Think of the way that we had to learn things in school. We all got shoved into a class with a bunch of other kids on a daily basis, and then had to memorize a bunch of information that was drilled into us. It’s an assembly line that is pretty good at producing a line of graduates who can follow orders, read instructions, and otherwise function in an industrial world.
We spend a lot of time learning facts and solving theoretical problems, but the real learning starts when we leave school and begin to actually apply that knowledge to real life. But what if you didn’t have to wait until you left school or college to start gaining real experience? What if learning and doing became the same thing in our education system? That’s the promise that VR and AR technologies are bringing to the table for the future of education and training.
Look at the way we train our best people. Think about surgeons, soldiers, and pilots. These are people with jobs that are very difficult, very complex, or very dangerous. When they do their jobs in the real world there’s no room for “learning on the job”. The first time a surgeon cuts into a person, he has to be 100% ready. The first time a pilot takes the stick solo, he has to know exactly what he is doing.
One of the main ways that we have achieved that level of training for these sorts of professions, where failure is not an option, is by using simulations. Before the advent of digital simulation software, these simulations were very practical – mechanical flight simulators, dummy bodies for medical training, and war games to prepare troops for battle.
Today those physical techniques still have their place, but more often than not they are paired with some sort of digital system and, on an increasing basis, those simulations are becoming completely virtual. The army, medical industry, and, of course, aviation industry have embraced virtual reality as a way to train professionals without any sort of serious risks. We’re all safer because of it, so why don’t we use virtual reality simulations for other types of training too?
Well, to put it bluntly, these sorts of advanced VR training sims have always been incredibly expensive. We’re talking hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars to create them. It’s worth it because we need people in these professions and the advantages outweigh the cost. This has also been a big factor in the high price of training these types of professionals. On top of this, these systems are complex to operate and need highly-trained technical staff to monitor them in use. It’s not like they can send the students home with the equipment or let them use it unsupervised.
While it would be perfectly feasible to built a VR simulation that would help someone learn to be an effective manager or drive a truck, it’s relatively safe just to train them on the job under supervision. The cost and complexity just doesn’t make business sense.
At least, that was the state of VR as a training tool. Now that there are high-quality VR systems that cost only a tiny fraction of these lumbering old-school simulation systems, we can start thinking about using VR simulations to teach all sorts of real-world skills. Combine this with affordable haptics and powerful computer hardware, and soon you may be getting “hands-on” experience years earlier in your studies than possible with any training that has come before.
Getting in on the Action
It may sound like this is something that’s still in the future of training and education, but the fact is that companies are already investing heavily in VR as a training tool. Walmart, for example, has created a sophisticated “Black Friday simulator”. In case you aren’t American, Black Friday is an insane American holiday when companies offer product discounts that literally motivate otherwise decent people to punch each other in the face just to get 50% off a flat screen TV.
To prepare new employees for this brutal physical encounter, Walmart puts them in a simulation which helps them understand the special needs of managing a store on a day like Black Friday. This means that your first real Black Friday doesn’t have to be the first exposure you have to the reality of the situation.
Walmart is far from the only company that sees this potential in VR to better prepare their workers. One of the most dangerous things we do every day is to get behind the wheel of a car. Even with modern car safety, the rate of road accidents is still far too high, and until self-driving cars are ready for prime time it will still be up to human drivers to ensure the safety of their vehicles and the other road users.
If you think there’s a lot of risk in your daily commute to and from work, imagine if your job was to drive around all day long. That’s exactly the situation that UPS drivers find themselves in. Professional drivers like these are statistically more likely to to encounter rare hazards while doing their job and they need to develop an advanced set of safe driving skills. So UPS used off-the-shelf hardware to host their custom safe-driving simulation. Their hope is that time in this inexpensive simulation setup will improve the safety record of their drivers, although it will take a while before the data supporting that idea becomes available.
Augment Your Learning with Augmented Reality
VR simulations are an amazing and valuable training tool, but augmented reality has the potential to become the main way in which we learn, with full VR reserved for those special immersive training programs. With an intelligent digital layer inserted between the world and your senses, it becomes possible to integrate effective learning into your real world activities.
For example, imagine if you could wear a pair of AR glasses while you play the guitar, with digital imagery to help guide you through songs and lessons. What about if you’re learning to fix your car and actually get to follow along with context-sensitive AR visuals? If we even just think about using AR as a supplement to more traditional education, it provides a way to give students a first-person learning experience when that’s in short supply these days.
Throwing Out the Book
We’ve been doing education a certain way for well over a century now. Educators have tried over and over again to reinvent the practice of teaching and learning, but nothing is really all that different from a classroom in 1850. That’s set to change in a big way now with VR and AR. Not only will we be learning with these technologies, we’ll be learning how to live with these technologies, since they’ll be a part of work and leisure as conventional as phones or computers are now. The revolution is getting into swing and nothing will be the same again.