There may have been a time when virtual reality was solely associated with gaming, but with total revenue for VR and augmented reality projected to rise to $162bn in 2020, this is quickly changing.

The technology is now being used across a wide range of sectors and increasingly leveraged to help train and educate people all over the world.

Advocates say the benefits are vast. VR allows companies to simulate dangerous or risky situations within a controlled environment, allowing them to deconstruct complex data into manageable chunks and do so in a cost effective manner.

Essentially, VR lets teachers, lecturers or anyone within an educational or training environment deliver large amounts of information in a more visually appealing and engaging way.

Making waves

VR has been making waves in military training for some time. It has been used to train soldiers before they are deployed on tour, and Professor Robert J Stone, chair in interactive multimedia systems at the University of Birmingham, has been involved in this very domain for the past three decades.

His first immersion in the field, he said, took place long before the emergence of the smartphone: in the early 1990s. Stone launched a project solely supported by British industry, which saw the likes of Rolls Royce, Vickers Shipbuilding (now BAE Systems) and the NHS participate in an attempt to find out how VR could be applied in aero engine and submarine maintenance training as well as in the teaching of complex surgical skills.

Stone has also been involved in various other VR training projects for the Ministry of Defence (MOD), including the provision of close-range weapon training for the Royal Navy; helicopter rear-door crew training for search and rescue; and avionics and maintenance training for the RAF’s F3 Tornado fighter aircraft.

The professor is also working on an advanced “mixed reality” concept for the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which involves blending real and virtual training components to train airborne paramedics working in war zones to recover casualties.

But despite his vast experience in the field and a succession of successful projects, Stone doesn’t think the tech has reached its full potential.

“I believe the technologies will, in time, and when carefully blended with real-world objects and systems, be both capable and affordable of delivering highly realistic training packages.

“Hopefully this will be backed up with hard evidence supporting the effective transfer of the skills acquired in VR from the virtual to the real world,” he added.

Ministry of Defence

The MOD has been quite public about its VR-related trials. In July 2011, it released a statement detailing how troops spent hours in simulators and replica operation rooms in Germany, driving virtual vehicles and commanding computer-generated ground patrols before they were deployed to Afghanistan.

More recently, it launched an innovation push supported by a £800m weapons innovation fund, which included backing for the use of VR helmets to practice in simulated air strikes. Just last year, the MOD publicised a project it undertook with Close Air Solutions, a Bristol-based technology startup, which facilitates training for defence and security personnel.

The startup, founded in 2012, showcased an innovative method to train UK joint fires soldiers using a simulation software combined with AR headsets and advanced head-tracking techniques. The project, funded through the Centre for Defence Enterprise, projected synthetic entities into a soldier’s field of view to blur their perception of reality, enabling the individual to train in a live environment with virtual objects such as aircraft, enemy personnel and vehicles.

Soft skills

VR is undoubtedly proving popular within UK military circles, but it’s also being used to train people to do less dangerous things.

Founded last year, London-based VirtualSpeech is using VR to help improve people’s communication skills. The self-funded firm, which recently joined Silicon Valley-based accelerator Boost VC, is hoping to help people hone their public speaking, interviewing and sales pitching abilities.

To do so, the startup has created two consumer apps: Public Speaking VR, which allows people to work on their communication skills; and Language VR, which enables users to learn English as a foreign language.

“There are huge opportunities for VR to be used in training, such as in learning and development initiatives, training for the use of potentially dangerous equipment, and language training. The main benefit of VR in these examples is that the virtual world is a safe space to be trained,” Sophie Thompson, the co-founder, highlighted.

Imagine you’ve started a new job, she said, it’s better to be shown how to work a piece of machinery using VR than making a potentially costly and dangerous mistake in the real world.

“Similarly, if you have a big sales pitch coming up, it’s better to practice and be given feedback in VR than in the real world, where that instant feedback might not be available or you might be too nervous to practice,” Thompson added.

Despite the obvious benefits, Thompson, like Stone, said there’s still a long way to go. The main challenge, she noted, is being able to change deep-rooted mindsets about traditional methods of training.

“It’s difficult to convince someone of the power of VR in training if they haven’t used it or aren’t a market leader in training innovations. There is likely to be a transition period of a few years before VR training is mainstream, but I think it will get there – employees need experiential, easily accessible learning in a safe space,” she added.

VR may still be nascent, but with predictions all pointing in the direction of progress, it’s not unrealistic to believe the technology will be used to equip future generations with the necessary skills to survive and develop across a wide range of industries.

This article first appeared on edition 14 of Tech City News’ popular print magazine – The Virtual Reality Issue. Buy your copy here.