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Virtual reality training – Benefits of immersive learning

virtual reality training

Virtual reality training can help both businesses and people. Immersive learning trains people to learn specific skills, without endangering them in real-life settings. Virtual reality is not the only tool being used; augmented reality has the same benefits as well.

From healthcare to airplanes, immersive technology has been used to train people across multiple industries. In the future, more investment will lead to more companies adopting both VR and AR. This is an overview of virtual reality learning, covering everything you need to know about the topic.

Many interested searchers tend to use virtual reality and augmented reality interchangeably when it comes to researching training. Both kinds of training will be explored.

Table of Contents

  1. Definitions
  2. What is virtual reality training?
  3. How does virtual reality make training better?
  4. Which headsets are normally used for training?
  5. What is immersive training best for?
  6. And what are the flaws?
  7. Learning empathy in virtual reality
  8. Example of augmented reality employee training – Virgin Atlantic
  9. Example of virtual reality training – Medical Realities
  10. Could the military use virtual reality to train?
  11. Conclusion – Looking to the future


  • Virtual reality: Placing users in a virtual world. In this case, it would be a surgeon directly interacting with the body.
  • Augmented reality: An overlay of the real world with objects and useful information. For example, labels appearing on relevant objects around a scene.
  • 360 video: A simpler version of immersive reality where people can watch videos. Usually works on mobile phones and great for viewing movies.

What is virtual reality training?

Virtual reality training is the umbrella term for immersive technologies helping employees learn skills. VR headsets, such as the HTC VIVE or the Oculus Rift, are used to help people get to grips with new skills, before applying them to a real-life scenario.

Sometimes, virtual reality is used interchangeably with augmented reality. While virtual reality deals with virtual worlds, augmented reality is an overlay. Both technologies help with training, though in different ways.

Virtual reality training in healthcare is one example. A doctor can learn how to conduct surgery, without harming a patent. Examples of this in action will be shown later in this article.

How does virtual reality make training better?

Numerous scientific studies have shown that virtual reality training helps users learn new skills. One study in 2018 shows that immersive training is an inexpensive and effective way to teach fire prevention among professionals.

Another study in 2018, from the University of Illinois, covers how it can help improve patient safety and learn sophisticated surgery skills. The technology can also provide detailed reports on the trainee’s performance, which instructors can implement as part of evaluations at the end of sessions.

One more study, from the University of Copenhagen, explored which scenarios VR headsets can help with learning. The study identified various useful attributes, such as understanding spatial and visual information, scanning or observational skills, and controlling emotional responses to stressful situations. 

The study also identified cases where virtual reality training failed, including motion sickness and distractions. Like with all training methods, each one needs to be applied with different objectives in mind.

Which headsets are normally used for training?

Most headsets can be used, as there are many sorts of training modules.

Both the Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE are high-end headsets with 6DoF controllers, meaning people can interact with their environments. The headsets also let people walk around the area to interact with virtual objects. The headsets are perfect for high-end experiences.

The standalone Oculus Go, and other mobile headsets, have less usability as functionality is either 3DoF, or nonexistent. These headsets can provide a small level of interactivity, but it is not as extensive as other ones available. That said, they can display 360 videos on a topic, giving an immersive experience.

All headsets have their pros and cons, though it depends on the goal. Does the business need employees to do precise controls? Or simply an immersive way of learning new concepts?

What is immersive training best for?

Virtual reality training can be applied in multiple different ways, though some are better than others.

At its core, the technology gives a more hands-on feel. Learning about cooking from a book is one way; chopping virtual bananas is another. Reading about the body is helpful, but seeing the inside adds depth to the learning experience.

As an example mentioned briefly, VR is good for learning spacial information. If training to be a surgeon, and it provides haptic feedback with 6DoF freedom, then it helps to learn where particular organs are and how to cut them. This kind of spacial knowledge is not shown via words.

Another is improving mental health. Oxford VR pioneered and tested an automated VR treatment that delivers psychological therapy via a computer-generated virtual coach or avatar. The results of the research, which focused its attention on fear of heights, were published in the Lancet Psychiatry publication, receiving global acclaim. While rigorous testing will be vital going forward, Oxford VR has broken new ground in 2018 by proving the effective use of automated VR therapy to treat mental health disorders.

VR therapist. Pic: Oxford VR

And what are the flaws?

