VR Enters Corporate Learning With A Vengeance: And The Results Are Amazing

As an experienced technology and HR analyst, I’m always a little skeptical about new tools. In the case of Virtual Reality (VR), I played around with the cardboard VR from the New York Times, but never really thought it was ready for prime time. 

Wow, was I wrong.

About a year ago I went and visited a company called STRIVR Labs, which was founded by Stanford football players to use Virtual Reality to teach quarterbacks situational awareness on the field. I dragged myself down to Palo Alto, visited their startup offices, and skeptically put on the glasses and headset to see what they had done.

To put it lightly, I was blown away.

The potential for virtual reality in training is enormous, and the problems it can solve are everywhere. Let me just give you my experience first.

The STRIVR team put me into a simulation of a Wal-Mart store during Black Friday. The scenario was designed to help an employee understand what it would be like when the store is wall to wall people, and how they would have to serve customers in a rush. I was literally in the store, hearing, seeing, and feeling all the pressure of a store employee, and the system literally coached me what to do (and what not to do).

Then the STRIVR team put me on the deli counter. I looked around (360 degrees) to see where everything was, and all of a sudden a bunch of people started queuing up to be served. I got nervous trying to figure out who to serve first, and of course, I forgot a few things and the simulation taught me to look around behind me to make sure all the people in the deli were served correctly.

The third one I tried was a simulation to fire an employee who did not want to leave. I had to listen to the employee argue with me and quickly respond to comments with the right answer without turning the situation into a fight. I’d say I did pretty poorly to tell you the truth, and I could feel the sweat on my palms as I tried to be calm and speak correctly.

The fourth was an opportunity to visit a Jet Blue plane hangar. I was asked to look under the plane for inspection, and actually felt the weight and sound of the aircraft in my ears. I tried to find all the problems, but sure enough, I missed some things and had to go back and look harder.

In every one of these situations, the VR solution was real, memorable, and emotional. Now, a year later, I still have a complete recollection of each event; they created “muscle memory” in my mind that no classroom, e-learning, or instructor-led training could ever create.

Why Does This Work So Well?

There is a very big market for VR training. Why? Because in so many situations it is expensive, dangerous, and just impractical to create a real-life simulation that works.

Early in my career I went through a year-long sales simulation at IBM, selling computers fictitious company called Armstrong Sporting Goods. IBM spent tens of millions of dollars operating that simulation and I had senior instructors coaching me on sales calls, presentations, and behavior. Very few companies can afford to do this, especially when the world changes so quickly.

And there are a myriad of high-risk, high-cost operational environments to consider. How will you train someone to deal with a robber who points a gun in their face? How will you train a utility service worker to crawl into a manhole safely? How will you train a driver to avoid an accident? 

Oil companies like Exxon and Shell spend many millions of dollars creating simulations of oil wells and other refinery operations. Only the very biggest companies can afford this, and it’s a burden for them to maintain too.

In softskills, we all know real-world simulation is the way to learn. But how much time do you have to simulate a sales call? Simulate an angry customer? Simulate a misbehaving employee? Most companies will send you to a video-based online learning program and cross their fingers you learn something.

Immersive Learning Emerges As A Paradigm

The terms VR and Virtual Reality, while descriptive, have some baggage. Most of us think of it as “new technology” that is expensive and maybe designed for games. So the industry has come up with a better term: Immersive Learning.

Immersive Learning is an L&D term that simply refers to programs that use truly “Authentic Practice” in their approach. As many of us know, the only way to really learn something is to do it. This form of “real-world practice,” which has been validated in hundreds of studies, is what creates muscle memory and helps us retain what we’ve learned. You’ve all probably read my articles about the Ebbinghouse Forgetting Curve: we forget almost everything we learn very quickly if we don’t use it.

This new concept gives the market legs: it helps us fit it into a bigger context. VR is not a “technology” being applied to training: its a new paradigm to learn, one which every human being can take advantage of. 

One of the studies done on this market shows that it will grow from $220 million today to $6.3 billion in 2022. That’s a pretty fast growth rate, but I am definitely a believer.

Let me show you how STRIVR positions this space.

Fig 1: Where Immersive Learning Fits

Immersive Learning essentially fits on a continuum that ranges from reading and simple interaction through detailed in-depth simulation. These “high-fidelity” programs on the right (on the job training, mentorship, real world simulation, after-action reviews) are well-known solutions, but they simply don’t scale. With VR they do. You can now let every store employee live through a real-world simulation of Black Friday. Every airplane mechanic can see what a real engine looks like. Every manager can experience an employee pointing a gun at them.

VR Technology Has Arrived

I’ve now experienced VR in a variety of tools, and the technology has become quite mature. STRIVR, who I believe is the leader in this market, uses off the shelf VR glasses which cost less than $1000 to buy, and has built an entire development and delivery system to author, run, manage, and measure programs.

