The future of training is blended and should include a mix of in-person sessions and VR components.
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the official website of the Swiss Chamber of Tourism under the “Davos” tab is the description of the this Alps destination as “a place of superlatives”. The second thing that will catch your eye is a friendly Roger-Federer-lookalike avatar eager to answer all of your leisure-related questions. These two features are related. And here is how.
In February 1996, John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in Davos. Barlow’s vision of a self-governing internet, where cyberspace is removed from the physical world, sounds like an anarchist utopia with dystopian elements.
“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live”, Barlow postulates, foretelling Mark Zuckerberg’s promises in his Metaverse manifesto. “Our identities have no bodies”, he continues.
However, in Barlow’s digital utopia, bodies do exist albeit in a virtual manner – from the advertising industry avatars to the holograms of Mark Zuckerberg’s coworkers in the Metaverse. (Holograms are three-dimensional images formed by the interface of light beams.)
A group of academics at Stanford University and Columbia Teachers College have devoted the past decade to understanding how avatars influence learning. Specifically, Dr. Sandra Okita has published a paper showing that the mere act of having a social interaction with an avatar helped students improve their learning experience. Scholarly papers on avatars in communication and media, as well as in sports and training, present similar results: avatars act as drivers for change in attitude and motivation, his brings us back to the friendly headband-clad avatar of the Swiss Chamber of Tourism website. His sole presence should make us feel connected to a reality that is more “human” and therefore appealing to the average user who will likely spend more time on the website.
REALITY? OK, BUT WHICH ONE? A BRIEF HISTORY OF VIRTUAL AND AUGMENTED REALITY
According to Brenda Laurel, scholar and VR expert, “it’s extremely important to understand that ‘reality’ is a human-centric notion as it rests on human attributes that are not the same as those of a cat or a whale or a microorganism. Of course, one of our many great opportunities in VR is to represent as best we can those other species’ realities.”
Although the phrase virtual reality was coined in 1987 by Jason Lanier, the attempt to give the illusion of being present somewhere else dates back farther. In fact, if the goal of VR is to fool someone’s brain so it perceives something as real when it is not, we can consider those panoramic paintings from the nineteenth century as precursors of VR, at least in their intent of influencing the viewers’ sense of reality. It is that same sense of reality that was tricked in 1895, for a small audience that panicked and left the room where a projection of the arrival of a train was being shown for the first time.
VR historians talk about a first wave of virtual reality, spanning from 1985 to 1995, whose aim was to allow users to take some kind of action in computer-generated environments (that was the virtual component). Augmented reality (AR) was kicked off even earlier, in 1968, with Ivan Sutherland’s Sword of Damocles. In AR the user interacts with an environment (typically a “reality”) that is augmented through overlays that employ sound, sight, or other senses to increase or change his/her perception.
Nowadays, there is a good deal of definitions of VR, all overlapping in key areas. When deploying concept of “VR” now, we refer to computer-generated imagery and hardware explicitly designed to bring sights and audio to the user in a totally immersive fashion. However, according to Laurel, to really convey that sense of reality, technology must achieve not only sensory immersion in a virtual environment, but most importantly, it must provide a sense of presence and a sense of agency. In other words, based on Laurel’s Virtual Reality’s Principle of Action, “A participant must have affordances for moving about in the scene. A participant must be able to take action in the world and perceive the effects. This is part of the larger sense of personal agency” which is “characterized by frequency, range and significance of actions one may take”.
Laurel analyzed the evolution of VR and AR from their inception as powered by three agents: capability, intent and, not surprisingly, invention. Ever-evolving capabilities and intents are effectively shaping the virtual and augmented reality ecosystem, and examples of such are manifold. To mention just a few, in medicine, VR and AR have been providing immersive interactive displays of the patient's anatomy, gaining a meaningful role in planning, training, inter-procedural guidance and rehabilitative therapy.
Novartis, Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb have successfully developed virtual reality pharma labs where instructors demonstrate life-saving tasks such as the precise and delicate process of transferring liquid and hand the pipette to students, who safely rehearse the same procedure. AR and VR tech companies are partnering with mental health providers to develop solutions for individuals with mental health conditions and behavioral disorders to provide alternative treatment methods to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorder, phobias, and learning disabilities and difficulties.
Earlier this year, the New Yorker featured an article boosting the positive impact of a VR training for journalists in hostile and dangerous environments. VR goggles on, the training catapults the participants in eerily realistic landscapes featuring screaming mobs, car bombs, violent right-wing activists, and terrorist attacks, among other scenarios. Extremely satisfied participants claimed that this sort of simulations allowed them to safely improve their decision-making skills in ways that journalism schools or even field work could have never prepared them for. It is the sense of reality and of agency that did it for them, so much so that a participant claimed to have “tasted that metallic, get-me-out-of-here adrenaline flavor at the back of his mouth”.
AR is successfully being used in manufacturing: for instance, Thyssenkrup uses Microsoft HoloLens (a self-contained holographic computer allowing interaction with high-definition holograms overlaid in the real world), with the goal of designing tailored-made home mobility solutions to help people overcome physical limitations. Equally successful is AR use in defense from hack attacks, hair salons offer AR hair consultations, and VR meditation and mindfulness apps are thrivingly delivering that transformational experience promised by yoga retreats. Caitlin Krause, founder of Mindwise, a design studio for meaningful Extended Reality (XR), and senior strategist at the Virtual World Society, argues that “VR is not a medium but an experience that can bring people back to themselves”.
