A recent survey put soft skills at the top of the list of enterprise training priorities, with “making time for learning” cited as the biggest training obstacle.

People skills, such as leadership, communication, collaborative problem-solving and interpersonal awareness, are critical to fostering teamwork and the kind of high-engagement, safe, respectful and inclusive workplace known to attract and retain top talent. Soft skills help eliminate the liabilities of a toxic work culture and empower organizations to lead the way in productivity and innovation. Such skills are core competencies expected of managers and leaders, but equally important for anyone working with others.

While traditional e-learning can effectively impart facts and concepts, the experiential and performance-based practice employed to change interpersonal behavior are typically obtained in person under the guidance of a skilled facilitator. However, such training is often cost prohibitive, especially when teams are geographically distributed. Meanwhile the opportunity costs of stopping work to attend a scheduled, human-mediated training, even if delivered online, can exceed the cost of the training itself. Finding time for follow-up guided practice to reinforce new behaviors is rare. Today’s soft skills training simply does not scale. Virtual reality with artificial intelligence can help.

VR and AI as Learning Technologies

Virtual reality involves special hardware and software to create an experience featuring the unique illusion of “presence,” i.e., of being in another setting. In VR, a user is enveloped in a simulated world that feels real, generally portrayed in 3D. Scenes in VR track the participants’ movements, so what you see naturally shifts as you look around. Primitive VR experiences can be obtained on a smartphone using special glasses that hold the phone and allow each eye to see a slightly different image while the phone’s sensors track the scene to users’ movement. In the best VR, the illusion is preserved when changing points of view and the environment is highly interactive.

Enhanced experiences are realized using dedicated standalone VR headsets. The most powerful capabilities and realistic experiences require headsets connected to a laptop or desktop computer and cloud computing. VR headsets and controllers support three or six degrees of freedom, allowing users not only to turn their heads or hands, but also to move along axes in the virtual world. Along with spatialized surround audio and controllers featuring haptic feedback, the overall effect is one of a compelling sense of immersion in an alternate reality. Research demonstrates that VR simulations can be designed to provide powerful learning experiences that yield changes in cognition and performance applicable in the real world.

Artificial intelligence can be applied to control and adapt VR by providing more compelling, personalized experiences, as well as powering feedback and analytics that offer deep insights into learning and behavior. Instead of other participants appearing as avatars, AI-driven agents can appear as characters in a simulation. Learners can also interact one-on-one with video-based recordings of actors, where the animation or branching is driven by AI.

Modern AI relies heavily on machine learning technologies, which give computers sophisticated abilities learned from real-world data, rather than programmed using explicit rules. Machine learning enables software to better respond to real-world inputs, allowing capabilities like computer vision, speech and natural language to increasingly mimic human abilities. These can be used to simulate aspects of a conversation to practice and evaluate communication skills. Machine learning can be trained to recognize social cues: detecting contextually inappropriate laughter or gaze and providing feedback.

Features and Benefits of VR-immersive and AI-adaptive Soft Skills Training

Developing an enterprise’s people skills using AI-enhanced VR experiences is feasible today and creates a real alternative to traditional approaches of soft skills training, with significant advantages. While there are some limits to what can be simulated in VR and a fully conversational “artificial general intelligence” remains the stuff of science fiction, organizations are beginning to leverage VR with AI for soft skills development. Here’s why:

Effective Practice Environment

  • Beyond training with keyboard or mouse, VR- and AI-supported input methods like speech, gaze and 3D gesture recognition enable practice of enacted interpersonal behaviors, without the need to meet in person.
  • Realistic simulated worlds get learners out of their comfort zones, yet keep them supported in their learning. Virtual practice can feel safer and less stressful than performing in front of peers. Therefore, participants are able to focus on learning.
  • Fully immersive simulations and experiential exercises extend opportunities for distraction-free individual practice, resulting in greater retention.

