Virtual reality, or VR, is a technology that is probably best known for its use in gaming. Even so, the last few years have seen various vendors trying to make the case that VR can be a good fit for the business world. Microsoft, for example, has embedded its Mixed Reality Portal into Windows 10. While it may be tempting to dismiss this as being little more than a nod to gamers, it is worth noting that Microsoft has also introduced VR capabilities into SharePoint. This begs the question of whether or not VR has a role to play in the enterprise.
It almost goes without saying that virtual reality is heavily used in certain vertical industries. I have seen use cases ranging from game development to engineering. I have also heard stories of medical schools using VR to train future doctors. Similarly, some of the world’s space agencies use VR to help train astronauts for EVAs (spacewalks). This type of training doesn’t negate the need for spending time underwater in an EVA suit, but VR can be a safer and less expensive option during the early phases of the training.
There is little question that VR can be beneficial in these and other vertical industries. But what about more generalized environments? Could VR actually be put to work in any sort of meaningful way in a brokerage firm, an insurance company, or at a retailer’s corporate headquarters?
Just as virtual reality can be useful in the training of doctors and astronauts, it can also be used as a training tool for other professionals. Believe it or not, VR technology is beginning to be embraced as a human resources training tool.
VR for HR
Recently, I read an article in MIT Technology Review about a VR-based training tool that is designed to teach HR professionals how to fire someone. Seriously. A company named Tailspin (not to be confused with the fictional company Tailspin Toys of Microsoft fame) creates virtual humans to help professionals to develop soft skills.
One of Tailspin’s more infamous creations is Barry. Barry is an older man who, in the simulation, is about to be fired. As Barry’s manager, it is your job to do the firing.
The underlying software supports hundreds of different conversation paths and depending on how a manager approaches the situation, Barry can react in a variety of ways. He might become angry, break down in tears, beg for another chance, or who knows what else.
Critics have expressed concern that practicing on Barry can desensitize managers to the act of firing someone, causing them to become cold and uncaring toward real-life employees. Some have suggested that the practice could even lead to unnecessary real-world terminations since Barry is designed to help managers become more comfortable with the idea of firing someone. Other people, however, have suggested that practicing on Barry could help managers learn how to stay strong during an uncomfortable situation, and to avoid accidentally breaking any laws during the termination process. The training provided by Barry could conceivably one day even save lives since the software presumably teaches managers how to deescalate the situation when Barry becomes angry and aggressive.
Barry is probably the most entertaining enterprise VR app that I have seen (although entertainment probably isn’t what its creators had in mind). Even so, it is far from being the only VR app that is designed to teach soft skills. I recently stumbled onto another VR app called VirtualSpeech. This one is designed to help its users to overcome the challenges of public speaking. The application allows users to practice speaking in front of audiences of various sizes, to help users to overcome the anxiety that is so often associated with public speaking.
Interestingly, VirtualSpeech offers several other virtual reality-based courses that are designed for business. These courses cover everything from learning how to give an effective job interview to managing workplace stress. The company even offers a course that is designed to teach employees how to sell.
Additional use cases
Although VR is beginning to prove itself as an effective tool for helping employees to master important skills, I can think of at least a couple more business use cases for VR. Someone may have already created apps for these use cases, but if so, I have not seen them.
It isn’t exactly a secret that it can be very expensive to have a booth at a major conference. In fact, it is not unheard of for the largest booths to cost a quarter of a million dollars just for the floor space alone. The actual booth hardware can add a substantial amount to the cost.
Whether large or small, conference booths can be expensive, so a company needs to make its investment count. With that in mind, imagine a company’s marketing department being able to design its conference booth in VR. A VR based tool could provide a significant advantage over a normal CAD program because it would allow the designer to visualize and explore a life-size representation of the booth. Additionally, such an application might even allow designers to simulate foot traffic. The marketing staff could experiment with various designs to figure out which design is the most visually appealing and is best able to handle the anticipated volume of traffic. All of this could be done long before the booth is actually constructed.
Workplace emergency training
Over the last year or so, I have heard a few stories of companies using virtual reality technology as a part of the new employee orientation process. I haven’t had the chance to check any of these applications out for myself, but from what I have been told, these workplace orientation apps are mostly designed to help new employees to learn their way around the corporate campus.
Personally, I think that it would make a lot of sense to integrate workplace emergency training into VR-based new employee orientation experiences. For example, a virtual campus tour might be adapted to include the location of the fire extinguishers within each building, as well as the chance to practice using them in VR. Such an app might even be used to teach a new employee basic first aid and other skills for coping with a workplace emergency.
VR in business: Worth a real look
Even though VR has been around in one form or another for decades, it has only recently become what I would consider to be a mature technology. As such, I think that it is probably safe to say that most organizations have not yet taken a serious look at business use cases for VR. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many people probably still think of VR as being something only suitable for gaming.
As time goes on it seems inevitable that VR will eventually catch on as a tool for use in business environments. I doubt that most people will find themselves using VR all day, every day, but VR will eventually become far more commonly used in the enterprise.
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