These technologies pose tremendous promise and possibility for the L&D industry, limited only by learning professionals' creativity and budget. Before taking a look at the future of learning technology, let’s first define the terms virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. The three terms are often used interchangeably, despite having some distinct differences.
Most people by now have encountered virtual reality in some capacity, or at least have a decent grasp of the concept. VR, which was originally pioneered by the video game industry, replaces the real environment with a completely virtual one. In a VR environment, anything is possible, and everything is digitized and able to be manipulated. VR typically relies on headsets to create the sensory illusion that the user is in a different location, often incorporating sound and the ability to explore the virtual setting by physically moving one’s physical body. Significantly, VR allows users to experience potentially dangerous situations and environments without being put in harm’s way, or to engage with serious or costly scenarios minus the risk.
VR is ultimately about experiential learning, not just cognitive information collection. Immersive 360-degree video has the effect of putting the learner in the location, offering them the ability to look around, zoom in, and experience the activity without actually going anywhere. Watching a video is one thing—experiencing it is something else entirely.
The marketing world pioneered augmented reality about a decade ago, but the L&D industry is only beginning to explore its performance improvement applications. Unlike VR, which places the user into another environment, AR uses digital elements and information to supplement and enhance real-world interactions.
The best-known forms of AR use a camera and display—typically mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, or wearable technology like Google Glass—to overlay graphical elements atop real images in real time. But AR is more than popup information in your field of view; if you’ve ever driven a vehicle that has lane assist technology, in which the seat vibrates when the car drives into another lane, you’ve experienced AR. Likewise, AR exists in more subtle and rudimentary ways—recorded animal sounds piped over speakers at a safari-themed restaurant, or the artificial scent of saltwater wafting through a tropical-themed casino in the desert. Learning can be experienced in profoundly engaging ways when we evoke more than just the visual senses.
Mixed reality is a sort of hybrid middle ground between VR and AR. Like AR, mixed reality exists within the user’s real environment, but rather than merely supplementing it, mixed reality seeks to alter our perceptions and experiences within the real environment. Mixed reality is the future of L&D, but due to its current high cost and rapidly evolving technological capabilities, it may be several years before it enters the mainstream.
This article focuses primarily on augmented reality, but many of the concepts and ideas also apply to virtual reality and mixed reality formats.
Minimizing Impact of L&D Gatekeepers
AR forces us to rethink our approaches to performance improvement, training, and learning. Workplace learning today still largely revolves around gatekeepers—facilitators, modules, courses, and curricula. Content and interactions are to varying degrees controlled, guided, and scripted. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is limiting.
Interaction in an AR setting differs from how we generally think of interaction in a training or eLearning context. No matter how good the gatekeepers are, they ultimately limit the learning that is available. AR moves beyond gatekeepers to open up a world of possibilities. In AR, the learner has the freedom to engage with the content on their terms, exploring and venturing with minimal constraints; traditional learning interactions, even ostensibly open-ended scenarios, are designed to more or less go down a predetermined path.
Of course, L&D will never escape gatekeeping entirely—the AR platform itself is a frame for the learning content and objectives—nor would it be advisable to do so. But learners as AR becomes more common, learners will no longer be restricted by geography, time, or materials, or by the limitations and whims of facilitators or instructional designers.
How AR is Being Used in L&D
AR is already being used for L&D in some amazing ways.
Learning immersion: The medical industry in particular has been pioneering the use of AR in immersive learning contexts. Immersion targets higher levels of thinking, allowing learners to see how components and systems work together in complex ways, and for learners to easily collaborate and interact with one another.
Job aids and microlearning: AR takes the notion of quick and in-the-moment learning to another level. For instance, some retail chains are equipping associates with mobile devices linked to RFID tags throughout the store, enabling the workers to pull up pertinent information and videos about products in a snap. This essentially provides them with breadth of knowledge that would otherwise take years of training to achieve, and does so seamlessly.
Just-in-time learning: Complex job tasks requiring deep expertise can now be delivered using digital elements while performing the task. AR overlays digital objects for information and guidance, in some cases supported by a remote instructor who provides step-by-step direction and correction.
Performance support: Big data is enhancing our ability to process and understand information in real time, shaping our decisions and actions. Performance metrics mold our behaviors and patterns on the job in real time. Facial recognition technology is an example of employing big data to recognizing our environment.
There are some challenges around tracking learning with regard to AR, as most learning management systems and organizational training programs are framed around traditional notions of courses and modules, and their ultimate completion. Newer models of tracking, such as xAPI and learning record stores, can be designed to account for learning that is experiential and which may lack a natural conclusion.
Currently, the biggest obstacle preventing VR, AR, and mixed reality from entering the L&D mainstream is cost. Short, moderately sophisticated solutions can easily cost well into six figures to develop, requiring skilled developers, and specialized software and equipment. Furthermore, it typically takes longer to develop than other modalities, and due to the rapid technological evolution still under way, there are obsolescence risks. Nevertheless, these technologies are no mere fads—they simply have too many potential applications to enhance learning and performance.
Ray Valenzuela has more than a decade of experience in enterprise learning strategy and performance support, specializing in business transformation and organizational excellence. Before joining Caveo, he spent 12 years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, culminating in becoming the academics chief for the Combat Instructor School in the School of Infantry (West). A Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and PMP certified, Ray holds a master’s in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of Phoenix and is currently pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership. He is director of programs for the San Diego Chapter of the Association for Talent Development.