Augmented and virtual reality are hot buzzwords right now, and they aren’t limited to consumer industries. Businesses are starting to explore their use as well, and training is one area where these technologies could have a major impact.

Augmented vs. Virtual Reality

What’s the difference between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)? Kate Nicholls, head of learning innovation at Sponge UK, describes VR “as taking you away from the world you’re in to transport you somewhere else” and AR as “augmenting the world you’re in and enhancing it with supplementary visual information.” Like Pokémon Go or Snapchat filters, two of the most well-known AR applications, augmented reality provides digital information on top of what the user is seeing.

In 2016, the VR industry saw $1.8 billion in revenue, which, Forbes reports, was below expectations but “isn’t terrible for an emerging technology.” Currently, more gamers than businesses are buying VR. On the other hand, according to Digi-Capital (an investment advisor for AR/VR, gaming, and mobile companies), “mobile AR could become the primary driver of a $108 billion VR/AR market by 2021 … with AR taking the lion’s share of $83 billion and VR $25 billion.” The Economist agrees, writing recently that “many people think that AR, when it comes, could have a much bigger impact than VR ever will.”

Why? For one thing, AR allows users to stay in the “real world” rather than shutting the world out. AR also integrates more effectively with other technologies than VR does. For now, anyway, VR arguably has more flash than substance and fewer potential applications at work than AR does.

AR and VR in Training

A March Harvard Business Review article reported that AR smart glasses used in manufacturing “can boost workers’ productivity on an array of tasks the first time they’re used, even without prior training.” By overlaying job aids like videos, graphics or text onto objects, AR glasses can, for instance, allow workers to view repair instructions while they are repairing an object. “AR technologies will be instrumental in closing the skill gap,” the writers say, and “will allow more workers to do high-skill jobs, and improve their performance.”

“For impact from VR,” Barry Pousman of VR firm Variable Labs said in a March interview with Singularity Hub, “the clear and away winner will be education.” VR has obvious applications in high-consequence training, where stakes and costs are high. For example, Nicholls says, “VR may be a better approach for hard-to-reach or expensive to replicate situations (for instance, oil rig hazards) whereas AR may be better suited to on-the-job augmentation (for instance, enhancing a routine process in a manufacturing setting).”

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,” says Todd Miller, vice president of technical services at Allen Communication, “and a video made up of thousands of images is worth millions of words, how much more valuable will AR and VR be in its ability to effectively transfer information and experiences to the learner?”

Miller says that he’s enthusiastic about these technologies, but he’s also a pragmatist: “The real promise of AR and VR for the training industry is its ability to provide new training environments and experiences that directly affect user engagement, skill and knowledge transfer and retention.” Shared virtual and augmented experiences are already being used in gaming and entertainment and, Miller says, “could transfer well to organizational and educational training experiences.”

Onboarding is one area where AR and VR could make an impact. “Imagine,” Pausman said, “on your first day of work you get handed a nice VR headset instead of a stack of books and papers.” Rory Cameron (CallidusCloud) told PSFK last year that VR can shorten onboarding time by 50 percent, because it uses real life instead of invented scenarios.

AR/VR Best Practices

Nicholls recommends testing a “low-risk prototype” with a group of learners. Fortunately, the cost of mobile VR “is actually roughly market comparable to e-learning,” so this testing can be a practical option. Before embarking on the project, though, she says to determine and plan for “computer processing power, bandwidth and devices” requirements.

To cut costs, Miller recommends designing “experiences where only one or a few participants need an AR/VR device, [and] others can share in the experience through an AV output to a TV or monitor, or they can be active participants giving instruction to the learner.”

In an October Harvard Business Review article (written post-Pokémon Go), researcher Ana Javornik wrote that there are three drivers of “mass adoption of AR apps.” While these drivers apply to apps like Pokémon Go or Snapchat, they could also apply to AR training:

  • Create “meaningful content” that will create real value.
  • Ensure “convincing and realistic interaction of the virtual with the physical environment.”
  • Don’t use AR for the sake of using AR; offer a “unique value that goes beyond what other technologies deliver.”

As always, plan strategically and connect the use of technology to business outcomes. “Have a healthy and robust understanding of your performance goals,” Nicholls says, “coupled with the courage to try appropriate and zeitgeist technologies.” In other words, innovate and stay up-to-date with new versions of “reality” – but do so only when it will benefit the business.