STRIVR’s solution uses a specially designed 3D camera set to author the program. Then during the training it produces overlay assessments, it measures eye and head movement, it records and listens to your voice (it replayed my conversation with the employee I had to fire), and it can tell if you look away or don’t look in the right place. In other words, it’s really monitoring your behavior, which is the most effective learning feedback you can imagine.

The amount of emotional “muscle memory” it creates is incredible. I still remember my experience at Black Friday, and I ran through the simulation over a year ago.

As I’ve talked with companies using the solution, they tell me its affordable and it scales. Companies like Wal-Mart, Verizon, JetBlue and others are now deploying it widely.

Where Can It Be Applied

Initially I thought Immersive Learning was best for operational training, where equipment and safety was an issue. But now I”m changing my mind. Every “high-fidelity” training opportunity is going to be a potential fit for VR going forward. Let me just give you a few examples:

I spoke with the CLO of Verizon. The company has a wide variety of difficult training challenges, including teaching technicians how to climb into deep tunnels; how to help service agents deal with unhappy customers; and how to teach retail employees to deal with armed robbery. After encountering some troubling problems with theft, the company built an amazing armed robbery simulation. (I tried it.) It immediately immerses you into the situation and quickly teaches you that saving lives is more important than saving inventory.

Wal-Mart has made a major investment in VR. Through its partnership with STRIVR, the company now offers VR training in all its retail Academies. The training covers a range of topics, including how to staff the deli counter, selecting and hiring people, and many operational processes. More than 140,000 Wal-Mart associates will go through these programs.


And not only does the training really work, but it’s also a tremendous engagement tool for employees.

“When they said we were going to be using VR for training, I thought it was brilliant,” said Sean Gough, Academy facilitator at our Broken Arrow, Oklahoma store. “From cashier to lawn and garden, to electronics or fresh – there are just so many areas where I think this training would be so helpful.” 

JetBlue, a company founded by pilots with a deep respect for training, uses VR in a wide variety of programs. The program I tried was designed for maintenance technicians, and it teaches you how to do a walk-around inspection. Without taking technicians into an airport the company can simulate a real walk-around with amazing precision. The head of technical training now uses VR in three of its maintenance locations and has seen some amazing statistics: 97% of trainees enjoyed the program; 96% walked away with strong learning outcomes; employees spent several hours in each program and it identified several important gaps in their procedures.

The company now has plans to roll out the training to more than 100 airports.

I could go on and on with examples. Chipotle uses VR training to teach retailers how to clean and cook. United Rentals teaches new employees how to work safely in a construction job site. Fidelity uses VR to teach customer service skills. Intel uses VR for electrical safety training and has found a 300% ROI for their investment (detailed whitepaper here).

The technology is now proven, and there are many options to get started. STRIVR Labs, the leader in the space, offers end-to-end solutions and an entire platform for content development, program management, analytics, and reporting. New vendors like VantagePoint and Mursion and Tailspin offer off-the-shelf content (soft skills) and tool vendors like Warp Industries and Cenariovr are developing lower-cost tools. And consulting firms like GP Strategies and Accenture build these solutions as custom offerings. 

How Do You Get Started

The global training industry is over $200 billion in size, so there’s a lot of money spent on training today. How do you allocate resources to start a VR pilot?

I’d suggest you take some time to think about the problems that are strategic, long-lasting, and difficult to solve. The “Training Investment Model” I developed years ago may help.

In every company, you have training problems that fall into one of these four quadrants. Since the average spending per employee is around $1300 per year, you have to practice some form of portfolio allocation to decide what to spend on each quadrant.

My research shows that the highest performing companies allocate up to 40% of their training spending for “upper right” programs. These are programs that drive competitive advantage for your company (or they may prevent a loss that dramatically impacts performance). Programs in the lower left and lower right can be purchased off the shelf.

Based on the research I’ve seen from STRIVR and other vendors, most operational or face-to-face training programs will be 30%-70% more effective (measured by retention and actual job performance) than classroom or e-learning. Think to yourself: what are the problems where such an enormous ROI will give us the greatest benefit?

The capital investment in a robust VR program will probably start around $75,000 – but once you have the content developed, deployment will be similar in cost to instructor-led training. And the more employees you have, the greater the ROI will be.

VR Is A Technology That’s Here to Stay

Let me conclude with one final thought. Employees today want more learning, more integrated learning, and more learning in the flow of work. What better way to get your employees to engage with your company than to give them a state-of-the art learning experience: one they will enjoy, remember, and will really give them new skills. VR will only get better over time, so now’s the time to invest.

And if you want to be inspired, watch the video below developed by Wal-Mart, STRIVR, and Oculus.