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Real benefits through virtual training

The digital revolution is also impacting learning. Completely new perspectives are being created, such as with virtual reality. Is it a technical gimmick? Or does will it improve knowledge acquisition over the long term? This article touches on what VR is and its benefits and limitations in the context of learning, as well as how it can be an invaluable tool for businesses.

Augmented reality (AR) provides information on the context; virtual reality (VR) provides context to the information. What this means is that AR information application uses the camera’s eye to identify the user's current situation and provide the information that they are most likely to need. Conventional technical documentation and learning materials can be used if the technician doesn't have the machine in front of them. For example, E-learning modules such as computer-based training (CBT) or web-based training (WBT) are often used. However, practical learning and practice with such media is limited. On the other hand, VR-based training places the learner directly into the context best suited to acquiring knowledge. They can spatially experience technical devices, machinery and systems in the original proportions, move around in the virtual environment, look around freely, and even carry out maintenance activities interactively.

How virtual reality works

VR immerses the users via VR headsets, also known as a Head Mounted Displays (HMDs). The headset presents them with a virtual scenario on an integrated or inserted display which also detects and integrates the user’s movements into the virtual environment. Motion tracking uses position and acceleration sensors built into the VR headset. Controllers that the users hold in their hands are used to enable genuine interaction with the VR environment. This means that hand movements, such as lifting or turning, are integrated into the virtual environment.

Advantages over conventional methods

VR training offers clear advantages over conventional learning materials. Clarity: A VR application provides an immediate reference to the described object. The exact positions of individual parts and their size ratios can be seen at all times by simply looking around. The user can freely choose their perspective, by moving their head, or walking around the machine and looking at it from all sides. The user has the impression that they really are standing in front of the objects, and not just seeing pictures of them.

Interaction: While conventional digital teaching media restricts interaction to a keyboard and mouse, VR allows users to run through sequences of actions with, largely, natural movement. Realistic action reinforces practical relevance and makes knowledge transfer more sustainable by drawing on the potential of procedural memory.  

Motivation: Learning in virtual worlds is objectively much more fun than learning with conventional materials. As a new, surprising and playful medium, VR is especially attractive to users, which further increases concentration and absorption capacity.
VR is also an optimal platform for integrating playful motivational elements. Here, its proximity to the world of computer games, with their countless mechanisms for gluing users to screen, is positively noticeable (→ gamification).

Advantages over real-world environments

Even in situations in which the described object is available in real life, and in which on-site learning would be possible, moving to virtual reality can still deliver benefits. These are not limited to the increased fun factor. Such advantages result from the fact that virtual reality is not tied to the constraints or physical laws of the real world.

Visualization of the hidden: The use of VR can allow a user to see through a solid enclosure and familiarize the learner with the parts and processes inside machinery. This makes it possible, for example, to experience the effects of control commands that are normally hidden from view. 

Didactic reduction of complex environments: complexity can be adapted to the prior knowledge of the learner. This means that a very complex machine can be presented clearly to every user. 

Stretching and accelerating time: In virtual working environments, successive technical processes can be slowed to very short intervals by means of stretching time allowing them to be displayed more clearly. Slow processes can also be accelerated to skip waiting times and, thereby, making training more efficient. 

No risk to man or machine: While an error during training on a real machine can have serious consequences, there are no negative effects in virtual environments (when not including point deductions or test fails). This allows trainees to watch back learn from their mistakes. 

Simulation of malfunctions or exceptional situations: In most cases, production operations must be interrupted or extensive conversions carried out in order to simulate a fault. With VR training, it is possible to simulate all types of disruptions. This allows learners to practice the necessary emergency measures without issue. 

Limits of virtual reality

With so many benefits, VR presents itself as the perfect platform for sharing knowledge. It far exceeds traditional learning media and is even far superior to in-situ learning in real-world environments. However, there are restrictions and limitations that should be noted which make the "perfect" "almost perfect". 

Lack of tactile feedback: A major limitation of VR experiences is the lack of haptics and realistic tactile perception. Virtual objects have no mass, no tangible form and no perceptible surface struc-ture. There are approaches in trial to making simulated environments “tactile”, such as through the use of exoskeleton gloves that slow or stop the finger movement when touching or grasping a vir-tual object. 

Hardware requirements: Unlike a CBT or WBT, which require only an ordinary PC or mobile end device, VR training has much higher hardware requirements. In addition to a particularly high-performance computer with a high-performance graphics card, special additional equipment is re-quired for VR training. 

The technical requirements entail certain financial and logistical costs and may, therefore, reduce acceptance on the part of users and companies. However, the savings that can be achieved with VR training are significant and also measurable, meaning that investing in VR usually pays for it-self in no time at all.

Recommendations for businesses

If VR-based training is an option for you: get started now: The available technology already pro-vides a solid foundation. The benefits of VR training are undeniable, and the savings that can be achieved are significant and measurable.

Build on CAD (Computer Aided Design) data and use the results many times: Many companies already have 3D models in their designs that are suitable as a basis for VR training. These models usually need to be simplified and structured. However, if your company already has CAD data across the board for its products that require training, it is much easier to get started with VR-based training. 

Promote communication: When a learner is wearing a VR headset, they usually work alone, separated from the real world. Training course participants can take turns entering VR in small groups using VR headsets. The other participants can follow their actions on the screen, providing tips or comments. 

It is also possible to build in group-related functions, participants can come together in online VR meetings, each seeing themselves as a virtual representation (avatar). The trainer, who may be thousands of kilometers away, can watch and guide them as they operate the machinery. 

Integrating VR training into blended learning concepts: VR training programs can be easily converted into less immersive learning units that can be carried out on PCs or tablets without additional hardware requirements, and can be integrated into conventional CBTs. 

Do not put the process of creation in the hands of agencies specializing in VR: The creation of VR-based information applications, such as VR training, belongs to technical editors. The knowledge needed to prepare technical information and didactic understanding for specific target groups is at least as important as the handling of VR toolkits and authoring systems. 

VR perspectives

In the long term, virtual reality is likely to be one of the focal points of technologies that will determine future life in a digitized world. 

The use of VR will prevail across the board, especially in the area of technical communication as a kind of context-delivery solution. VR puts learners in environments precisely suited to receiving information. This shortens training times, makes learning more successful and allows products to be brought to market more quickly.