In 2009, critics and fans predicted disaster for James Cameron’s “Avatar,” convinced that there was no way that ticket sales could offset the more than $300 million it cost to make. Instead, it went on to become the highest grossing movie of all time bringing in more than $2 billion. The film’s success can, in large part, be attributed to the lush immersive world Cameron created on screen. The breathtaking detail he put into Pandora, the movie’s setting, drew audiences in, making viewers feel as though they were visiting an alien world.

In more recent years, immersive entertainment has taken a quantum leap forward with the advent of consumer-level virtual reality. This emerging medium uses headsets to simulate individualized, three-dimensional environments that put the audience at the center of the action. Users control their point of view across all axes and, in the best cases, interact with digital elements in the simulated environment.

Currently, VR is gaining the most traction in the world of games, but many companies have come to recognize its potential as a training tool. Progressive organizations have discovered that VR can effectively simulate live, hands-on training while mitigating the associated costs, logistical issues, and risks that go along with real-world instruction. Moreover, the experiential nature of this new tech enables learners to retain knowledge and acquire skills in a way that video and text cannot match.

So, maybe it’s time to take your training to the next level with a deeply immersive virtual experience. Whether you go the DIY route (not for the faint of heart) or work with an experienced developer (far fewer headaches), there are a few foundational questions that you will need to ask to ensure the success of this undertaking.

#1: Why Do You Want to Do This?

Worthwhile virtual experiences don’t come easy. They require substantial investments of time, human and material resources. Before you get into the weeds, you’re going to want to make sure you are doing this for the right reasons.

Think about what VR offers you that conventional training methods cannot provide. Are you looking for continuity across multiple locations? Has the cost of travel and accommodations made face-to-face training less feasible for you? Is there a physical element to what your learners need to do that video and documents can’t adequately cover? If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these, VR may be just right for you.

#2: What Do You Want Your Users To Learn?

VR truly shines when potential risks threaten to overshadow the benefits of live experiential training. Are you teaching people how to handle hazardous materials? A virtual environment can let them practice and develop their skills in complete safety. In the field of medicine, VR is allowing nurses to practice emergency procedures without risk to patients and giving doctors a non-invasive way to hone their surgical skills.

Also remember that a project of this scope brings a slew of details to your attention and, in the midst of these distractions, you can easily lose sight of what’s really important. Failure to clearly define your learning objectives will leave you with an expensive, but ineffective, training tool that entertains without enlightening. Be sure to take time to nail down what you want to achieve before you start.

#3: What Do You Want Your Learners to Do?

Neglecting this question will sentence you to the land of lost potential. Interactivity is the defining trait of virtual reality. A virtual environment with no interactive elements is like a Cadillac with no wheels: comfortable to sit in, but it won’t get you where you need to go.

What kinds of tasks will your learners need to perform in the real world and how can you translate them to your digital realm? Will they need to navigate around obstacles as they explore? Do you need them to pick up, examine, or otherwise manipulate objects? Are interactions with people and characters vital to meeting your training goals?

VR interactions break down into two basic categories: gaze-activated and controller-driven. Gaze-activated interactions rely on the motion of the user’s head, occurring when he or she looks at a specific object. Controller-driven interactions require additional hardware in the form of hand-held input devices. The choices you make here may limit what platform options are available to you.

#4: What Kind of Environment Do You Want to Create?

You are creating a small-scale world for your learners to inhabit. The look and feel of that world can have a profound impact on how they respond to stimuli, retain information, and process the experience. An animated realm sets a much different tone than one stitched together from live action video with real people.

Consider KFC’s The Hard Way, released in 2017. This quirky training simulation has prospective employees learn to prepare chicken the company way against an Art Deco backdrop, reminiscent of the popular Bioshock video game series. The animated design lends a touch of dark whimsy, while the mechanics add stakes and gravity to the task set before them. The visual elements and in-game Easter eggs come together to form a memorable experience that reflects KFC’s values and sense of humor.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have The Migraine Experience from Excedrin. Technically augmented reality as opposed to virtual reality, this simulation layers spots, flares, and auras onto what the user sees, recreating the world around them through the eyes of a migraine sufferer. Using real-world footage as the foundation of your VR training module can yield a similarly grounded, empathy-inducing experience.

#5: How Will You Deliver Your Training?

VR platforms are not created equal and are not necessarily cross-compatible, so you’re going to have some choices to make. This brings up a few more questions: How large is your audience? How many users will you have at a given time? How widely are they distributed?

These questions are particularly important from a hardware and budgetary standpoint. A larger audience spread over a wide region likely means a larger pool of headsets to meet demand. For higher price platforms, the numbers here can quickly run beyond your comfort zone.

Furthermore, different platforms support different types and levels of interactivity. Google Cardboard, currently the most basic and affordable headset available, limits you to gaze-based interactions. Higher end units, like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, on the other hand, let you pick up and manipulate digital objects.

#6: How Do You Want to Track Learning Outcomes?

For the sake of future projects, and to justify the resources you allocated to this one, you will want some method of evaluating the effectiveness of your VR venture. Give some thought to the metrics you will use to measure how well your learners are picking up and retaining the knowledge and skills they need through your training program.

Direct LMS integration is not currently practical, but this is subject to change as VR training becomes more widespread. However, these headsets, by virtue of how they function, gather data and input while in use. Talk with your developer about what useful metrics you may be able to track: i.e., time to complete tasks, precision of movement, etc. A little information gathering can go a long way to proving that your investment has been worthwhile.

#7: How Will You Handle Updates?

It never hurts to think about the long game. A training program that needs to be rebuilt every six months, or whenever industry standards and regulations change, is hardly a sound investment. In the name of future-proofing, you will want to put some thought into how frequently your content will likely need to be updated, as well as how you can apply these updates as simply as possible. A bit of forethought here can spare you the time and cost of future reboots.

VR is still a relatively new frontier, but pioneers of this technology have already found some powerful uses. Its uniquely immersive characteristics make it an ideal tool for training purposes. Approach VR with a curious mindset, ask the right questions along the way, and you will find it to be a valuable investment.

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