The brain science is clear: Immersive learning technologies offer the opportunity for more effective training solutions than traditional textbook or slideshow approaches. These technologies come in two forms: augmented reality (AR, sometimes also called “mixed reality” or MR) and virtual reality (VR). Where AR involves overlaying digital information onto your field of view in your real physical environment, VR involves immersion in a completely new world.
The brain science behind “muscle memory” lays the foundation for skills training in VR. But how can learners best understand complex systems or machinery, like an engine, a helicopter rotor or a DNA molecule? Immersive learning tools provide superior capabilities largely due to one factor: their ability to more accurately represent these phenomena as they truly are.
Traditional Technical Visualization Training Tools
To illustrate, let’s look at the challenges that a jet engine mechanic-in-training might face. A jet engine is a three-dimensional structure that functions as a dynamic system. The ultimate goal of technical visualization training is to facilitate the formation of a dynamic 3-D mental representation of the jet engine in the learner’s brain that perfectly mimics the actual form. The best way to achieve this goal is to present the learner with a dynamic 3-D visualization tool that perfectly mimics the jet engine. Unfortunately, most traditional technical visualization tools are textbooks or slideshows that that are filled with static 2-D images. The learner must convert a series of static 2-D images into a dynamic 3-D mental representation in the brain that accurately reflects the jet engine.
You know what happens when you have too many apps running on your computer? Things take a long time to respond because the computer’s memory is being asked to do a lot of work. The human brain is not that different.
Cognitive Processing Limitations of Traditional Training Tools
From a cognitive science perspective, constructing a dynamic 3-D representation from a series of static 2-D images requires a lot of work. You have to hold a mental representation of those images in short-term memory and then in your working memory, where you combine them on the fly to construct an accurate static 3-D representation. Finally, you have to infer and impart the dynamic nature of the jet engine onto this 3-D static representation.
The research is clear: Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of cognitive capacity (in the form of working memory) and of cognitive energy (in the form of executive attention). Any time working memory load and executive attentional demands are taxed, you are more likely to make an error or simply not understand.
Immersive Learning Tools in Technical Visualization
How do we accomplish the ultimate goal of technical visualization training, to facilitate the formation of a dynamic 3-D mental representation of the jet engine in the learner’s brain that perfectly mimics the actual form? Immersive learning tools generate a highly accurate dynamic 3-D representation of the dynamic 3-D jet engine form. This representation is displayed within the product and presented to the learner for study.
This training is intuitive, because it reduces the extensive working memory and executive attention demands associated with traditional technical visualization training. By removing the need to construct a dynamic 3-D mental representation from a series of static 2-D images, it reduces the working memory and executive attention load on the learner. Equally if not more importantly, the dynamic 3-D mental representation in the learner is given a boost by the visual learning and representation systems in the brain, which have evolved for just this type of learning. This system builds a 3-D mental representation of objects from the dynamic flow of information on the retina.
The research suggests that immersive learning tools are perfect for technical visualization training. The same logic applies to other visualization problems as well, such as medical training. In the technical skills field, we fully expect immersive learning training to replace traditional training within the next five years. The costs of immersive hardware are plummeting, and the advantages are clear.
That said, further efficacy/validation studies are needed to verify that immersive learning visualization training is superior to traditional training approaches. Some exciting studies have been conducted. For example, studies conducted at Lockheed Martin and Boeing validate the efficacy of immersive learning technologies in the technical visualization realm. Lockheed used AR glasses to overlay images onto a technician’s field of view, so that when, for example, engineers are installing a brake component on the landing gear of a fighter jet, they look at the wheel, and the glasses show where every bolt and cable should go. The results? Engineers work 30 percent faster with accuracy up to 96 percent. Boeing ran similar experiments with similarly impressive results.
We believe that technical visualization training is one or two efficacy studies away from completely disrupting this sector.