Remember when virtual reality was considered a ridiculous pipe dream relegated to ’80s sci-fi stories? Well, leading into the 2016 holiday season, it seemed like that “Tron”-like dream had come true. You could just mention the letters “VR” and investors’ ears would perk up.
But now it seems like the market’s expectations were aimed too high. While the full numbers aren’t in yet, VR sales during the 2016 holiday season seem to have come in below expectations.
That’s not surprising for a technology that — let’s be honest — is still in its early days. While early adopters can always be counted on to buy at this stage, the market as a whole needs more: prices coming down to inviting levels, graphics magic surging ahead, and the “gotta have it” factor growing.
But even when VR gaming becomes more established, it may not be enough of a viable market to sustain a VR industry. Fortunately, there is already another trajectory that shows amazing promise: job training and education.
Redefining ‘Hands On’
Simulation of some kind, however crude, has been a mainstay of job training since the early days of employee handbook cartoons, mandatory training films, and awkward role-playing.
But as digital technology invades the working world, simulations are becoming more sophisticated to match it. Airplane flight simulators (later ported very successfully to video games) were an early obvious case because a modern jet cockpit consists of an array of controls before a seated user — well-suited to a simulated environment.
But VR headsets have unshackled the trainee from a control panel, unleashing a new kind of training — one that’s applicable to a wide range of purposes, from practice with specialized instrument use to even social skills. What’s more, trainee motivation can be powered by another 21st century concept: gamification, in which rewards, levels, and a sense of play drive achievement in the VR system — and thus competence in the trainee.
In fact, pundits are already calling 2017 a breakthrough year for VR used in this way. From corporate environments, medical centers, factories, and labs, VR is already driving big changes in how we approach skill-building.
VR Training Is Already Here
Let’s be clear on the value add here. If you’re picturing Clippy the Microsoft paperclip in virtual 3D, think again. VR training’s not a goofy gimmick. It can mean huge cost reductions, great PR, and bigger profits because well-trained workers are safer, more productive, and happier across the board.
Take the oil industry. In 2014, oil rig workers began training with a VR system. Imagine the value difference for workers compared to the previous method: a PowerPoint presentation! But in such a dangerous environment, the real value came from worker safety and task competence. If VR can send workers to their first day on a rig with increased understanding of the risks and the right ways to minimize them, it’s a win for everyone.
And oil isn’t the only industry getting in on the action. Australia-based Sentient Computing is on the forefront of the VR training revolution with an immersive system for training in the safe operation of high-voltage equipment. Welding, another precision job with obvious safety concerns, is benefiting, as well. The VRTEX system from Lincoln Electric overcomes the limitations of floating hands by combining VR with interactive hardware to create a more realistic sensation.
What’s Next for VR?
Most industries can use today’s VR for training — it’s already here and ready to be adapted to a variety of purposes. Of course, whether it’s practical for a small startup will depend on costs and training needs.
But how can the technology evolve, and where does it need to evolve for the business and vocational domain?
One area where it’s still not bringing its A-game is feedback that mimics a real-world sense of touch. For VR training to work on cost-effective hardware platforms, solutions for the lack of tactile response are needed, like gloves that simulate the weight of a hefted object and the firmness of its surface.
Ergonomics will evolve to be more compelling. Imagine this technology in a much smaller device, akin to VR glasses with LCD displays that go from transparent to opaque when content is available. Sessions would feel light and elegant, using sleek new devices that excite and empower trainees.
We’ve come a long way from the days of “The Town and the Telephone,” a 1950s Bell Telephone training film. A new workforce is coming — one weaned on highly interactive, fast-paced, first-person-perspective video games. VR training is a natural fit for workers in all domains.
We’ve known for a few years now that VR is poised to massively enhance gaming. But the big surprise, the real tidal wave, may be in the vocational domain. If training programs can hop on that early momentum now, expect to see big winners in this space in the coming years.
Q Manning is CEO of Rocksauce Studios, which crafts custom mobile apps for all platforms. Rocksauce Studios’ goal is to create an amazing user experience that can succeed in the marketplace when coupled with powerful, eye-catching app marketing.