Remote and distributed workforce technologies have been put into overdrive as a result of a near-global coronavirus lockdown.

Much has been invented and invested to maintain a sense of business as usual, and the surviving businesses will see physical location as less of a constraint.

What does this mean for training on the job and on location? Could the lockdown accelerate the adoption of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) training? What other benefits are to be discovered in XR (mixed reality) training?

A group of tech education experts joined a BusinessCloud roundtable to discuss the impact, possibilities and trade-offs of simulated, distributed immersive EdTech.

Which immersive technology is right for your training?

Pat O’Connor is co-founder of VRAI, a simulation training firm with a focus on hazardous environments. He spent 20 years in the military and was a unit commander of a reconnaissance unit.

He now heads up the firm which is working with the likes of the United Nations mine action service in Somalia, Pfizer in Singapore and IAG in Heathrow Airport.

The firm took on investment last year to fund the creation of a platform called HEAT (Hazardous Environment Awareness Training), which helps those training for work in risky and remote areas through mixed reality simulations.

O’Connor said he sees a definite distinction between the way VR and AR can be used to skill up staff in his line of work.

He sees VR as a way of preparing people for new situations, and AR as a way of enabling people to carry out operations.

“We see people training in VR, and then handing over to the AR with to help them carry out the task,” he said.

Particularly in O’Connor’s field of training, the distinction is not just a technological distinction, but a matter of safety.

“Would I use VR training to train my personnel before deploying them to a hostile environment? Absolutely. Would I now deploy them with an AR headset in the field? No chance.”

Another factor is accessibility and cost, said Suzanne Edwards. Edwards was a teacher for 20 years before founding Enlighten, which develops AR campaigns for the likes of mental health support programmes to increase referrals.

She said that while the company is platform-agnostic, it has recently been focused on AR, and the platform, rather than the technology, which is best placed for each client.

“VR definitely has its place for putting people into a real-world situation safely and cost-effectively,” she said, while noting that set-up costs were far higher.

The access to the existing hardware in consumer smartphones offered the greatest advantage, fastest set-up and near-zero hardware costs. It also meant that users were already familiar with the hardware.

“It’s that instant access to the material so that you’re not Googling and getting a bombardment of information,” she said.

Alex Young, who was originally a doctor before moving into business, said it was the role of training service providers to explain these new technologies before supplying them.

Now CEO and founder of Bristol-based Virti, which uses a range of immersive technologies and AI primarily in the healthcare sector, he said immersion was crucial in his line of training – and the fidelity was a factor in achieving this.

“It’s very difficult to recreate the stress and emotion of being in a real-world clinical environment,” he said.

“When training as an orthopaedic surgeon, if I’m practising on a mannequin on a cadaver that’s fine for the practical steps but there isn’t the sound of the machines, the sounds of people shouting, and the real stress and emotion you’re put under when you then get into the front line.”

Young said mixed reality could provide a contextual overlay in AR, on top of the existing training. For instance, a mannequin used for medical training could be made more realistic or even speak.

The approach, which he called ‘blended learning’ means that the learner is taken a journey from not knowing anything to gaining new technical and experiential skills.

When to invest in mixed-reality training

James Mansbridge looks after digital learning at the British Safety Council, a charity focused on well-being, health and safety and which raises money from commercial activity.

Mansbridge said that mixed reality technology could also offer a ‘wow factor’, which was important in increasing engagement and attention, as well as improving competitive advantage.

He said the charity decided it was time for a digital transformation, and made the decision to use mixed reality to upgrade from traditional learning which focused on documents and presentations.

“It was a way to move away from the classroom style of teaching and into experiential learning,” he said.

“When it comes to the hardware that we considered, we went with mobile technology. We knew that would mean the experience wouldn’t be as good, with lower fidelity graphics, but it meant it was accessible to everybody.”

Young added that anyone investing in high-end technology for VR should ensure they understand how long the investment is likely to remain up-to-date.

Accessibility trade-offs

Chris Guerin is the owner of CGI production company Short CGI, creating e-learning and marketing content. He is also owner and CEO of Xpllore, a spin-off ‘created by accident’ which is working with Vodafone to distribute high-end VR via 5G.

