A (Virtual) Training Reality

Focus on New Technology - Focus on New Technology

You’ll be using virtual and augmented reality for employee training programs sooner than you think.

May 24, 2017

A pest management professional can be transported into a virtual neighborhood. Here he’s been spawned (or placed) on a client’s porch. He is wearing an HTC Vive headset and using the HTC Vive controller. When he points the controller at what may be an infestation, he is shown an interface that asks him if this is an infestation or not. Regardless, the system tells him he should tell the customer what he’s found.

What if employees could experience a termite swarm in December? Hone their inspection skills in multiple commercial settings without leaving the office? Or learn how pests enter structures by riding on their backs?

It’s possible with augmented and virtual technology, and it is available today and at a lower cost than you may realize.

Massey Services in Orlando will roll out the technology to supplement employee training in the near future. “It’s a present-day initiative,” said Sean Clifford, the company’s director of learning and development.

It’s far more than a high-tech fad. In fact, the entire learning industry is moving in this direction because it “allows us to do things that we’ve never been able to do before,” he said.

Unlike PowerPoint slides, the technology fully immerses employees in an environment. Augmented reality (AR) lets trainers insert virtual cues, text, objects, animations and videos into a real-world setting, giving users on-demand access to this information. Virtual reality (VR) creates a 3-D, computer-generated environment (like a video game) in which to train technicians.

“You can create any environment and any situation that you can think of and place the learner directly into it and make it as realistic as you’re willing to invest the time and effort,” said Clifford, who is incorporating both technologies in the Massey Services program.

To experience an AR environment, users wear a headset like the Microsoft HoloLens (about $3,500); for VR they may use HTC VIVE or Oculus Rift devices, which cost up to $800. A new $35 app by Zappar, however, can turn smartphones and tablets into AR/VR viewers, making it possible to put the technology “in the hands of every team member at minimal expense,” said Clifford. Massey Services helped crowd fund this U.K. start-up.

Another expense is developing the content (what employees see and learn). Massey Services partnered with Design Interactive, an Orlando-based developer that creates mixed AR and VR training solutions for military contractors, manufacturers and, more recently, pest management companies.

Costs vary depending on customization and project scope, but it’s not a huge dollar amount compared to what some firms spend on e-learning licensing and content, said Matthew Johnston, Design Interactive’s director of consumer experience.

Massey Services is looking at several ways to use the technology. It may install the Zappar app on employee tablets so each service center can provide AR-based training. In a center’s kitchenette, for example, employees could practice hands-on inspection techniques while getting guidance from videos or text seen in their headsets. They might discover virtual termite frass and be able to enlarge a virtual termite to get a better understanding of the pest.

For more in-depth learning, the company may create centralized training centers. These might feature green-painted kitchens that can be virtually reskinned as residential or commercial food-service settings, as well as be adapted to teach irrigation and landscaping best practices. A mobile training trailer is another possibility.

Clifford is evaluating which delivery mode makes the best financial and logistical sense, as well as what is “best for the learner, because if we’re not changing a team member’s behavior or increasing their knowledge, then it’s not effective.”

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES. Training experts say AR and VR are more in line with how people learn today, especially younger generations raised on smartphones. They have different expectations than older employees and traditional textbooks, classroom presentations, even e-learning platforms, can be a real turn off, said Johnston. “Everybody expects knowledge-on-demand nowadays with the ability to Google anything,” added Clifford.

The technology also “allows us to control the environment” and replicate a standardized experience across the organization so everyone can learn the same thing and understand how to react in the same way, said Clifford. In comparison, real-life, in-field training experiences can vary a lot depending on weather, the pest season, and the teaching ability of senior technicians and managers.

Design Interactive will custom design for clients whatever infestation companies want to show, on any kind of building, or even in the yard.

When employees are distributed over a large area in multiple locations, AR/VR helps trainers “duplicate” themselves to quickly bring everyone up to speed on the latest regulation or onboard large numbers of seasonal employees, said Johnston.

AR, in particular, addresses the “transfer of knowledge problem” that companies face as baby boomers retire, he added. Knowledge (the kind not found in operating manuals) can be shared by placing virtual notes directly in a space, such as beside the client’s kitchen sink. This results in a more efficient transition of accounts, reduces guesswork and minimizes the production lag of new employees, he said.

And because simulations run on game development software, “you can track everything,” just like in a video game, said Clifford. Tracking metrics like accuracy, timeliness, choice of tools, product, application rates and more helps trainers determine employees’ level of competency, said Johnston.

The impact of poor training “isn’t just poor customer service,” he reminded. It directly affects the bottom line and potentially the health and safety of clients, employees and the environment, in addition to having repercussions for the entire industry.

CONSIDERATIONS. The technology isn’t for everyone. It can cause some users to become disoriented and nauseous. To alleviate these symptoms, Massey created best practices based on its user acceptance testing that include avoiding fast-moving backgrounds while users are sitting still.

And while costs eventually should decrease, at present AR/VR is most accessible to companies with deep pockets. Namely, the five largest firms in the PCT Top 100 for custom training programs; top 40 for standardized solutions, said Johnston.

Neither will it completely replace traditional learning methods. “Effective training is all about giving people the knowledge, the skills and the abilities to effectively and efficiently perform their job,” reminded Johnston. AR/VR technology is “simply a tool. Every tool has its place,” added Clifford. That’s why it’s important to partner with a training expert who can help you “impact key performance metrics,” not someone who will sell you an AR/VR system as an end-all solution, said Johnston.

Still, when it comes to exciting and engaging learners, AR/VR is powerful. With it, “you can create a desire to learn,” said Clifford.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.