Tuesday, 21 March 2017

VR in Learning - A collaborative Research Project

Welcome! This is the first of a blog and video series which will be published over the next two weeks, by myself and fellow L&D consultant, Rachel Burnham (@BurnhamLandD). Our purpose is to share our learning journey (our 'Odyssey', as Rachel has called it), as independent L&D Consultants, into the world of Virtual - and Augmented - Reality, to better understand the technology and its potential application in learning. We do not present ourselves as experts here, but as curious professionals, keen to understand the subject but also willing to share our experiences and insights with others who may have a similar interest.

This first blog is a combination of mine and Rachel's initial blogs on the subject, which Rachel is also posting on her blog page at http://rachelburnham.blogspot.co.uk/. We will also post some videos on YouTube and blog individually later in the series.

Why Did We Do This Research? (Niall)

Stimulated by a Learning & Performance Institute (@yourLPI) Webinar on 13 Dec 2016 “Go Virtual!” with Ron Edwards from Serious Games International, both Rachel and I realised independently that Virtual Reality (and Augmented Reality – more on that later) was a subject area and practice about which we knew very little but wanted to understand more. For myself, my reasoning was that, as an independent L&D & Learning Technologies Consultant, VR was an area which was gaining more and more attention and interest both within the L&D world, but more importantly, outwith L&D, in the real world! And I needed to be able to experience it, play with it, understand its capabilities and limitations, so that I could, as a minimum, discuss intelligently and with confidence both within my L&D/HR and OD network, but much more importantly, in conversation with potential and existing clients who may have expressed interest in its potential to support their learning programmes. 

We had a brief discussion after the webinar and decided that we would collaborate on some research on VR for Learning, to increase our own knowledge & understanding, but with the added benefit of being able, perhaps, to share that learning for others’ benefit later.

As has become the norm with so much these days, the consumer/domestic uptake of easily accessible and easily grasped technologies has the potential to leave L&D out in the cold without the necessary knowledge and skills to be able to understand, discuss and/or apply them appropriately. Often, what people do and use in their private lives becomes their norm and their expectation elsewhere, especially in the workplace.

Now, it’s not just down to L&D to be responsible for the adoption and integration of relevant technologies into the workplace. Often, corporate policy and/or cultural practice mitigates against rapid inquiry, experimentation, refinement and adoption of such tools. But Rachel and I feel that L&D has an opportunity to show some leadership here, to be seen as a bridge-builder and a trusted partner to business and its people by offering advice about and practical experience of using such tools in the support of performance improvement.

What follows in this series is our individual and joint journey in Virtual Reality discovery to date, some personal insights, a curation of further analysis, thinking and resources, and an invitation/call to action to others to engage and share their virtual journeys with us.

What is VR? (Rachel)

VR or Virtual Reality is a technology that is widely used in gaming to create a 360 degree/3 dimensional experience that immerses participants.  The degree of immersion can vary from simply being able to look around you 360 degrees, at either an image or video of the real world or some kind of simulation, through to being able to interact with this ‘world’ by picking up and working with objects.  Increasingly, people in L&D are working out how to use this technology to enable effective learning for individuals and organisations.

A closely related, though different technology is AR or Augmented Reality.  This is where technology, utilizing a smartphone or tablet, is used to project additional information or images into the real world, as an overlay.  One of the big hits of the summer of 2016 was the game ‘Pokemon GO’ which used AR technology, through mainly mobile phones, to enable people to see and collect ‘cartoon-like’ creatures whilst out and about.  AR technology for use in L&D is not as advanced, at the time of writing (February 2017) as for VR, but some authors believe that there is even more potential to use AR in the workplace eg as part of performance support.

VR is often thought synonymous with the use of expensive headsets, but there are different ways of accessing VR to suit a range of budgets.  At the cheap and cheerful end, you can purchase a ‘Google Cardboard’ headset for under a tenner and use this to view VR apps through a mobile phone.  The quality is not as good as with the more expensive sets, particularly if you already wear glasses and they can only be used for VR apps which involve no interaction. With this equipment some sound is possible, either broadcast through the mobile phone or via the earphones for your mobile phone, though the quality may not be great. It is worth searching online for access to free apps to use with this type of equipment and this is an easy way to get a flavour of what is possible with VR.

At the next level of expense are a range of headsets which not only include glasses, but also more substantial earphones.  These also use mobile phones to play the software, but the addition of the earphones means that they can incorporate sound much more effectively alongside the visual images.  They also can incorporate some options for interaction within the VR programme, so that the participant can make limited choices between options for action eg to see some tips or to jump straight in or to choose between answers.  This makes the whole experience much more engaging for the learner.   Some programmes will also build in feedback for the learner on their performance in the activity and this also enhances the experience.

With this middle range equipment, you can continue to use the free apps, but there are also a good range of developers offering off-the-shelf VR experiences that could be used.  However, for many learning and performance needs you may find that you need to commission a bespoke VR solution.  Whilst it is possible to create VR solutions in-house, it is much harder to produce interactive solutions without external specialist support at this stage in the development of the technology. 

At the top end of the market a much fuller immersive and participatory experience can be gained using a combination of headsets, with earphones plus handheld devices which allow you to interact with the environment.   This means that you can pick up objects, turn handles or levers, open doors and manipulate objects in other ways – leading to a much fuller experience and vital for VR software that is about becoming familiar with servicing equipment for example.   It also means that it is possible to have a much more interactive experience in VR, which of course can contribute to more effective learning. These sets are much more likely to be used with bespoke designs for the VR environment, created to meet the specific needs of an organisation and a specialist provider will be needed to support this.

For details of equipment please take a look at the accompanying curated resources list, which will appear at the end of this series.

We hope you enjoy this journey, and will follow and join in the discussion here in blog comments, on Twitter (hashtag #VRinLearning), LinkedIn, YouTube and facebook. We hope to set up an online 'further resources' Google Document, with links to curated blogs, articles, infographics etc, and hope that - in this most dynamic and quickly-changing environment - you will add your own thoughts and links as the subject develops. 

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