Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic we’d expect hybrid teams to regularly meet, work and learn in virtual reality (VR), wouldn’t we? After all, over 10 million high-quality, reality-bending virtual reality (VR) headsets have been sold heavily. But here we are in our video meeting, staring at a webcam and judging every wrinkle of our face. The vision of happy avatars sitting around a pixelated conference room table never came to fruition in Second Life, the original metaverse, and it won’t happen with the current generation of VR headsets, either. Meeting in a generic digital office space in VR doesn’t offer enough value to justify the indent in your forehead (or not being able to take notes, pet the dog, drink coffee, etc.).
Today’s VR isn’t the next video meeting platform. Rather, it’s the next flight simulator for learning. Pharma leaders Pfizer, Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb are examples of companies reimagining learning with VR. Their learners and instructors from anywhere in the world can strap on a VR headset or simply open their laptops and enter a virtual pharmaceutical lab to practice compounding drugs or pipetting, gowning, welding or sealing. Multi-user VR performance simulators provide the sensation of working shoulder-to-shoulder, just like being together in real life. Instructors can demonstrate everything from how to transfer liquid and hand the pipette to a learner standing to their right, who can grab it and rehearse the same task. VR simulations are venues for social learning in context of real-life work.
VR can also be used as a visualization tool to extend reality. For example, consider the global heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) leader Daikin, which sells chillers designed to keep hospitals and skyscrapers cool. Engineering firms, contractors and building owners like to walk around, look inside and see the features before investing in equipment that needs to last 50 years. The problem is that these products are as big as a bus. Customers need to travel far and still can’t see much more than a giant box, since the competitive advantages are under the hood.
So Daikin created the ultimate customer experience with a hyper-realistic, life-sized 3D version of their giant “WMT” industrial chiller in virtual reality. The 3D model helps customers visualize key competitive advantages via “X-ray vision.” Customers don the Quest headset and watch how water and refrigerant work together to keep building temperatures comfortable. While you can visualize this on a flat-screen as well, VR offers the power of “presence.” You can poke your head inside the machine and watch its inner workings from any angle. VR tricks the brain into believing you’re actually there while interacting with other sales reps and customers. In a world of distractions, VR offers the ultimate captive audience.
We’ve come a long way from watching instructional 360-degree videos on makeshift cardboard VR sets. While spatial video offers photorealism, it doesn’t offer the sensation of presence. The user is stuck in the position of the 360-camera watching and clicking on hotspots, as opposed to computer-generated imagery (CGI) where you can move freely through the 3D scene and manipulate objects with your hands.
Developed in the same real-time game engines that render Hollywood-quality special effects and massive hit videogames, computer-generated VR simulations require upfront investment and top-shelf talent. You need professional artists to model 3D environments and equipment (using pictures, blueprints and existing 3D assets for reference) and game developers to program the interactivity.
The talents that marry the artistry of VR and game design with learning design live in VR development studios and are rarely found in corporate learning departments. While VR development is typically outsourced, corporate in-house instructional designers will be promoted from authoring learning to architecting the VR solution. They also have an important role in testing iterations regularly, a process that involves playtesting with end-users. The VR testing process is surprisingly easy to do remotely; with a click of a button, clients can download the newest version of the simulation to their WiFi-connected VR headsets for review. Unlike video production, where you have one shot at getting it all right, computer-generated VR development is a very iterative process.
While CGI VR development can be more expensive up front than traditional learning and 360-video solutions, it’s a malleable, extendable and scalable investment that can be amortized over many years and numerous applications. It can improve employee-based return on investment (ROI) in training cost reduction, improved job performance and superior engagement. Daikin’s learning organization partnered with sales and marketing to fund the investment. Other organizations might partner with operations and manufacturing teams who need the same 3D models of digital twins of their stores, products, hospitals and manufacturing plants.
Connecting the physical and the 3D digital worlds in real-time is the promise of the “enterprise metaverse.” The buzz around this concept has reached a fever pitch and it’s elevating the VR conversation from the training function to the C-suite. This is the time for learning leaders to get a seat at the leadership table and recognize that digital learning spaces will improve performance in the real-life workplace.