Heart pounding and palms sweating, the aircraft pilot unbuckles her safety harness, exhausted but elated at having landed the plane on just one engine. She steps out of the cockpit… and into a classroom where she receives warm congratulations from her peers for a successful simulator session.
For years airlines have been training pilots in what are sometimes terrifyingly realistic scenarios that mimic the conditions and problems of a real flight. These Virtual Reality (VR) training sessions allow pilots to learn how to handle realistic inflight situations, without the cost or safety risk of training in a real aircraft.
WSP’s MediaLab is applying this “virtual” approach to Health, Safety, Security and Environment (HSSE) training across multiple industries, providing clients with a new and highly effective approach to employee safety training.
Technology and knowledge make VR training in HSSE possible
Several trends have converged to make Virtual Reality (VR) the next stage in HSSE training:
- Realistic video games — Consumer-level games have pioneered the depiction of real-world circumstances in a way that responds to the user’s actions. Many of the techniques used in video games can be applied to real-world HSSE scenarios. In addition, the concept of “gamification” — incorporating game-playing elements such as point scoring, competition, and rules of play — increases user engagement and knowledge retention.
- Lower cost electronics — Camera rigs, with the ability to capture a 360-degree view, previously cost thousands of dollars (or euros), but are now available for hundreds. Likewise, VR headsets are available off the shelf for a few hundred dollars. What’s more, prices are dropping even as the resolution and capability of these devices increases. This type of wireless equipment means less distraction for the user, making the simulation more realistic.
- Better platforms — VR-enabled Learning Management Systems (LMS) are becoming more capable, easy-to-use and cost-effective. Likewise, the computer power needed to develop VR training is becoming more accessible.
How does Virtual Reality keep employees safe?
With the growing demand for HSSE training, many companies are using VR simulator training for general fields such as forklift operation and truck driving. However, we see a need for VR training to be applied in niche safety scenarios, such as entering a confined space like a storage tank, performing inspections in challenging terrain, reviewing complex operational procedures that require specific sequences of tasks, and operating in an environment with moving vehicles.
As the MediaLab team continues to develop VR prototypes, we have gained insights into how immersive media improves the quality of training for niche scenarios. After using one of our training prototypes, a user was asked if the VR training she’d experienced was more effective than a traditional multiple-choice test, she responded as though the answer was evident to everyone: “You obviously learn better when you perform the activity instead of just studying it!”
While there are many contributing factors, here are some other reasons why VR training is a revolution for HSSE training:
- Be there — The immersion that VR provides is the closest simulation of field conditions possible with current technology. Anyone using a VR headset explores the world employing the same cognitive patterns they use in normal life; rather than just looking at images, they move to choose what to look at, in an environment with three dimensions of freedom. They understand the spatial relations among the objects around them. Sound works in three dimensions too, so that if they hear a vehicle approaching from behind them, they can interpret it as such. This reinforces the illusion of being there and is what psychologists call a “sense of presence.”
- Trial and error — The simulation of reality is intense — but the world into which users are immersed is designed and controlled. This allows people who “live” the experience to experiment with behaviours without suffering the consequences of those actions. They can fail, and fail again, and find what is relevant and what is not in any given situation. They can also monitor their progress on a learning curve.
- Focus — As any trainer knows, it is important to keep a trainee’s attention engaged, particularly in HSSE. HSSE training can save lives and prevent serious accidents, but people undergoing training do not always understand the importance of focusing on the behaviours they have to internalize. VR training prevents people from being distracted by anything other than the experience they are “living.” The virtual experience so fully saturates a trainee’s senses that distraction from the focus of the training is impossible.
- Engagement — Let’s state it clearly: Virtual Reality is fun. The new wave of VR technology has emerged from gaming because it is very easy to design experiences that behave like games. Gamification is a widely used strategy to engage people and make them learn with pleasure and satisfaction. VR is a natural ally in using the power of gamification to engage a trainee’s full attention.
Other benefits of VR training for HSSE purposes are:
- Autonomous learning — There’s no need for a professional trainer to be present (since that experience can be simulated in the virtual environment), or for special equipment other than the VR unit. Employees can learn and get refresher training any time.
- Simulating extreme conditions —VR allows employees to experience scenarios, including those that would be dangerous in real life, but for which they need to be trained (such as the unplanned release of a hazardous gas).
- Delivery in any language — For global companies HSSE training in the local language demonstrates respect for the culture and clearly conveys information in a way that works for employees and maximizes effectiveness and knowledge retention.
- Cost effective — While there are up-front expenses and time required, this investment gets spread out over many people, making it more practical than live delivery of training.
These benefits, combined with recent advances in technology, mean that Virtual Reality will continue its growth in HSSE applications. WSP and its MediaLab team will continue to develop, pioneer and apply Virtual Reality to the very real need to keep employees safe.