Is coronavirus bringing immersive learning to the forefront?
Student exchanges in the US, a semester abroad in China – immersion, which can be described as switching to a completely different (language) environment, continues to be the most successful (language) learning method in the world, as well as the one with the most thorough research behind it. It’s no surprise then that virtual reality (VR), which is often mentioned in the same breath as augmented reality (AR), works much the same way.
Needless to say, both immersion and virtual reality have become very relevant topics ever since the coronavirus crisis started. Just think of the number of people setting up Zoom or Skype meetings to stay connected and reduce the isolation that comes with social distancing as much as possible. Now think of the limits of these meetings when it comes to really making eye contact, branching off into one-on-one conversations, and even moving to a different room. That’s where VR can help.
Jennifer Fritz has worked as a learning concept designer, storyteller, and consultant for companies such as Virtual Identity AG and imc AG. Her passion is digital learning and teaching, and as a former member of the First German Business Association for Immersive Media (EDFVR), she knows that the future in this area belongs to virtual and augmented reality. In fact, she has seen a trend towards social virtual learning since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.
A key observation by the concept designer, storyteller, and consultant: “Now we’re suddenly doing things that would have been completely unimaginable just a few weeks ago.”
Hi Jenny! How would you describe the role of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in your day-to-day routine?
Jenny: Well, as you probably know already, both are incredibly exciting new technologies. What’s worth pointing out is the fact that they’re finally seeing some proper development nowadays, and so there’s a lot of room still left for experimenting. When it comes to my personal life, I really like using entertainment applications such as Wonderscope, for experiencing stories in AR, and Beat Saber, which is a rhythm game.
In addition, I also work with these technologies whenever it makes sense to do so in my projects. In fact, I can’t overstate just how strongly I believe that AR and VR are both opening entirely new possibilities in terms of learning and storytelling.
Now, there are still many clients who are not too keen on the costs or the technology at this point, but I think it’s important to point out that VR in particular can really help us deal with the isolation resulting from social distancing during the coronavirus crisis and give us that sensation of “being there” that you don’t really get when working from home. And it goes without saying that an obvious application is daily VR meetings, but it can also extend far beyond that and include things such as professional development training and even onboarding. Moreover, the importance of this becomes more obvious when we consider that people have now been working from home for weeks and that new employees keep being added, which means that companies that have already implemented VR onboarding training have a clear advantage.
This reference to onboarding is really interesting because, as you’ve pointed out, it’s a new and exciting area of application. Now, it’s probably reasonable to assume that most people think that VR is particularly well-suited to training for high-risk scenarios – what other kind of applications and scenarios are there?
Jenny: Well, like you’ve said, VR is ideal for simulating dangerous situations and processes with valuable raw materials. But it’s important to keep in mind that VR training also makes sense when not enough training stations are available.
And once again, I can point out a good example related to the current coronavirus pandemic, this time derived from the fact that it’s a high-risk situation for medical staff. More specifically, a new VR training system has recently been used to train 17,000 doctors and nurses for the COVID-19 pandemic, which is something that would have been completely impossible to do with traditional training given the number of people. Most hospitals are overburdened and don’t really have capacity for urgently needed training, so a virtual space made it possible for the training participants to get their bearings in regard to the new coronavirus reality without having to put their own health, or that of their patients’, at risk. And on top of that, using virtual reality meant that valuable PPE was conserved. So if you think about it, this is a perfect example of every single factor in a single scenario: Compensating for insufficient training stations, conserving crucial raw materials, and providing safe training for a hazardous situation.
It’s also important to note that we’re seeing new scenarios that seem to be viable to various degrees arise on almost a daily basis right now. Needless to say, high-risk scenarios and limited capacity have been firmly established as cases where virtual reality training makes sense, but we’ll see others be confirmed as well with time. As I mentioned earlier on, social distancing makes it very likely that we’ll see – at least temporarily – areas in which VR training will replace what would normally have been in-person training, such as communication skills and sales.
You mentioned concerns about cost earlier on. Aren’t AR and VR learning methods incredibly expensive in terms of hardware and content creation? How can someone decide whether it’s really worth it?
