The metaverse is coming. In fact, some might say it’s already here. At least for the believers. But is it just an intriguing new evolution for the gaming community? Or is it, in fact, the most important thing to happen in the training space since Donald Blitzer launched PLATO?

Certainly, in a world where remote and hybrid work has become the norm, the quest for more immersive and interactive learning has gathered pace in recent years. And we know immersive learning, specifically virtual reality (VR) or extended reality (XR) learning, can improve training outcomes. Research cited by OFCOM in the U.K. highlighted that knowledge retention with virtual technologies can be as high as 90%, compared to the standard 20 to 30%.

The reason why researchers believe that immersive learning works so well is because it mimics reality. No matter how intelligent we get, our experience of things is always filtered through what our senses perceive. What we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste makes up the reality our bodies recognize.

Consider the popular VR game, “walk the plank,” which lets players experience the fear of walking on a narrow plank hundreds of feet above the ground.  Although players know the experience is without risk, its immersive nature triggers a real sense of danger. Those with a fear of heights are often unable to take the plunge, even knowing they are only a few centimeters off the ground.

In the same way, immersive VR learning experiences provide a safe, accessible space for users to experience challenging situations that feel real, test their decision making and practice procedural skills. Indeed, a wide ranging assessment showed that 75% of studies reported a positive increase in learning when VR was used.

If there is a consensus building that immersive learning works, although we’re beginning to see traction in areas like health care, why is the approach not yet as ubiquitous as one might imagine?

The Current Technology Landscape

VR headsets can be expensive, especially if you’re looking at training a large number of people.

There’s also the question around the software — what platform will you use? Are you looking at VR as 180-degree or 360-degree video, or more toward computer-generated graphics. Video is obviously easier to produce, but it still requires a means of sharing, especially if you are looking at simulating different interactions. And, if VR or XR projects or products work within a closed system, with restricted access (whether via hardware or software), the opportunity to share immersive learning at scale can be challenging.

Much of the VR software landscape is app based, where access to content tends to be siloed. Cost is often determined by tightly limiting user numbers and integration with wider learning management platforms is difficult.

While the adoption of VR in many organizations has been held back by the need to acquire headsets or by the current software landscape, there is hope for a more flexible future. Web VR and Web XR technology offers an interesting opportunity for lowering the barrier to sharing immersive learning content at scale.

Web VR not only allows access, via the web, with the standard headset, but also it allows access through compatible mobile devices. And software options in this space are growing, opening the door to true scalability.

This opens the door to making immersive, virtual learning more accessible and cost efficient than any other similarly effective training method.

Learning Design and VR

It’s important to remember that increasing access to immersive or VR/ XR content on its own is not the end of the story. Even if the scalability problem is on its way to being solved, learning design still has its part to play: The medium doesn’t change that. You need to find the right tools to deliver the right results.

In particular, adding interactions to VR training content provides a safe and scalable means of creating simulations that closely mimic reality. With the right VR authoring tool or platform, creating virtual learning needn’t be something that is only for the future.

And where scenario training is already well adopted, like with health care and emergency response, VR is a natural addition to your learning programs. But VR needn’t be restricted to the more dramatic end of the spectrum. It has also been shown to be effective in fostering empathy and offers huge potential in areas like soft skills, and even for sales training scenarios.

Getting Started

If this is a new area for you, understanding where and how VR can support your training programs is an obvious, but important, place to start. Create an outline for your intended goal and use this to define a flowchart that displays all your interactive scenarios and learning benchmarks.

It you’re looking to take small steps with a pilot project, start by storyboarding your concept and research what tech might be out there that can de-risk any trial around adoption. How will you measure success?

The potential of VR and XR for learning is huge, but we are still only at the foothills of what is possible. For the learning and development community, understanding when it is most appropriate to use and how best to implement it will remain pertinent questions for a while yet. However, the evidence base is growing and there are already some signs of best practice. And with the right tools in place VR learning can, indeed, be scalable.