As an industry, VR formed a massive bubble in the last decade that is now popping, investors having poured tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars into barely viable business models whose speculative values soared initially, but have now crashed to earth. One need only recall Google Cardboard and other early but now defunct efforts at VR headsets, or more recently the overinflated promises of Magic Leap, to see that the arc of the virtual reality industry has mimicked the early frenzy of the dotcom boom. On the bright side, those brief and less than inspiring toys prepared us for what it to come–advancements in entertainment, education, and training. As a technology that will find an important, permanent place in society, the best days of virtual reality are unquestionably ahead of us.
On some level, virtual reality has been in existence since the beginning of mankind. Thousands of years ago the ancients built temples and performed rituals that transferred worshipers to an alternate reality. Dancing flames moved colors across stone walls, incense filled the air, and hypnotic voices rumbled throughout. The people gathered together praying to the gods and immersing themselves into their surroundings. These were the first virtual experiences created by humans, meant to deliver imaginations by influencing the senses. Modern day VR is just a new name for a timeless idea, it’s been around for ages and here to stay.
We have already seen the advantages of VR for training and entertainment. Decades before it was a household term, flight training used virtual simulators for pilots to practice flying and landing aircrafts. In the ‘80s, theme parks were debuting rides with huge TV screens, surround sound, moving seats, and fans blowing fragrant air. The benefits of virtual immersion have long been known. Yet, it is the introduction of gaming consoles, like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, that are ramping up the quality of virtual experiences. Slip on a light-weight headset and you can fly a plane from the comfort of your own home, battle zombies in the desert, meditate on the moon, or wander the streets of Venice.
Education also stands to gain from virtual reality because it has a key feature that traditional education models often lack, known as “flow.” Flow is a psychological state that increases attention, decreases distraction, and optimizes learning. It is what happens in a complete state of immersion. Much like the rituals causing cave people to lose themselves in sensory processing, VR stimulates sights, sounds, and motion that heighten awareness. Video games are a prime example to describe flow. Have you ever tried conversing with someone who is on a mission to save the world while his eyes are glued to a screen and he is vigorously pressing buttons on a remote? Chances are you didn’t get very far in the communication process, because his senses are fully engaged and several parts of his brain are firing simultaneously. His attention is fully absorbed. This is flow and it is the optimal way to motivate your memory.
Humans tend to recall only 20% of what we hear, 40% of what we see, but 90% of what we experience. Because VR is so immersive, people remember information more accurately as opposed to just hearing or seeing the same information. A study performed on doctors concluded that surgeons who rehearsed an operation using virtual reality had fewer mistakes and less complications during the actual procedure than the surgeons who only reviewed notes prior to their operations. Another study proved that student drivers who practiced in VR outperformed those who passively observed other drivers.
Although gaming and skills training are two distinct areas of VR they are interrelated, because gaming motivates practice. Game theory breaks up dynamic tasks into small action items while granting intermittent rewards. Take the game Mario Brothers for example. Rescuing the princess would be impossible if you had to do it in one shot, so the game is broken up into levels with fun and encouraging rewards, and as the game progresses the tasks get more difficult. The player fails hundreds of times before reaching the princess, but he still presses on because the game is satisfying. Just as Mario saves the princess one level at a time, learners gain skills one lesson at a time. Turning lessons into games increases flow and optimizes learning.
While gamers quickly figure out the benefits of playing in VR, training and education follow slowly but surely. Combining gaming techniques with VR’s color rich 360° imagery produces a risk-free training environment, where doctors may practice medical procedures and students can imitate driving from the safety of a classroom. Imagine a workplace that teaches skills using VR. Employees would receive hands-on practice without wasting others’ precious time. And employers like that idea, not only will they save on labor costs, but consistent VR training inhibits trainees from picking up the bad habits of those around them.
We see the influence VR has in the gaming industry, but why aren’t we witnessing the same revolution in training and education? Content and convenience are two major factors stalling VR’s progress in the marketplace. Two years ago, VR consoles offered limited options because developers were just getting their feet wet. Now, with lightning fast progression of high-definition video and the increasing access to high-speed internet, developers are cranking out quality content and defying the limitations that once held VR back from mainstream entertainment.
Although VR has improved immensely over the last two years, it is still mainly appealing to gamers. The inconvenience of wearing a bulky headset is another reason training and education have not yet adopted VR. Many people dislike the idea of a machine on their faces, and some complain of motion sickness. However, as investors drop money into hardware improvements, it won’t be too many years before light-weight, wireless VR glasses hit the shelves. Continuous content creation and alternatives to bulky headsets are opening doors for new ways of training and education.
Ancient people used sensory immersion to feel close to their gods, pilots have been using flight simulators since the ‘50s, and gamers are gobbling up headsets. Recent VR endeavors were disappointing, but all is not lost. It has been around forever and will continue to remain relevant, even if technology and the marketplace take a while to catch up.