We know a little about what works in virtual reality. We know a lot about what doesn’t. Relatively few serious games and 360-degree training videos have been created for VR thus far. However, corporate trainers excited about incorporating VR into their training programs can learn much from VR game designers and developers, 360-degree documentarians, and other entertainment VR content creators. This column explores best practices that you can apply to VR corporate training experiences.
Although it’s been said many times, the first lesson is also the most important for beginning VR developers: Do not induce nausea in the viewer (i.e., player, user, student). VR can trigger motion sickness when the viewer’s body and inner ear do not experience the same apparent motion that the eyes see on the screen.
Several strategies reduce or eliminate this problem: Don’t move the viewer’s point of view too quickly; keep segments short (which also helps maintain high viewer engagement); create a “cockpit” (such as a car’s dashboard and windshield frame) to ground the viewer; and use a high frame rate (the minuscule but continual lag from using fewer frames per second is nevertheless interpreted by the brain as a sensory discrepancy). That said, you can skimp on peripheral and background details to keep your computer’s GPU and CPU processing requirements to a minimum. VR developers use other, more technical methods as well, but the strategies above will prevent nausea for most viewers.
Create for 3-D, not 2-D
When cinema was first invented, early producers and directors still thought in terms of theater. Thus, early movies felt a lot like theatrical productions recorded and reproduced on a flat screen. Similarly, the earliest television shows were basically radio programs broadcast on a television screen. Eventually, forward-thinking artists and visionaries created new ways of using the media’s capabilities to tell better stories.
VR is currently experiencing a similar lack of vision. On television, cinema, and computer screens, we passively watch a 2-D image and have no control over what we see and experience. The full control lies with the content creators (director, camera operator, video editor, etc.) who design a story that unfolds linearly and chronologically (i.e., one frame after another with each successive viewing by each viewer progressing exactly the same) in one screen location directly in front of our eyes. A viewer’s only agency is in whether to watch or not. In VR, the viewer can interact with the environment, look this way instead of that, and explore at her own pace. Traditional 2-D storytelling methods do not work well in VR.
The solution: Put yourself in the viewer’s shoes. Try to experience the virtual world you’re creating in ways the viewer might. Slow down the pace and allow the viewer time to explore. Focus on play, surprise, and delight. Use visual and audio cues to direct focus to important details so the viewer doesn’t miss them due to looking in the other direction.
Further, identify what could be better taught or trained in a 3-D virtual space and what could be better taught through a book, video, podcast, etc. Don’t simply have viewers read lots of text or click through PowerPoint decks. At least for now, 2-D screens, books, and printed documents are far superior media for simple reading, so don’t make someone put on a VR headset just to read.
Create empathy and tell stories
VR’s big promise is its ability to generate empathy in the viewer. Gabo Arora’s VR documentary projects, collaborations between the UN and Here Be Dragons along with its sister company, Within, demonstrate some of the best examples to date of using VR to create empathy. These eight- to 10-minute documentaries produce a four times higher rate of donation for the associated causes, and also a four times larger average donation, per Arora’s panel discussion at SXSW Eco 2015. Anecdotally, I watched two of these documentaries in 2015, and the stories and images I experienced still move me, haunt me even, to this day. In contrast, I can’t recall a single YouTube video I watched last week, much less in 2015. This implies that the increase in empathy is substantial and can last for years.
This works because our minds don’t perceive VR experiences as simply data that can easily be categorized and forgotten, like the quarterly report we read last week, but rather as actual memories from actual events we actually experienced firsthand. To our brains, the difference between a memory of a VR experience and a real-life experience is often negligible (see the research papers linked in the “Additional resources” section at the end of this article). Further, the experience may be virtual, but the emotions are very real.
In short, in virtual reality, as with any reality, stories stick and memories last. Use this to your advantage in your VR training program by creating stories and experiences where viewers literally (virtually) walk in the shoes of real people or characters, interacting with other people and the environment around them. What problems do they encounter? What rewards do they receive? How do they respond? What do people say to them? How does the story end? How do they feel?
While quantifiable research is still being done on how and why this works, some conclusions are nearly certain. If your VR experience focuses on creating empathy, the viewer is quite likely to learn faster, with more enthusiasm, and will more deeply retain the lessons over the long term.
Note: Beware the “uncanny valley” problem. That is, don’t make animated characters look too realistic, because their movements and facial expressions will never look fully natural. If you do, viewers will become creeped out, and you’ll ruin the chance to create empathetic connection and suspension of disbelief. Paradoxically, it’s better to make characters obviously animated than “almost real but not quite right.”
Pick the right platform
VR creators have several devices to choose from, including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream, and Google Cardboard. Each has its own pros and cons.
Create for Daydream or Cardboard if you want lots of viewers, especially viewers at home, because the equipment costs are lowest. Create for Rift, Vive, or PlayStation if you want more interactivity to maximize the viewers’ agency and experience. These more expensive devices employ hand controllers, earphones, external cameras to monitor your position, and powerful computers that can process more complex visuals and actions.
Narrow the focus
Don’t start by trying to be all things and do all things, at least not at first. Instead, pick just one important lesson or experience that lends itself well to VR as a medium, then measure the results and continually improve the experience over time. Don’t waste your resources creating lots of content until you’ve gotten user feedback and learned what works and what doesn’t.
Educational experiences in which VR excels
Some types of educational experiences lend themselves to VR (as well as its close cousins, augmented reality, mixed reality, and 360-degree video) better than others, including:
- Physical actions that one needs to practice
- Exploring, designing, and learning about complex objects such as a space station, jet engine, submarine, building, or human body
- Exploring places that can’t easily be explored in one’s real life, such as Mars, oceans, other countries, remote parks, Chernobyl, mountains, volcanoes, the sky, or inside a beehive; even the past or the future
- What it’s like to be the opposite sex, physically disabled, or bullied
- What it’s like to fly a plane, cross the street, or learn to scuba dive
These examples work because virtual submersion substitutes reasonably well for real experiences that are expensive, time-consuming, physically impossible, or otherwise unattainable.
Although VR is a relatively new medium that we’re still learning how to use, following the above best practices of the industry will help your VR experience succeed. Given that the possibilities for creativity in VR are endless; that VR increases empathy and memory retention; that access to the technology is growing rapidly; and that the stakes are low for viewers as compared with learning in the real world, VR is the perfect medium to experiment and invent new storytelling and educational techniques.
What VR methods, techniques, and strategies have worked for you as a corporate trainer, and which haven’t? Please let us know in the comments.
Bailenson, Jeremy, Kayur Patel, Alexia Nielsen, Ruzena Bajscy, Sang-Hack Jung, and Gregorij Kurillo. “The Effect of Interactivity on Learning Physical Actions in Virtual Reality.” Media Psychology, Vol. 11, No. 3. September 2008.
Segovia, Kathryn Y., and Jeremy N. Bailenson. “Virtually True: Children’s Acquisition of False Memories in Virtual Reality.” Media Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 4. December 2009.
Bailey, Jakki, Jeremy N. Bailenson, Andrea Stevenson Won, June Flora, and K. Carrie Armel. “Presence and Memory: Immersive Virtual Reality Effects on Cued Recall.” Proceedings of the International Society for Presence Research Annual Conference. October 24 – 26, 2012.