Over the past two years, a new and powerful field of human performance training using immersive technologies has emerged. Professional athletes and corporate employees are now using virtual reality (VR) to improve their skills. In fact, it is estimated that individuals have carried out tens of thousands of hours of VR training trying to better prepare themselves to do a job. The success to date of VR is due to experiential learning: giving users the ability to replicate real-life situations over and over again. The results are improved reaction time, pattern recognition and decision-making.

A recent research study examined the ability of 711 individuals learning to “read” a football play to determine whether a quarterback should keep the ball and run or pitch the ball to a running back (a very common decision point in real games). Overall, accuracy scores indicate that most users could successfully acquire the football concept in a relatively short amount of time. However, those who learned in VR were significantly faster at reading the play and making a decision: 3.01 seconds for VR compared to 3.77 seconds for regular video film. That is a 20-percent decrease in reaction time. In the world of sports and work, this difference can certainly be the difference between success and failure.

In addition to faster reaction time, more individuals learning with VR successfully learned to read the defense; VR users were correct 82 percent of the time, while those trained with regular video were correct only 76 percent of the time. Furthermore, given that individuals in both training groups answered the questions correctly, those trained with VR were 12 percent faster in doing so (2.37 seconds for those training in VR versus 2.69 for those trained with 2D video). These results are very much in line with what has been reported by professional athletes: Some quarterbacks go so far as to claim that VR directly helped their performance. (See “Virtual Reality has a growing impact on college football” and “A new reality: Texas Tech uses virtual reality system to enhance film study.”)

When it comes to faster reaction times and making the right choices, we can extrapolate these results to other industries. Some of the top use cases for VR are safety training in manufacturing settings and on construction sites, customer service training in hospitality settings, mistake and hazard spotting, and health care training. These industries are set up well for the benefits of VR training: replicating a situation in a safe environment, learning to identify the right and wrong way to do something, and practicing a difficult situation any time and any place.

Although the initial advantages for VR training observed across hundreds of users are very encouraging, the training advantage for VR will continue to be measured in two primary ways, with greater assessment capabilities that incorporate more natural methods as well as more focused efforts to collect real-world measures to understand how VR training impacts individuals in their everyday performance. Nonetheless, these initial results are quite encouraging. This is the first step on a journey of showing how VR does indeed provide better training.