not just an abstraction the mind creates and stores.

This matters because these reactions are much, much more likely when we think experiences are happening to us, instead of just watching them happen to others. Doing things, vs. just seeing them, produces better memories.

VR Learning: Closer to nature

Above we’ve looked at three reasons that learning in an immersive, VR environment produces better outcomes. The obvious corollary is that this will not be true for everything you might learn. For example, being the protagonist in an experience probably won’t help you memorize a long list of new words, nor understand how to integrate derivatives. But for many of the skills and processes that make up workplace competences, VR holds the promise of faster, better recalled learning. Learning that scales in a new, unique way at costs that are rapidly dropping.


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