Not everything should be trained with virtual reality. Like all learning methods, some are better than others depending on the situation.

Many people feel motion sickness in virtual reality. Losing sense of self, some people find the dissonance between real life and the virtual world sickening. This is a fair and common criticism. As hardware improves, so will the use of virtual reality when training.

The experience is also very distracting. Powering through a blood vein to see how the body works is cool, but perhaps not for learning. People can get swept away by the experience, meaning they retain less exact knowledge like with the flashcard method.

Learning empathy in virtual reality

There are mutiple experiences which help people learn in virtual reality. I can cite many, but one I found the most interesting recently is debiasing teaching.

Companies tackle racial bias in numerous training programmes; a notable example is Starbucks in 2018, who shut 8,000 of its stores for training. Organisers delicately handle the situations to educate their employees in the best way possible. The training is important – yet if they are mishandled, they might have unintended consequences. In some cases, employees walk away from sessions feeling shame or being shaken by the experiences. These experiences have an adverse effect on the mental health of employees who work in the company.

Clorama Dorvilas designed a VR experience to remove the shame and guilt felt afterward, via debiasing techniques. ‘Companies can spend millions of dollars on extremely ineffective, and virtually useless training that can have an adverse effect which can hurt the company even more,” she said. “Bias training shouldn’t be there to shame. People should feel good about making others feel accepted. Debias isn’t something that you can work out in a day. It’s a behavior that you have to work through. We want to give people the capacity to work in a safe and comfortable space.’

Dorvilas found that empathy allowed people to humanize each other, and applied that to VR. Numerous studies show that unconscious bias impacts education and teaching, as it shapes how people teach and how they see relative achievement. This shaped the creation of Teacher’s Lens, an app which provides simulations in VR and reduces bias in a safe and comfortable way. The app presents the teacher with a racially diverse classroom, and tracks who the teacher interacts with. In this way, the benefits of virtual reality are made clear.

Example of augmented reality employee training – Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic introduced immersive training technology – as part of a collaboration with SITA – that allows the airline’s cabin crew to use AR to familiarise themselves with new aircraft.

Using an iOS app (but not Android, sadly), cabin crew use AR to walk through the layout of Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, without taking a peek in real life. This complements the existing classroom-based training, the app allows crew members to see the cabin projected as a portal in front of them and are able to ‘walk into’ the cabin. The AR app simulates the full-size view of the interior cabin, giving the crew a feel for their new working environment, including accurate spatial awareness.

Don Langford, CIO of Virgin Atlantic, said: “Today innovation is the lifeblood of a modern airline. New technologies such as augmented reality hold out the promise to better manage our airline operations while providing an enriched experience to our increasingly tech-savvy passengers. SITA has long been a partner in exploring the frontiers of technology and this AR application is no exception.”

This is a great example of using augmented reality to train employees, in a cost-effective way.

Virgin Atlantic using augmented reality training. Picture: Virgin Atlantic

Example of virtual reality training – Medical Realities

Medical Realities is a team offering medical training products, utilising immersive technologies. By using the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, Medical Realities designs experiences for medical students learning more about people’s bodies.

An example is that they can record 360 videos in 4K, so medical students can get a good view of what is happening. While this is different from virtual reality, it still offers an immersive experience so students can feel like they are in the environment. The platform also comes with a test, to best understand how well someone is doing.

As a learning tool, it is an effective way of learning new skills and, vitally, check whether it works.

Could the military use virtual reality to train?

Virtual reality has been adopted by various military organisations. It is used alongside other training methods for countries such as the USA, and is a part of their overall training as soldiers and expert engineers.

Some USA personnel use a VR trainer to simulate jumps from the air before they take the leap of faith. This lets them conduct tests on jumps over and over again, to ensure perfection.

With the large budgets of some governments, a massive amount of investment is going into military uses. The USA comes up as a common example.

Conclusion – Looking to the future

Virtual reality training has been happening for many years. If the definition of immersive technology is widened, then shuttles and flight simulators have been used for decades.

The difference over the last few years is that enterprise-grade devices are more easily accessed with a flow of capital to back innovators.

Headsets are different. Strapped into a virtual environment, new skills can be taught and learned with time. Controllers actively interact with environments, in a safe and secure way where data can be harvested. Augmented reality can do the same as employees get to grips with new environments.

Virtual reality training will likely continue to prosper in the future. The future is now, and will continue to evolve as the years roll by.