The firm’s clients include defence company BA Systems and Rolls Royce.

Guerin said these sectors had dabbled in VR but the cost of a headset, PC, dedicated software and ultimately an IT person to look after it wasn’t justifiable unless it was being used by thousands of employees.

But the alternative option – mobile-based technology – still had drawbacks in terms of the quality of the experience.

The firm is experimenting with cloud-based computing in the hope that faster 5G connections will allow the raw power of a large PC to be accessible through a much smaller, wearable device powered by a phone.

Guerin, who previously worked at Rolls Royce, said that while the company began by outsourcing CGI imagery and animation to improve learning, it eventually adopted an in-house team which he was part of.

Now, he said, it’s gone full circle and that internal team no longer exists.

“The troubles you have within any large organisation is the speed of technology, and even more so in the last few years, even smaller companies are finding there is always a new headset, platform and technology,” he said.

“It’s hard to keep up with the speed of change, and large organisations just can’t do it, and it would be dangerous to go ‘all-in’ on an in-house development team.”

He said companies hoping to train staff should have an expert in training who is focused on all technology options who can drive to provide the best content to meet specific needs.

Developers of the software also need to be able to create something which works across platforms, he said.

From training to qualifications

While VR and AR are widely established as methods of improving and expanding training, the data created from mixed reality training is also being considered as a method of assessments.

Young said that the data captured from this type of training can be more accurate than its face-to-face counterpart.

“We do a lot of soft skills-based training and we analyse a lot of communication, specifically team-based communication.

“With a lot of the AI data analysis solutions we have, you can analyse content-based information for sentiment, you can analyse how people are communicating as a team, as well as how they’re responding to the objectives set by the learning outcomes.”

He said the goal for immersive technology was to set new standards for training.

Guerin added that as someone who suffers from dyslexia himself, both education and examination might better suit the types of learners who are more visual.

“A huge amount of education has been based around one of the smallest ways people learn and are benchmarked.

“It’s a bit of a pet hate of mine, having to sit in an exam and try to be the person that I’m not.

“My hope for VR was is the idea that you can essentially give a learner a choice about how they want to learn.”

Who should design mixed reality education?

Dr Timothy Jung is the director and founder of the AR and VR hub at Manchester Met University, which conducts researching and consulting, alongside some proof of concept and development research.

He is also conference chair of the International AI and VR Conference, held in Manchester and now moving internationally.

He said that any business considering the addition of AR and VR learning should look not first to the technologists but those designing the training.

“The more I do the research and consulting, the more I realised that the two most important factors are ease of use and perceived usefulness,” he said.

“Instead of looking at technology first, I think we should go back to what are the issues and problems with training. Expertise involvement is so important. We should ask if there is any way technology can help as a tool.

“If you try to force a solution, there is usually resistance. The frontline should be consulted first, to work out what type of technology could support what they are already trying to do.”

What advancements in mixed reality tech could improve adoption?

Asked what hurdles these new technologies still pose when training, O’Connor said that the last challenge for VR is the often cumbersome handheld controllers, which act as a proxy for user’s hands in many VR simulations.

“I find that it’s like trying to do a task while wearing boxing gloves. I want that to go away, and it looks like that’s going to be sorted pretty soon,” he said, pointing to the Oculus Quest headset which includes hand tracking, and advancements in ‘haptic gloves’ which simulate touch.

Guerin said more content would improve adoption and drive adoption, and therefore advancements in the hardware. Until then, he said, “it’s like having a television with four DVDs”.

Traditional methods of training do not really meet future-proofing needs, nor really do e-learning solutions, said Young.

“If you sleep on immersive technology at the moment and you’re not even looking at integrating that into the workforce you’re going to run into real problems,” he said, citing large institution such as the NHS which are currently investigating its benefit.

“The future is going to be a more distributed workforce, with a more data-driven approach to training.

“Nothing else can really capture that data from the combination of immersive technology and artificial intelligence, and then feed that back into the learning environment to create a transformational impact on the business.”