What exactly is virtual reality? According to the Virtual Reality Society, “The definition of ‘virtual’ is near and ‘reality’ is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality.’ This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.”

VR technology has moved from the gaming console into the training environment. As early as 2014, oil companies began retiring their old PowerPoint presentations on safety and started using VR technology to demonstrate refinery safety protocols. The health care industry was soon to follow; hospitals began implementing VR technology as a regular part of their practitioners’ training on procedures.

VR presents a unique opportunity to model complex tasks, many of which would involve life-or-death risks in the real world. Instead of sending new employees out with a job aid and a wrench to repair an oil pump when they have never even been on an offshore platform, VR training enables them to learn the basics and still “feel” what it’s like to be in that extreme environment without endangering themselves or others. VR allows companies to reduce their liability exposure when hiring and training employees for high-risk jobs. From commercial aviation to manufacturing, VR can place learners at the controls of complex machinery with steep learning curves and high penalties for improper operation in a real-world scenario.

David Kartsonis, director of technical development at Bakers Man Productions, explains, “Using virtual reality has the potential to be the go-to learning style; the process really epitomizes ‘learn by doing’ and is best suited to hands-on jobs. We’re a while away from the holodecks seen in Star Trek, but we’re well on our way. VR is great when what you’re teaching is either dangerous or destructive. Think about a person working on a power pole or in an electrical vault – some of the skills needed for those jobs can be learned with expensive physical simulations, but many need to be learned on the job, and it’s difficult to keep a physical simulation up to date in rapidly changing fields.”

In many situations, VR provides the only safe environment in which to gain basic and even advanced skills. Keep in mind, however, that full mastery of a skill still requires actual experiences, not just simulations. Imagine scheduling an operation with a surgeon who has never practiced with a real human! It’s also important to remember that a poor representation of the real world and real consequences in VR can quickly lead to faulty training results.

With VR becoming more prominent within the training industry, learning organizations might find themselves trying to determine if it is time to take the leap. With the high costs of VR, careful decision-making is needed to determine if it makes sense to use virtual reality in your corporate training plan.

Below are four types of scenarios that are worth the expense and time to create training experiences in VR:

  1. Expensive: If it would cost as much or more to do the same task in real life, like allowing astronauts to experience life on a space station, it might make more sense to do it virtually.
  2. Dangerous: Climbing into an oil well to learn how to check the pressure of the pump might put new hires with little experience in an oil refinery at extreme risk.
  3. Impossible: You can’t experience life as a person of a different race or gender, but VR can give you a surprisingly visceral taste of what it would be like if you could and might be a great opportunity to teach difficult topics such as discrimination and harassment.
  4. Rare: You could take part in a dozen on-the-job training events and never witness a customer meltdown, but with VR, you can ensure an immediate experience.

While your company may find other opportunities beyond these four where VR might add value, there are times when you would not want to use this technology. If you are teaching linear concepts, for instance, VR would not be a good solution. One of the benefits of VR is full immersion, where the learner can look in any direction at any time, and it is difficult to maintain the learners’ focus on a specific reference point if they can shift their attention from point to point.

The best way to proceed if your company is considering VR as part of its training portfolio is to conduct a pilot. Consider how it would solve specific problems. Don’t just add VR as the shiny new training object for the sake of being “cutting-edge.” Your biggest challenge will be determining when it is the right time to take the leap, identifying when the technology is mature enough to move it from a curious, talked-about “future of” training to a core part of your training strategy.