Go to any of the big L&D conferences or trade shows and you’ll hear buzz and conversation about virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360 video. Explore the pages of Inc., Forbes, Tech Crunch, or Mashable and you’ll find articles. Search Twitter using the hashtags #AR, #VR, #360video and you’ll find links to innumerable posts.

For almost a decade now, we’ve been hearing that these “emerging” technologies will become viable solutions to add to the L&D practitioner’s toolbox. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to emerging technologies of any kind so I follow these discussions and explore where I can. After watching and waiting for numerous years, I felt like this year is the year where all three technologies reached a tipping point, of sorts.

So, last month, our Director of Technology, Brandon Penticuff, along with a great team of people, hosted an “emerging technologies” day so everyone at BLP could experience the new tech in the span of a two-hour hands-on lab. Afterward, we talked about what we saw as promise, and what we saw as “hype.”

This post summarizes what we explored, how we felt about it, what we learned, and what we plan to do next.

The technology defined

Want to replicate our learning lab? Here’s how we defined each technology and the tools we used to explore it:

  • Virtual Reality – This is the “hottest” of the three technologies in terms of the buzz it generates and its sizzle factor. It is computer technology that uses headsets, sometimes in combination with physical spaces or multi-projected environments to generate a completely artificial environment into which a user can become completely immersed. It often uses other inputs such as wands to allow for interaction through simulated touch or tool use. For our demo’s, we used HTC’s Vive and PlayStation VR.
  • Augmented Reality – This emerging technology seems to have the greatest challenge getting people to understand how it can add value or even what it actually is. It is the integration of digital information with a user’s real environment. Unlike VR, which creates a completely artificial environment, AR uses the existing environment and overlays digital information on top of it. For our demos, we relied on the iPhone and a Nintendo 3DS, along with some AR cards designed for use with the Nintendo.
  • 360 Video – This type of video is frequently labeled “virtual reality,” but we see it as a distinct category. These videos are also often called “immersive” videos because the intent is to immerse you in whatever environment they display. They are videos where a view in every direction (360 degrees) is recorded at the same time, typically by using a omnidirectional camera. The viewer has control of the viewing direction. We used an Insta360 Nano camera (purchased for $199) to record video and Wonda VR (subscription-based software as a service with a free trial) to create an immersive, interactive prototype for our team to test.

What we explored

We took commercial games available for Vive and Playstation VR, videos we could get via Oculus store and via Nintendo, and an interactive 360 video we created ourselves and allowed people to play. Via virtual reality headsets, people cooked recipes, battled spaceships, demonstrated archery skills, competed in a luge competition, and played a fancy form of Pong. They escaped from a crumbling skyscraper under attack by unknown enemies. They solved puzzles that emerged when placing a Nintendo DS over a simple “AR” card. In the interactive 360 video we created, they figured out where the safety hazards were in our office.

Our reactions to it

VR made several of us nauseous – not just one or two of us, but a few of us. For me, at least, the feeling of motion sickness lasted a few hours afterward. We aren’t unique. A quick scan of the landscape reveals that motion sickness with VR is a common problem (25% – 40% experience it). Women experience it more than men. People over 50 and 12 and under have more trouble with it than those in between those ages.

Despite the motion sickness, almost everyone was at least initially engaged by what they saw and experienced. There was lots of laughter and variations of the phrase, “Oh cool!” echoing around the area as people experienced the various games and apps.

The headsets required for VR and the 360 video were cumbersome and not super comfortable to wear. Google Cardboard viewer isn’t a comfortable device to use because of having to hold it up to your head. But a cheap $25 headset like this works just fine for viewing videos.

What we learned and what we’ll recommend to customers

Virtual Reality

There are very specific situations where full-blown virtual reality will definitely make an amazing difference in a learning experience. Those situations will be very specific and the minority of corporate situations rather than the majority of them. The best use case is going to be cases where learners need to build skill prior to being able to perform on a job. And this skill is difficult or impossible to simulate without creating an entire artificial training environment of some sort. (Think about surgeries, firefighting, operating large, complex expensive equipment.)

Even in situations where the use case is strong, these hurdles must be addressed:

  • Hardware requirements – Right now, users have to be tethered to a computer, which puts some constraint on where you conduct training.
  • Motion sickness factor – The high incidence of motion sickness means that the duration of most VR experiences must be limited (10-15 minutes seemed to be tolerable for our team. A few of our experienced VR users did say that motion sickness becomes less pronounced if you gradually increase your exposure over time, but most training situations won’t allow this.)
  • Development and maintenance expenses – Right now, VR is expensive to produce. It requires 3D art, skilled programmers, and specific tools that aren’t in the “rapid authoring tools” category.
Augmented Reality

Our team was decidedly mixed on this. Brandon points out that its best uses are going to be as a reference tool or guide. Consider the backup cameras in newer cars. These contain digital overlays to make it easy to guide your car as you back up. This use of augmented reality is simple but very effective. We all agreed it could have some great specific applications. But these would be more reference or resource applications than training applications. For example, agricultural sales reps might benefit from being able to position a phone over a field and “see” a crop emerge from the ground and virtually “grow” in front of them, showing them what a plant looks like in its natural environment at various stages of its development.

At its simplest level, being able to position your phone over an icon on a piece of equipment and have a troubleshooting checklist become visible could be helpful.

360 Interactive Video

This technology excited us the most. Wonda VR let us create interactions that a viewer can control with eye movements. This allows learners to practice making decisions in an environment that mirrors the one in which we want them to demonstrate skills or recall knowledge. The price is right, the solutions are easy to develop, and videos can be watched as 3D experiences… or not, depending on equipment and need.