Jenny: With the Oculus Quest’s launch a few months ago, we now have a headset on the market that offers full mobility in a virtual environment and that doesn’t need a PC or external tracking elements – all at a price of 400 euros. This saves additional costs that would normally be associated with equipment, and the head-mounted display (editor’s note: AR glasses) is easy to use. In other words, we have an affordable option for the HMD at least.
Now, in regard to content creation, it really comes down to what the company in question wants, and we’re talking from real 360° photos to highly complex 3D animations – I honestly think there’s an option for every budget out there by this point. Basically put, the market has stabilized. Of course, however, it’s important to consider that virtual reality training is really only worth it beyond a certain number of users, which is why it’s absolutely necessary for companies to sit down with the relevant service provider before beginning a project and analyse the target group, the specific needs, and the general conditions involved. This would then yield a recommendation on which format and which technology to use.
What are some important considerations when designing VR and AR experiences? Do you have any specific tips?
Jenny: Well, it goes without saying that it’s important to draw several firm distinctions here. AR is used on a multitude of devices ranging from smartphones and tablets to smartglasses, so the size of the device really matters. One thing that people should always do, however, is to make sure that their applications aren’t too difficult to use regardless of whether they’re using gestures or touch. Controls need to be clear and easy to use, and there’s hardly anything as frustrating as not knowing how to make progress when taking a training course. Another thing worth considering is that voice control and a generous use of audio and audio effects can be very good ideas for both technologies. In fact, even music can be ideal depending on how cinematic the end product should be.
Having said all that, there is one nugget of wisdom from “normal” e-learning that remains intact for these two new technologies too: Interactivity maximizes learning. In other words, it’s important to give the person taking the course regular opportunities to explore and try things out and interact with the course contents and the learning environment.
What should we keep in mind when introducing AR/VR – in terms of the target group, for example? Would it be true that the younger and more familiarized with digital tools, the better?
Jenny: I know as many “young people” without an affinity for digital tools as “old people” with that affinity. I think it’s less a question of age than of wanting to do it. However, incorporating a phase for getting used to things and a tutorial at the beginning of a training program is never a bad idea.
On top of this, it’s important to remember that HMDs weigh a certain amount and that the duration of the course should usually be shorter than normal due to this.
And finally, it’s absolutely crucial to make sure it’s not just a one-time gimmick to be all cool and cutting edge. If someone really wants to use XR learning, it’s important to make a long-term commitment and consult with a professional to identify the learning scenarios that make sense, the devices that should be used, and the way that implementation and maintenance should work.
In addition to a phase for getting used to things and tutorials, are there any other tips you can offer for improving the willingness of students and trainees to use AR/VR learning applications?
Jenny: I think that’s happening by itself right now, to tell you the truth. The exigencies arising from the coronavirus pandemic have essentially made people much more willing to try out new things. In fact, Google Classrooms with VR are enjoying a surge of popularity right now, and we’re seeing less obvious solutions as well, such as people moving their travel plans to their VR headsets due to the lack of other options. And many others are now going to the museum or theatre with (web) VR applications. Now we’re suddenly doing things that would have been completely unimaginable just a few weeks ago.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that what has worked particularly well for me is introducing the new technology in a very relaxed and casual way. Simply bring the VR headset and let the person put it on and try out a couple of simple applications and they just usually realize right away that the technology can be fun and is nothing to be afraid of. And, of course, having an advocate team within the company that knows its stuff and can answer questions can be really helpful when introducing things.
What are some current trends in the field of immersive learning and where are things headed?
Jenny: I think the most solid trend is probably that the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a new push towards joint virtual learning. And both social learning and virtual reality were already on every single trend list before the pandemic started, but now we’re seeing a move towards social virtual learning. I think we’re definitely going to see a bunch of new products hit the market in the next few months.
I also think that we’re going to see a greater integration of WebVR snippets into “normal” training courses, as that’s a great way to test the waters with this new trend.
Thank you very much for the exciting interview, Jenny!
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