by Jeremy Miles - Learning Solutions Architect.

The application of virtual environments in skills development

I've always wanted to be a pilot - and it's not just because of the uniform. Now I fly C130 supply missions in Afghanistan. I also charter the Learjet 85 around the Bahamas. Oh, and I soar in my Slingsby Kestral over the Canadian Rockies. And what's more, I can fly all these planes on my smartphone from the comfort of my armchair.

The gaming sector has been driving the development of 3D software to such an extent that now open source development tools such as Unity and Unreal makes the creation of photorealistic VR environments accessible to a wide range of developers - including within the Learning and Development (L&D) community. So how can we harness the potential of this new breed of alternative realities - including virtual, immersive and augmented for skills development? How can we bring the workplace into the classroom and how can we create virtual realty learning environments within the workplace?

Virtual Reality (VR)

Just like my flight simulator, there are several environments where it is easier, cheaper and safer to develop skills in a virtual reality learning environment. Typically VR is best suited to developing spacial awareness and dextrous coordination. Be it keyhole surgery, borescope inspection of aero engines or building design - the ability to interact with a virtual reality learning app can have significant advantages over the real thing. There are trade-offs however. Largely in replicating the human-machine interface when trying to create a fully immersive virtual experience. Gesture recognition still has a way to go to create a naturalistic interaction with the virtual world. Fully immersive headsets, such as the Oculus Rift are still pricey and an extended VR session can leave you feeling somewhat nauseous.


Augmented Reality (AR)

If you are not trying to navigate your way around the core of a nuclear reactor then perhaps the ability to access digital learning resources within the workplace itself has advantage over a VR solution. Augmented reality, or the ability to overlay digital information within a live environment, supports a different set of learning objectives from VR. In this sense it is a complimentary technology - supporting depth of knowledge rather than manipulative skills.  Whilst Google Glass might have returned to the R&D labs, the number of successor products on the market today reflects the potential of the 'heads-up display'  (HUD) in mainstream life.

Even more ubiquitous is the good old smartphone. Most museums, galleries, sports stadia and even transport companies offer an interactive app to enrich your experience. Geolocation tools such as GPS, QR codes or near-field transmission beacons provide proximity customisation of information, and increasingly this is being provided in 3D form. And this is where the worlds of VR and AR converge.  It is now possible to take a simple printed instruction manual, and with the aid of a smartphone and an AR app you can assemble the product, in virtual 3D, on the paper in front of you. Flat-pack furniture construction will never be the same again!

The emperor's new clothes?

Are we fooling ourselves into thinking that these 'Matrix' technologies are anything more that the stuff of the box office blockbuster?  Well, just look around you and see how the smartphone and -  increasingly, wearable technologies, are impacting our daily lives and then think - 'how could this technology be harnessed to the benefit of workplace learning?' The limiting factor is increasingly becoming our own mindset - maybe we need to inject some creativity into our approach to skills development and put the technology at our disposal today to good use.

Where are the biggest incubators for the application of L&D technologies to be found today? Look no further than our own schools and colleges where the combination of fresh enquiring minds, an accessible suite of emerging mobile technologies and a mindset unfettered by the constraints of conventional learning design paradigms is generating truly innovative ideas. This is the generation that will soon be entering the workplace and looking for employers who will present the most attractive development opportunities. Organisations now have to step up to the mark in order to attract and retain emerging talent and their approach to learning technologies will have significant influence of their competitive advantage.

About the author

Jeremy Miles is a Learning Solutions Architect with over 30 years experience in the field of knowledge transfer. His early career as a research biologist gave him the opportunity to develop teaching videos as an alternative to animal dissection. He pioneered the application of streaming video in education before moving into the private sector where he has assisted a number of web and communications agencies, and their clients, to capitalise on the use of digital media. He now advises corporations on their learning strategies, integrating competence development, workplace skills assessment, learning infrastructure and performance management.

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