Assessment and Analytics

  • AI-powered speech, gaze and gesture analytics enable performance-based, authentic assessment of interpersonal interaction by giving learners and trainers instant, objective feedback. AI can help measure, for example, sentiment or aspects of intercultural style.
  • AI-based analytics can also be used to select, adapt or steer a module or course of training to address unique learning gaps, preferences and needs.
  • Automated measurement of spoken language with behaviors also enables stakeholders to validate the effectiveness of soft skill training.

Cost, Convenience and Experience Quality

  • VR reduces the overall need for expenses such as training facilities, time and travel. Standalone headsets, connected to the cloud, avoid even the need to be tethered to a workstation during training.
  • VR-delivered training, as with other kinds of e-learning, can be self-paced to match the learner’s progress and schedule.
  • VR offers consistently high-quality training at reduced costs, yet is more immersive, attractive and engaging.

Addressing Common Concerns

Isn’t VR hardware costly? Prices are coming down. To get started, headsets can be shared among learners and easily readied for the next user by wiping clean with a disinfectant pad. For distributed training or team building, the purchase and shipping of the necessary hardware to remote sites is likely cheaper than flying everyone to a training facility. Rentals are also widely available.

What about privacy? Like other technologies, VR and AI can be used to collect personal data. Some data useful in advanced VR applications may be new to your organization. When acquiring hardware and software, pay attention to privacy policies: how data will be secured and who gets access. Understand the business models of providers. Be transparent, collect only necessary data and get explicit consent. With appropriate policies and practices in place, VR is no more invasive than other learning technologies.

Do people experience nausea, dizziness, eyestrain, or other symptoms? Properly designed VR and modern hardware reduce the unpleasant effects experienced by a small percentage of users. Sometimes a simple adjustment on the headset will alleviate any issues. Ensure hardware you purchase sustains a sufficiently high refresh and frame rate. Avoid experiences over 20 minutes duration and encourage users to take frequent breaks. Scenarios in soft skills simulations generally don’t employ the head-spinning dynamics of an action game. Still, some may experience discomfort. Having alternative learning experiences at the ready is crucial: i.e., projecting scenarios to a conventional screen. So long as you take reasonable precautions, high-quality VR should present few comfort issues for most users.

What about accessibility? VR can play a key role in delivering accessible training. However, it may also impose barriers depending on its design, usage and the abilities of differing populations. With respect to human interface, VR can support or require controllers of various kinds, which may be limiting or enabling for some users. Depending on design, experiences could be directed using head tracking or speech alone. VR experiences can display captions or rely on hearing. VR is not immune to the need for thoughtfulness around accessibility and is no less accessible than other training approaches. Done right, VR makes uniquely valuable and otherwise inaccessible experiences available to a broad range of learners.

Will VR and AI be used to manipulate people? As with other technologies, there is always potential for abuse. VR with AI can be used to fool the brain more than a film, or influence opinion more than social media. That said, there may be no more potent a combination of technologies available to help instill the skills and values of a respectful and positive work culture. Therefore, there is no inherent reason to avoid using VR as long as it is used with care. In some workplaces it might be argued that reducing the risk of exposure of personnel to manipulation or abuse from other humans is the greater concern—precisely where VR with AI can help.

Moving Forward

Getting started is not difficult. Play with the technologies to get acquainted with them. Read books and articles. Find an experienced vendor to partner with. Start small, try things, learn and improve.

Even the most advanced technologies are not replacing the skilled facilitator in any foreseeable future. Mature technologies and delivery methods tend to stick around. We need not suppose the instructor-led workshop is going away. However, new technologies are now available with a promise to facilitate highly immersive learning that enables organizations to effectively develop critically needed soft skills —skills that are in greater demand in an increasingly automated world.

While many enterprises are working to fully embrace mobile and desktop e-learning, VR with AI may still seem like a distant future. There is perhaps a lesson to be learned from the millions of citizen technology pioneers who, living in regions lacking adequate conventional telecom infrastructure, leapt ahead with the advent of mobile. While it may at first seem counterintuitive, the best way to address the limitations of today’s technology may be to move forward to what’s next.