For football teams, time is an extremely precious commodity. Whether at the collegiate or professional level, league rules restrict how long players can spend on the practice field, getting every pass, blitz and block right before game time.
As a former player for Stanford University, Derek Belch knows these limitations well. So two years ago, he co-founded STRIVR Labs, a startup that uses virtual reality. Players can run VR simulations to rehearse specific formations, and coaches can get a first-person view of what their quarterbacks or running backs experience during a play.
For the 10 college and six NFL teams now deploying STRIVR’s VR technology, it means being better prepared for on-field action without having to spend extra man hours on the field. Games let users feel like they’re riding rollercoasters or flying through space are the first wave of applications of VR. Belch has shown VR is a good fit for pro sports. But where the innovation may really make a difference is in the office.
In a corporate context, experts say virtual reality can let remote employees meet in a 3-D environment using social avatars. It may allow companies to design better products, sell to customers in a more immersive way and, perhaps most critically, train staff faster and more comprehensively.
“There’s never enough time to get an employee up to speed fast enough to where they’re not going to make mistakes the first few weeks or months on the job,” Belch says.
STRIVR is in no way bailing on its sports roots, but thanks to new funding, the startup will offer VR as an office training tool for a host of industries.
“We’re taking the exact same formula that we’ve used for sports teams and applying it to businesses,” Belch says.
Think of pilots. Historically, they’ve relied on flight simulators to practice flying a plane without the risk, cost and hassle of physically taking an aircraft off the ground every time they want to fine-tune their skills. VR will make the same scenario possible for retailers who want to run through customer service scenarios with employees in a more realistic setting.
Belch also sees value for factories hoping to double down on safety protocols, or law enforcement agencies wanting to mimic how an officer would act in a hostage situation.
“These are areas where the cost of failure is very high,” he notes. “In a factory, if something’s left in the wrong spot by a worker, it’s an issue that can literally kill someone.”
In fact, one agency with a lot at stake, NASA has been one of the earliest proponents of virtual reality to supplement training for its astronauts, according to Brian Blau, an analyst with the technology research firm Gartner.
“There’s exactly one space station, and it’s not on Earth,” he says. “We can do all of the mock-ups we want to, but using VR, astronauts can train over and over from anywhere.”
Even for those not trying to get to other planets, VR can, with just a headset, transport users to less exotic worlds—like a home a realtor is selling—and make it possible to glimpse someone else’s actual perspective.
That’s why Blau envisions VR eventually playing a big part in companies’ human resources departments. Why just talk about sexual harassment when you can simulate scenarios and let a new hire experience them firsthand? Diversity training, too, goes up a notch when an employee can walk a mile in the shoes of a peer of another race, rather than just guessing what it’s like to be them.
The medical sphere will eventually be a major user of VR, Blau predicts. It could help surgeons rehearse complex operations and become a critical tool in treating some psychological conditions.
“If someone has a fear of heights, in VR, it’s easy to simulate having them walk to the edge of something tall,” Blau says. “If it’s a good simulation, you’re scared and you feel like you’re truly there. So it’s a way to address that phobia directly.”
Already, some of this VR content is making its way into hospitals and medical schools. For instance, Thies Pfeiffer, technical director of the virtual reality lab at the Cognitive Interaction Technology Center of Excellence at Bielefeld University in Germany (he also runs an annual workshop on VR’s role in the workforce), is leading a project that allows medical students to prepare infusions for patients in VR mode.
“Each procedure takes 15 minutes to do, and all 60 students need to do 10 to 15 repetitions,” Pfeiffer says. “With the simulation, you can save a lot of money and materials. The goal isn’t to completely replace the physical training, but to reduce the number of physical trainings.” He adds: “Also, with the VR training, the students will have more confidence because they can repeat the process even after they’re done with the lesson.”
That confidence element is key. Pfeiffer goes so far as to say VR training could, in the long run, correct the gender imbalance in jobs such as operating heavy machinery. Women tend to shy away from tasks where they’re less confident and more susceptible to errors, he says. VR training provides a “safe environment” for them to practice and explore skills over and over.
Beyond training, Pfeiffer sees virtual reality as a game changer in how employees interact, particularly as freelancers and remote workers multiply. Meetings in virtual reality are far superior to what else is out there, he says.
“Everyone has tried to use [Google] Hangouts or Skype for groups, but rarely does it work. You lose probably 40 percent just from turn-taking going wrong,” Pfeiffer says. “In virtual reality, you can see everyone or at least an avatar image of them, so the signals that you use in day-to-day communications work, and it’s much closer to being there with them.”
Despite all the excitement, getting VR deployed in offices everywhere won’t happen overnight.
“VR is not just something you beam out of a computer and everyone has it. You have to set up the hardware. You have to find the space to do it, you have to make it idiot-proof,” Belch explains. “Right now, HTC, Samsung and Oculus have really cool pieces of hardware, but they’re finicky. They’re not perfect yet or as simple as turning a TV on.”
Attitudinal hurdles also are a factor, as companies sometimes struggle to embrace new technology and alter how they’ve done business for decades. Blau suggests companies think of VR as simply another tool that can boost employee performance and that they adopt it in ways that will help their bottom line the most.
“To think of it as super exotic or put it on a pedestal is the wrong approach,” he says. “Let your employees get a hold of it, use it for a year, and tell you how good it is.”