Sep 29, 2021 - Technology

Virtual reality isn't all fun and games

Illustration of a yellow reflective vest and a blue VR headset on top.

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Tech companies dream of creating a virtual reality metaverse, but the current best use of VR is something far more quotidian: job training.

The big picture: VR offers everyone from NFL quarterbacks to Walmart sales associates a relatively inexpensive, scalable way to practice their job skills within a programmable virtual space.

Driving the news: On Monday Facebook announced it would invest $50 million — or roughly four hours of revenue — in global research and program partners to build out its planned virtual metaverse in what it calls a "responsible" way.

  • The metaverse is "a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you," as Facebook's announcement put it.

Yes, but: For the metaverse to become a reality, VR technology would need to improve significantly, even assuming users embrace a virtual world created by a company that appears to be rapidly losing the trust of the public.

  • The pandemic lockdown should have been the perfect opportunity for virtual reality since for many people actual reality was suddenly circumscribed to the bounds of their living rooms.
  • But as my colleague Ina Fried wrote last year, VR missed its moment, with no killer app to drive its takeoff.

What's happening: Even as VR has lagged on wider uses, workplace training is emerging as an immediate business case for the technology.

  • Worldwide spending on augmented and virtual reality training systems topped $1.3 billion in 2020 — close to half of all investments in immersive technology, which also includes uses like gaming.
  • According to a survey by software marketplace Capterra, 1 in 3 small- or medium-sized businesses in the U.S. plan to pilot a VR training program.

What they're saying: "Facebook and many other companies are doing really cool things with social VR and the gaming metaverse," says Derek Belch, CEO of the industry-leading VR training company Strivr. "But I personally feel that for the next five years, training will continue to be the low-hanging fruit."

How it works: Belch began working on what would become Strivr while serving as a graduate assistant for Stanford University's football team in 2013, which allowed him to see how VR could help athletes practice their sport without needing their teammates or putting themselves at risk of injury.

  • Strivr now works with pro sports teams in multiple leagues, using 360-degree cameras to capture footage of plays and practices that players — including Tom Brady, who began using Strivr before his Super Bowl-winning season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 — can later run through in VR.
  • "When they put the headset on, they feel like they're in the pocket and all this stuff is flying around them," says Belch. "They can go through their pre-snap motions and footwork, just without throwing the ball."
"VR is visualization practice on steroids."
— Derek Belch, Strivr

Details: A call from Walmart in 2016 led Strivr to expand its VR offerings beyond sports, and today there are 17,000 VR headsets in Walmart stores for employee training.

  • In recent months, Walmart has begun using VR not just to train its associates in the physical details of their jobs, but in helping them respond to pandemic-stressed customers with more empathy through programs that have workers interact with a VR avatar.
  • "It's about having the experience of putting myself in [someone else's] shoes before it even happens," Heather Durtschi, Walmart's senior director of learning, content design and development, said in a recent webinar.

By the numbers: VR training can help workers master both hard and soft skills better and faster — a 2020 PwC study found VR learners are four times more focused than e-learning students and 275% more confident in applying skills after training.

  • After Honeywell began using a mix of virtual and augmented reality tools to train its industrial workers, training time fell by more than 60%.

The catch: While cheaper and faster, VR training programs lack the flexibility that can come with live instruction. And as many as 40% of users experience some degree of motion sickness in VR and AR environments, with women reporting worse side effects.

The bottom line: Virtual reality is still awaiting the iPhone moment that will drive broad consumer adoption — and perhaps one day lead to the metaverse — but in the meantime, think of VR training as a perfectly practical Blackberry experience.

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