By James Oakley, eLearning Developer

Mark Zuckerberg’s debut of the metaverse in 2021 was met with a mixed reaction from the public. While some praised the sheer potential that a transition to a virtual sphere offered, others were skeptical of implementing this technology too suddenly.

I first became acquainted with the term ‘metaverse’ during a long, dull summer back from college, when I pulled out a dusty copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash from my father’s bookshelf. Even today, I cannot help drawing comparisons between Stephenson’s depiction of this digitized reality and what Zuckerberg and big tech hope to accomplish in the decades to come.

Regardless of any impressions I might have gained from a summer of reading science fiction, it is undeniable that the metaverse has captured the world’s imagination, and in turn many companies have embraced this new digital frontier.

For our industry, this shift has tremendous implications. For those of us in the Learning and Development sector, we must adapt to the changes that are happening and that will happen in the future. Even if some of us remain skeptics of metaverse-based trainings, we need to have at least one foot in the water, as we learn about the ways the metaverse will impact our industry.

Currently, metaverse L&D falls into two separate categories — virtual and augmented reality. A direct result of the pandemic, remote learning has become the standard for company training, and due to the shift away from classroom instruction, there is a greater desire to create learning experiences that are as immersive as possible.

What is Virtual Reality?

In Virtual reality (VR), the learner uses a VR headset like Oculus or Meta Quest to immerse themselves in a completely simulated, three-dimensional environment. From the relatively mundane settings of a home or corporate office, the user can go anywhere or theoretically place themselves in any situation. The opportunities offered by this kind of training are obvious. VR training offers a consequence-free setting for the learner to practice all types of skills as it relates to the training sphere, including, for example, simulated surgery on a virtual patient. The possibilities of VR training are limited only by the extent of the imagination.

What is Augmented Reality?

If VR replaces what you currently see, Augmented reality (AR) takes what is already around you and adds to it, effectively superimposing a new digital layer with images and information on your present surroundings. AR can be facilitated by the same VR headsets mentioned above, ‘smart glasses’ like Microsoft HoloLens or Google Glass, or even your smartphone via the camera app. While AR doesn’t promise the same level of complete immersion promised by VR, it’s unrestricted by movement and allows the user to interact with a world that has been sensorily enhanced.

What to consider when using AR and VR

We can be certain that AR, VR, and the metaverse will have established footholds in the L&D industry in the future, however companies and instructional designers need to be wary about when and how to use each form of training, and if VR or AR should be used at all when another solution would work just as well. Factors such as cost, accessibility, and ease of implementation should be on the mind of any training department or design house whenever AR and VR are mentioned.

How will VR be used?

Anyone wishing to implement a VR training will need to consider the amount of upfront cost associated with it. One will need to think about the cost and time associated with planning out the course, creating the custom 3D environment the learner will interact with, buying sets of VR equipment, and investing in an Extended Reality System (XRS) to track learner progression and manage the learning content. All these costs can run a company upwards of $150,000 depending on the training solution.

Logistics is also an important consideration with headset-based training. Companies implementing VR training will need to consider how employees will access headsets and what works for their business structure; whether they will be shipped to individuals, hosted and maintained at a corporate site with employees traveling, or at multiple sites where local employees can visit. Retail groups may decide to host a few headsets at flagship stores where employees from neighboring stores can visit on slower days and schedule training time. Corporate offices with non-remote staff may hold VR training events in office and encourage employees to take a break from their desks to “play.” Fully remote companies may schedule headset shipments with each employee having a week of access, after which the headset is shipped back, serviced, updated, cleaned, and sent to the next employee on the schedule. Before purchasing or deciding on any specific hardware, companies should also plan for how software, firmware, and hardware updates will be managed for headsets or any specialized equipment.

It is reasonable to conclude that VR will be used in a limited, but extremely specific context in the near future. Learners will use the headset in a classroom-based setting to practice and train in situations where hands-on, immersive experience is essential. Expect VR to be implemented in a small number of high-importance trainings for each industry, where said trainings can be used repeatedly with minor updates needed every year or so. Employees can use VR to operate potentially dangerous machinery and equipment without worrying about safety, or practice customer service and soft skills training “face to face” with a simulated person.

As I mentioned earlier, one particularly enticing possibility is the concept of medical trainees performing surgery on a ‘live’ patient in the VR Metaverse, without the risk to a real patient in traditional training. Similarly, anatomy training for medical students could be conducted on virtual cadavers.

Another key feature VR metaverse training offers is its use as a community training tool. There are already several companies and even universities that have created metaverse spaces to hold virtual classrooms and consortiums. In the last two years, virtual reality platforms like VirBELA and AltspaceVR have been extremely successful in hosting immersive VR work conferences, placing hundreds of employees at a time in a digital auditorium. In these metaverse platforms, learners can roam around a computer-generated world and occupy several different ‘classrooms’ for smaller, group-oriented sessions. Such is the promise of this kind of VR learning that some universities are even opening ‘Metaversities’ this fall, allowing students to attend classes in a digitized likeness of their college campus using a Meta Quest 2 headset.

VR has the promise to create highly-effective training which will engage the learner in ways never previously seen, however this approach needs to be tempered by pragmatism and reality (no pun intended).

How will AR be used?

While AR doesn’t promise the same level of depth and immersion guaranteed by VR training, AR promises a higher level of interactivity and engagement over traditional training models. This training is not without its costs. There still will need to be extensive amount of design and programming associated with it, as well as managing an XRS to administer the content, however in a head-on comparison with Virtual Reality, there are fewer considerations with Augmented Reality, and it can be implemented on a wider, more accessible scale.

Unlike VR, AR can be incorporated into not only headsets, but your computer, tablet, and even smartphone. This guarantees that training can be done anytime and anywhere, which aligns with the self-paced form of instruction modern eLearning often requires. It also allows learners to access training from the comfort of their home, office, or anywhere they can use their cell phone, removing many of the logistical issues that come with VR.

Over the next decade, AR will most likely be what we see on employees’ phones and tablets, as it is the most efficient and cost-effective means of delivery. AR training is most effective when focusing on single or limited topics or procedures. For example, a retail associate could scan an item of clothing in their store using a smartphone or a tablet and receive training information that would lay atop the scanned image. The associate could learn if the item is for sale, what the item is made from, how to maintain the item, what accompanying items to recommend as add-ons, etc. In a remote work setting, an AR feature on a smartphone could provide detailed, immersive instructions on setting up or repairing office equipment sent over by the employer without having to call technical support.

The Future of Training

Both types of metaverse-based trainings have incredible potential in the future, and with innovation comes the need to adapt to thrive. As members of the Learning and Development industry, it is pivotal that we familiarize ourselves with this technology and its applications so we can meet any challenges in the coming years and stay ahead of the eLearning curve.