Just a scant few years ago, virtual reality was the talk of town. Everyone was talking about it. Renown news platforms such as Times and Vanity Fair devoted eye-catching and flashy cover stories to the tech. In 2015, Facebook paid US$3 billion to acquire the budding VR headset maker, Oculus VR. Virtual reality was the innovation that was “about to change the world”.

Today, the dream of goggle-wearing masses has deflated. We are nowhere nearer to our aspirations of experiencing the Star Trek ”Holodeck” and investment in the tech has dwindled. However, relatively small VR companies such as Talespin, started by Kyle Jackson at the height of VR’s popularity, have found a growing market in simulating some of the less entertaining aspects of our lives: our jobs.

While some may recoil at the thought of using such enchanting technology for anything other than entertainment, the past few years have made it clear that consumers are not yet ready to visit fantasy and fictional worlds during their free time, at least not at the current price point, but for businesses that need to train their workers, better tools are a necessity, not a luxury.

“What you’re seeing today is not an evolution but a return to the application that’s always worked,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and one of the founders of Strivr, a competing virtual reality training startup. He traces the roots of virtual reality back to the Link trainer, a mock airplane fuselage mounted on a platform that could simulate real flying sensations, which half a million military pilots used to safely train during World War II.

A good example of VR’s application in job training simulations can be seen through Talespin’s first major client, Farmers Insurance Group. The client required a new method of training claims adjusters for home inspections. Talespin designed a virtual house, complete with cluttered closets and leaky sinks, that trainees could scour for evidence of water damage. The simulation changed slightly each time, letting new hires rack up months’ worth of experience in just a few days.

Some have questioned whether a virtual human can actually make you uncomfortable. However, mediums such as video games and animations have already proven to be able to evoke intense emotional responses. Virtual reality takes this to the next level by putting the person within the scenario itself.

Emotional realism is what separates virtual reality from all other training tools for teaching interpersonal skills in the workplace. Other methods such as pamphlets and role-playing workshops to interactive tutorials just do not the same level of experience.

Talespin themselves have developed a demo to show first time clients. Said demo involved the user attempting to fire an employee named Barry in a tact manner. The visuals that trick the brain into feeling like you’ve been transported to another space, the speech recognition software that allows you to speak and be understood, all combined with the compelling design of Barry himself (many of the company’s employees have past experience in video game design), makes for a compelling and visceral experience compared to watching a video on a screen.

The solitude of virtual training also makes it more effective than real-life role-playing, according to its proponents. In a group setting, the fear of public failure and the natural tendency to avoid awkwardness can discourage or inhibit learning.

With the dawn of automation, AI, and robotics, the labour market is fundamentally changing. Whereas past waves of automation have hit blue-collar jobs the hardest, this change is likely to be a shiv between the ribs of white-collar workers as well, due to the redundancy that such high-end tech creates.

Jackson believes that VR tech like the one his company is developing can help workers deal with  the constant job churn that may become the norm.


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