After many fits and starts over the past decades, we’re finally poised to bring learners into a shared digital reality where they can learn by doing in the presence of peers, mentors and experts. Industry leaders like Walmart and Pfizer are already upskilling and reskilling at the point of need in digital practice spaces that mirror real-life workplaces. Instead of waiting to shut down the plant for the annual fire drill, people don virtual reality (VR) headsets and find themselves in the middle of a fiery inferno. Moving seamlessly from the constraints of the real world to the unlimited mailability of real-time 3D universe, they can practice different emergency scenarios every month, building muscle memory and flatting the forgetting curve.
The enterprise metaverse is upon us, and it’s bringing learning to the point of need, in the flow of work. Now, there’s no more waiting around for scheduling classes or instructors or disrupting valuable operational resources. Just step through the frame into a high-fidelity virtual rehearsal studio that provides intense, deliberate practice and feedback loops to hone skills. When the stakes are high, like with training on gene therapy for cancer patients or training on how to manufacture radiopharmaceuticals, pharma giant Novartis prepares its people in pixelated replicas of their labs. Workers can stick their hands into a virtual glove box to practice handling radioactive substances in an immersive and realistic interactive experience.
Similarly, Pfizer trains lab safety in fail-safe, ultra-realistic practice spaces. Bristol Myers Squibb teaches lab technicians to gown and weld tubes in a digital environment. Learners at these pharma leaders can rehearse techniques over and over. If they make a mistake, the system will immediately display a feedback message on the tutorial screen and the simulation resets.
There are unlimited re-dos in VR. It would make Aristotle proud. Educational theorists as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher have pointed out that we can’t learn what we haven’t experienced. This is a critical time to reimagine your learning around an assumption of experiential and visceral learning on demand that we once could only dream about.
Tactile elements add to the reality of the simulation. The sensory experiences of touch, vision and sound are incredibly convincing. For instance, when users spray their hands with an antiseptic cleaner, both hands feel a slight vibration through the hand controllers and they hear the spray bottle in the headset. The brain suspends disbelief and generates a sense that their hands are actually being sprayed.
New generation, high-quality mobile VR headsets, which are now highly affordable, are ushering in the learning metaverse. Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) has already sold over 10 million VR headsets, which is the critical mass for mass adoption.
Meanwhile, a new generation of real-time game engines powers these high-fidelity corporate training simulations. As the user moves around in the 3D space, the environment is instantaneously updated. A team of professional game developers guided by learning designers can create a “flight simulator” of your work task. When experienced through a VR headset the learner has a complete sense of “presence” of being in the work environment. The headset is optional, though. Walmart’s Spark City is an example of a 3D Sims-style learning game that’s publicly available on the app stores; anyone can download it to their phones and play in the palm of their hands. The game engines can render 3D scenes on any headset or screen.
Transitioning from 2D to 3D is only the start. What makes the metaverse truly transformative is the social aspect of immersive simulation training. Learners and instructors can join from anywhere in the world in a shared sense of space. Instructors with International Finishing Trades Institute, for instance, can demonstrate how to tape a dry-wall seam with a tape bazooka for a student “standing next to them” in the virtual scene. The learner can then grab the bazooka and rehearse the same task. They have the sensation of working next to each other on a construction site, even though they might be in a bedroom or even at a high school recruitment fair. The VR simulation provides a hyper-realistic context to learn, apply and practice new skills together with colleagues and peers before they will go to the real construction site.
The metaverse is ushering in a new era where learners move seamlessly from the shop floor, retail aisle, construction site or pharma lab to their digital twin, where cohort-based, learner-centric, just-in-in-time learning experiences wait. When “going to class” means putting on a headset and interacting with the instructor and fellow learners at the time of need in the context of the learning application, the real learning transformation will ensue.