A man in a virtual reality helmet breaking through a wall opening
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Last year, Walmart introduced virtual reality (VR) to the world of employee training and development by using the technology to upgrade training at Walmart Academies across the US. It wasn’t clear at the time if the initiative would work, but it was a bold experiment using a technology that is still only emerging. It seems, though, that the program has been a success because only two weeks ago, Walmart announced that it was extending it, and providing Oculus VR headsets to all its stores in the US to bring the same level of training to more than one million Walmart associates.

VR in The Real World

VR is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way — and so immersive that if a person puts on a VR headset they could become so engaged they could walk into a wall. Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes holographic images over a person’s view of the real world so that the experience enhances reality in new and unusual ways. Because this experience is an enhancement or layer on a real-world view, the user can easily go mobile while in the AR experience.

“The power of VR is real, and when offered as a cornerstone of learning and development, it can truly transform the way an organization trains its people,” said Derek Belch. Belch is CEO of STRIVR, the company that builds the headsets. Walmart, though, is not the only retailer that has turned to VR. Some of the other major outlets that are now using it include Target, Walmart, Amazon, eBay, Macy’s, Ikea and Airbnb.

While the concept and early technology has been around for more than a decade, the tech industry is only arriving at a point now where it has become a viable option in the digital workplace for training or communication-driven business.

However, its use is extremely limited. VR today is largely used for visualization in various forms, including data and analytics, furniture placement, cosmetics, toys, building models, and training materials, according to Jacob Lowenstein, who leads AR-related business development and product strategy for Mountain View, Calif.-based Samsung NEXT. These use cases are valuable, but they barely scratch the surface of the technology's potential. "Currently there is no support for persistence or shared experiences, as objects are stored locally on the user's device limiting people to collaborate as they won't necessarily experience the same thing or have a common point of reference,” he said.

Related Article: 8 Augmented Reality Companies Changing the Digital Workplace

VR is Only Gaining Ground

Heide Abelli, SVP of content management for Nashua, NH-based, Skillsoft pointed out, though that this is only the beginning of a story that could disrupt many industries. She said VR has already generated tremendous buzz in the learning community over the last two years for a good reason.

As a learner, the prospect of immersing oneself in a three-dimensional virtual world to better understand a specific concept, idea, process or methodology holds a great fascination. Even though many organizations are leveraging VR content for training purposes, most organizations have not done much, if anything at all, in developing training content using VR technology.

Skillsoft has been researching how to apply VR technology to its content and this year will work on prototypes of a few courses using both VR and AR. However, she said they are proceeding carefully for three reasons that apply to any company considering its use. To generate a convincing simulated world, VR technology relies on three components:

  • A head-mounted display (HMD)
  • A smartphone, personal computer, or game console to run video content to the HMD
  • A mechanism for user input to create dynamism within the virtual world

Purchasing this technology represents a meaningful capital investment across the learner population for any organization. Keep in mind too, for the software or content to be widely adopted the installed base of hardware must be in place. Most organizations simply have not yet committed to making the capital investment to establish an installed base among their learner population.

Even where there is an installed base of the hardware, we are still at an early stage in VR software development. "To create a truly impactful learning experience VR content needs to be of high enough quality,” she said.

The best results tend to be obtained when VR content is developed specifically for a VR platform. That is happening most successfully in the entertainment realm, specifically in the video game sector. That said, while some quality VR training content has been developed for industry sectors such as retail, real estate, the military and healthcare, it still tends to be focused on highly specific use cases.

Related Article: Why Augmented and Virtual Reality Struggle in the Enterprise

VR in The Digital Workplace

So how will this apply to digital workplaces of the future? David Alexander, a web designer at Pixelloop, a digital marketing company based in the UK, said that both AR and VR will be used as an immersive way to engage in remote collaboration with teams and aid in the creation, planning and demonstration of digital and real-world projects.

This new way of using technology is not limited to just designers and creatives. It will allow all kinds of digital and remote workers to collaborate and come together in a virtual world to share experiences, work on and look at products together while in different parts of the world. While AR may still be in its infancy, VR has been making large strides toward the second generation of hardware that will soon bring even more possibilities. “At the moment it's not ideal to work in VR for long periods of time and perform tasks like coding and using a keyboard, but these ideas are on the horizon and surely will come to fruition as the screen-door effect is further minimized and the definition and depth of field improve,” he said.

VR Practical Applications

One practical area for VR to be applied is in digital workplace communications. Beverly Vessella, product manager at Seattle, Wash.-based Pixvana, a company that builds XR environments (X Reality is defined as a mixed reality environment that comes from the fusion of ubiquitous sensor/actuator networks and shared online virtual world). She said that even the best existing telepresence technology puts the rest of your team behind a 2D window. VR can be used to better illustrate ideas by literally transporting team members to the same environment. Using VR in the future, enterprises can create and articulate ideas in full room-scale size.

“I can see this being used for architecture cases or event planning. VR-based training is, of course, another huge use case that lowers the cost of getting teams deeply familiar with the skills they'll need in prime-time situations?” she said. “It could also be used for any consumer-facing product team, allowing them to capture customer feedback in an immersive environment where product teams can see, feel and observe their users’ workflow. It builds empathy.”

Training, though, is one of the main use areas for now. Brennan Hatton is the founder and CTO of Australia-based Equal Reality, which provides diversity and inclusion training in VR. He said his company uses VR for diversity and inclusion training, it allows them to put people in the perspective of minorities to experience discrimination.

It clearly works, the company has been building and rolling out training for large organizations all over the world, including the Royal Australia Navy, working directly with the Chief of the Navy for training on sexual harassment, gender bias and culture bias. Other training has included disability, cultural, exclusion, positions of power, hiring, LGBTQI+ and more for international banks, governments, cooperate, law firms, city councils, military and real estate.

VR isn’t quite mainstream yet, but that is changing. The world’s largest electronics companies are pushing VR as a must-have capability on iPhones, desktop computers or PlayStation 4s. When everyone has an affordable and powerful VR headset, brands will follow the consumers, but it will take another five years according to prognosticators.