Virtual reality (VR) has hitherto been primarily associated with the gaming industry, where the technology was largely developed and refined. However, as rates of digital penetration rise and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) increases the demand for new skill sets, the technology is also becoming a mainstream business and skills-development tool.
Management consultancy Accenture notes that, while passive learning and memorisation have featured prominently in the past, the modern workforce is increasingly attuned to a more active approach whereby employees learn through practical experiences with the aid of tools such as VR. As an experiential learning method, VR has the potential to increase learning quality and improve memory retention by up to 75%.
The technology provides a fully immersive three-dimensional experience, during which employees gain hands-on experience in a safe and controlled virtual environment that closely replicates the real-world environment in which they will work. This has proven particularly useful in the South African mining industry, which continues to face safety challenges, says data science and technology implementation firm Business Science Corporation (BSC).
With VR having changed the learning landscape from people being passive observers to being active participants, BSC associate partner and Reality Science portfolio lead Darren Cohen explains that it is “fundamentally disrupting the way organisations are driving behavioural change to achieve business outcomes, as well as proactively mitigating risk”.
The technology reduces overall training costs, improves training efficiency and provides authentic learning experiences, while, as a software, it allows for “powerful insights into the strengths and weaknesses of employees by monitoring metrics such as what was looked at, in what order, and how long it took to correctly complete an assessment”, he elaborates.
BSC avers that there is increasing movement towards using VR in employee training and education, with the mining, telecommunications, financial services and retail industries leading the pack in terms of adoption and implementation.
Not-for-profit organisation the World Economic Forum research estimates that, by 2020, nearly 35% of the top skills required across all job families will change. Subsequently, there will be an increasing focus on retraining employees, says Accenture technology strategy MD Hans Zachar.
“We’re not saying that 35% [of jobs] will be redundant – we are saying that over one-third of the workforce will require a change in job description and activities on a day-to-day basis,” he tells Engineering News.
Essentially, there is massive demand for new forms of training linked to the digital evolution, as well as using digital technologies to deliver training more effectively, he adds.
“This intersection of a massive increase in training requirements and an already existing regime that needs to be overhauled . . . is what is really driving the use of technologies like assisted reality and VR,” Zachar highlights.
BSC CEO Elton Bondi believes that VR – in addition to the benefits of immersive advertising and its impact on industries such as tourism in Africa – can also be used to address the deficiency of skills development on the continent. This is particularly important in industries such as mining, for which international investors are yearning for returns, he adds.
“More often than not, the biggest barrier to this is the lack of skills in Africa . . . VR . . . is an obvious technology choice for companies that want to move the needle on how they build skills and capabilities through training,” Bondi notes.
In the African context, the full breadth of experiential learning technologies needs to be considered, says Zachar.
Broadening the definition of VR to include assisted and augmented reality, he explains that assisted reality focuses on using various technologies to provide additional information about a physical environment, while augmented reality expands the physical environment with virtual components.
Zachar argues that all these technologies can be applied to the environments in which they would be most suited. “You have to identify meaningful use cases in any environment, but particularly in the African environment.”
An experience needs to be of “great design” before it can be readily adopted, and any such adoption requires a culture change first: professionals – such as technicians, artisans and engineers – should have easy access to digitalised information, and in a format that can be easily used, he explains.
Contrary to a belief that Africa lacks the capability and resources to ‘leapfrog’ into the 4IR era, University of the Witwatersrand Mining Institute director Professor Frederick Cawood tells Engineering News that 4IR presents numerous opportunities for the continent’s unemployed youth.
These opportunities are characterised and made possible by good connectivity and a relatively low barrier to entry, he adds.
South African Impact
Given the scale of globalisation, international competition and the impact of technology on productivity, Bondi explains, VR will play a key part in imparting the skills needed to move the South African economy forward, adding that “it is most certainly a vehicle for change that all businesses in South Africa must consider”.
VR will be especially helpful in skills development for artisan training and equipment operator training, he adds.
“In part, these will be important required skills to boost the South African manufacturing sector, which is a key focus point for any developing economy that hopes to boost growth.”
Professional services firm Deloitte innovation unit leader Gregg Lister says the South African economy is fragile, owing to a number of real challenges which can at least partially be addressed through a combination of innovative thinking and new technologies.
As an example, Lister highlights the skills shortage, which he says is “at the heart of many of our greatest concerns”, and which needs to be carefully assessed to determine how best a technology like VR can be most impactful.
Deloitte Future of Work leader Talitha Muller adds: “The massive skills shortage is well recognised but the associated challenge of designing for the changing nature of skills required is often not fully appreciated.”
For example, she explains that by creating immersive scenarios in VR that simulate the impact of new technologies, it becomes obvious where current practices are inefficient and automation will make existing skills redundant.
“VR can then be used to actually teach new skills – for example, helping people transition towards more human-centred roles, like customer interaction,” she elaborates.
However, although VR has real educational value and “must be a part of the learning process”, it is not the solution for a weak educational base, warns Cawood.
“We must rely more on the educational system to deliver a certain ‘product’, rather than trying to fix knowledge gaps using VR.”
While Cawood believes that VR is “of great benefit” early in the learning process, it remains “overrated” as a tool to assess competence, which is assessed in the real world using a combination of learning tools.
The mining industry, in particular, is adopting the use of VR in education and training “in a big way”, he tells Engineering News.
“It makes sense, and VR learning is especially relevant from levels two to five of the National Qualifications Framework. For levels six and higher, there is merit in developing induction-type learning material using VR, while deeper learning at the higher levels requires supplementation of VR with traditional learning methods.”
“Anyone with a computing device that is connected to the Internet can develop applications and VR material. This is why it is so important to get the school system to deliver ‘tech-savvy’ learners with the appropriate skill sets to take advantage of these digital job opportunities.”
Cawood states that, provided that schooling in the foundation, primary and secondary phases is done correctly, specific skills can be acquired through Internet use, often free, through online learning.
Bondi believes that VR will be the “vanguard of the 4IR”, as this is exactly what the technology does, as 4IR is characterised by a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.
Whether VR technology will play a key part in developing the South African economy remains to be seen, says Bondi.
In this regard, awareness will play an integral role, adds BSC business development head Eben Odendaal.
“More people need to experience VR and witness its impact . . . Most people to whom we demonstrate VR technology have never [before] experienced it, but . . . it all comes down to exposure to the technology.”
However, BSC points out that businesses continue to adopt VR technology “at a significant rate”, which will increase only as the technology matures and awareness thereof increases.
Meanwhile, Lister believes that VR can play a role in assisting companies in keeping abreast of the pace of innovation.
“At its heart, VR’s power lies in the opportunity to make it easier to interact with new, fast-moving and increasingly complex information – a necessity for any innovator. There is no doubt that its cost effectiveness and ease of use are improving all the time. With that in mind, any company that is not exploring what it might do with this technology and thinking carefully about where it could really create a competitive advantage should be [doing just this],” he asserts.
Zachar adds that company management needs to have the right mindset and be comfortable with the technology before it can be implemented to achieve the desired outcomes.
“It really comes down to the opportunity to use the technology to make a meaningful impact on our immediate environment to improve safety or increase human skills levels,” Lister says, adding that the opportunity to make a difference and remotely educate people is “exciting”.