Learning in a New Dimension: Using Virtual Reality in Business


I attended my first TEDx event last weekend at TEDxEastEnd in London. It was a privilege to listen to such a variety of incredible people speak about big ideas, such as:

  • Mobile technology bringing modern healthcare to rural Africa
  • The global issue of Honour Violence – violent acts committed to defend the honour of a family or community
  • How global open source satellite networks are revolutionising responses to disasters
  • Cultural intelligence, and why we need this in a globally interconnected world

One presentation struck me in particular. It was delivered by David Sackman, the CEO of a company that develops Virtual Reality (VR) technology. VR is a computer generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment, which can be explored and interacted with by the user. The user wears a special electronic helmet/mask that has a screen on the inside and noise-cancelling headphones. These products are becoming more and more accessible today as we make technological advances and as the technology becomes cheaper.

VR is being applied in all sorts of settings today to drive behaviour change, and one of the most interesting applications is how it is being used in pain relief. Hospital patients who have suffered severe burns, and who are going through the long & painful process of rehabilitation, frequently require dressing changes. The management of the burn pain to avoid patient suffering and reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorders is key – and is most important during dressing changes when the pain is at it’s worst. Using the VR technology, David’s company has created a simulation environment of an arctic wonderland, complete with calming music, falling snow, where the user sails through glaciers on a block of ice. From an environment so seemingly simple, tests show that burn patients experience a 30 to 70% decrease in perceived pain. That’s a huge statistic, and a testament to the power of our brain to affect our physicality.

David spent most of his presentation bringing the audience to understand why VR works so well – and it’s because our brain can’t rationally override our subconscious. Humans can be tricked. Even though we know in our rational state that the environment we see is fake, we can’t step off of a cliff into our virtual death.

Watch these two hilarious YouTube clips of ordinary people using a VR simulation of a rollercoaster ride, and REALLY going out of their minds – No. 1 and No. 2.

Some of David’s work has been around driving personal change through VR. Through a simulation environment where an individual sees themselves in the mirror as a person of a different race or gender, their research has shown that afterwards the user has a greater empathy towards that particular group. You’re literally putting yourself into a virtual pair of someone else’s shoes.

I am certain there are pieces of VR that could be brought into driving behaviour change in businesses. We know from studies that simulation exercises during recruitment & selection have a high correlation with future on-the-job performance – could we take those simulation exercises further? We also know that a certain number of people learn best by doing – could VR be used to drive behaviour change through Learning & Development interventions? It’s bizarre to think about such a futuristic tool becoming a part of business, but it’s not as far away as we think it is.

How do you think we could start using VR in business?

Step into the matrix!


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