Is VR the next step in eLearning technology?

Virtual reality (VR) is an advanced technology used to simulate experiences, realistic and otherwise. It’s growing in prominence as the largest tech companies race to create the most advanced and consumer-friendly array yet. While a growing number of people currently associate the medium with video games and related novelty entertainment, VR got its start as a training tool and could prove to be the next big step in eLearning technology as it becomes more affordable and advanced.

VR is Not a New Concept

Nintendo's 1995 attempt at VR, the Virtual Boy

While it may seem like the next step into the future, VR has actually been around in some capacity since the 1970s. The first incarnation was used at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1977 to 1984. The term “virtual reality” was coined not long after at California company VPL Research in 1985. The 1990s saw a push for commercial releases of consumer headsets, including Nintendo’s infamous Virtual Boy game system, which launched in 1995 to disappointing results and was discontinued less than a year later. The demand was there, but the technology wasn’t quite ready yet.

After roughly a decade of relative disinterest in VR technology, the industry was revived in 2010 with the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. Using software written by renowned programming wizard John Carmack, the Rift would debut at E3 2012, a gaming trade show, and later sell to Facebook for roughly $3 billion. This kickstarted an ongoing competition between companies such as Valve and Sony who are trying to carve out a spot at the forefront of the VR industry.

VR as a Training Tool

VR has historically been used for training in high-risk working environments, with astronauts, pilots, and soldiers getting to experience the most advanced VR training programs. This was common due to the high cost and volume of accidents in these fields during a worker’s training phase. However, as VR becomes more flexible and affordable, we can look towards scaling down these training exercises for more everyday activities. Immersive, interactive training programs aim to increase info retention and muscle memory. This can apply to a huge variety of situations: it can be used to practice forklift driving, food preparation, or even theft prevention by simulating these circumstances without being taxing on time or resources. VR has also notably been proven useful as a form of therapeutic treatment for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Concerns: A Ways to Go

Despite all the recent advancements in VR technology, there are still many health and safety considerations to make before fully committing to a virtual training model. Beyond the usual concerns of motion sickness and real-life collisions, a constant source of worry is the tendency to induce seizures or blackouts in a small number of users. These symptoms and other developmental problems have proven to be more frequent with children using VR, which rules out using this approach for early childhood education. An estimated 25–40% of adult users experience the aforementioned motion sickness, a number which developers are trying to reduce as efficiently as possible. As VR in all its incarnations grows more prominent, users are sure to acclimate naturally – however, things are still fresh enough for it to be relegated to the sidelines for now.

VR is poised to offer seemingly endless benefits to the eLearning field, but it’s not quite ready yet. With multiple tech giants working away at it as we speak, the first true universal VR infrastructure can’t be far away. Especially with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift and its work on the so-called Metaverse, it’s becoming a true “blink and you’ll miss it” situation.

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