Ergo, if XR - as a concept encompassing all computer-generated real and virtual environments and human-computer interactions - can improve our professional and educational landscape, as well as our mental and physical health and our leisure, how the intent and capabilities in developing new ways of seeing and experiencing can lead VR and XR technologies to enhance skills development, upskill and reskill in TVET?
Back to Barlow’s manifesto: “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live”, he boasts. However, bodies do inhabit this world: bodies that labor and bodies that receive and use the products that are manufactured for them. If Barlow’s digital utopia does not foresee the presence of bodies, we, on the contrary, need to reflect on the following questions:
Representatives of XR companies and XR experts were invited to the ITCILO XR EXPO that took place in early December, where answers to these and other crucial questions dared to be answered.
Just as much as it is influenced by what Laurel defines as “the three-way dance of capability, intent and invention”, XR is driven by the relationship between hardware and software. Training platforms are only as good as their hardware capabilities. In their 2020 Review of Extended Reality (XR) Technologies for Manufacturing Training, Doolani and colleagues state that “Interaction [between hardware and software] plays a huge role in making any training platform successful. The demand for better interaction hardware and software is higher than ever. Hopefully, we will have better haptic gloves and wearable sensors that reduce the sense gap between the real and virtual worlds, making the experience as real as possible. […] The capabilities and quality of XR training platforms also depend on the software. Good quality software is needed to run on the hardware, as well as to create the XR content”.
XR Content creation for TVET training has been regarded by Fabio Nascimbeni, Human Capital Development Expert at the European Training Foundation, as one of the obstacles to the adoption of XR in the professional development and skills acquisition of VET workers.
The digital mindset, Fabio argues, is what we – as a society – understand about the digital world, it is the cognitive component, which, in turn, sets its foundations on knowledge, skills, and attitude. In one word on “competence”
Skills acquisition is a crucial issue that not only interests TVET workers, but also the XR labor at large. Marius Preda, Professor at TélécomSud Paris, highlights the difficulties faced by the XR workforce:
How to deal with the mismatch between the demand for skills in the XR labor (97% of companies lamenting the lack of XR skills among the specialized workforce) and the growth of the XR sector by 1400% in the past 2 years?
The XR sector has great potential to bring forth significant economic value to the existing industries, but such growth is destined to be hindered unless the skills needed to fill key jobs are mapped in a way that will foster the training and development of the talent pipeline.
On their 2020 report Skills for immersive experience creation James Bennett and Amanda Murphy collected through interviews, skill surveys and focus groups, the experiences of professionals representing over 100 companies operating in the British XR landscape. One of the interviewees reported: “It’s not clear what the skills are because things are changing so fast, it’s a train that people are trying to jump on”. According to the authors “developing robust, up-to-date labour market intelligence on skills in order to forecast demand and identify pinch points across the immersive economy will be crucial to developing a talent pipeline”.
Most conversations in the XR realm revolve on the development of tangible products whose success is measured in the way they meet the transformative markets’ request as quickly and as efficiently as possible. However, much of the XR labor has to do with the intangible, with slow changes. Again, with the mindset, rather than the headset.
Lorenzo Capannari, CEO of Anothereality, is no stranger to adapting his own mindset to the unpredictable markets demands of the XR landscape: the company that he built has leveraged its experience in virtual gaming to solve real business problems thanks to virtual worlds technologies and immersive solutions. Lorenzo claims that XR training cannot simply rely on skills acquisition, andtrainings need to be engaging experiences. “When costumers are engaged, they are not just trained, they are motivated, and they come back for more”. This goes beyond the Degrees of Liberty allowed by VR technology, it’s about creating immersive environments where trainees have the freedom of engaging in meaningful learning experiences where they are the agent of their actions, whether they are developing the target skills in a first-person VR simulation, or whether they are accomplishing a task through an avatar.
Interaction design has been improved over the years by major enhancements in the fields of machine vision, GPS and Bluetooth, video tracking, eye-tracking, and modeling-and-simulation. New user-friendly inexpensive platforms have been made available to both developers and customers, and the pervasiveness of smart phones, has made possible for AR apps to be embraced worldwide in the spam of a few weeks: think of Pokémon Go as a pioneer of personal agency for all in an affordable AR context.
The amount of personal agency afforded to costumers is key for company such as BodySwaps, who provides engaging, safe, and effective way for employees to train soft skills and bridge the ever-elusive gap between learning and workplace performance. CEO Christophe Millet describes how his company designs immersive VR scenarios where users are trained in employability skills (ranging from soft skills training to job interview practice, to leadership and teamwork skills acquisition). Emotion and engagement are inherently linked in virtual environments, and scholars have widely investigated XR positive effects on them. Educational designers have long focused on learning achievement measured by tests score, often overlooking other crucial variables of the learning experience, such as individuals’ motivation, emotions, and engagement as active players in fostering learning outcomes.
What in XR is called “principle of agency”, has been part of psychological investigation since 1954 under the name of “Internal Locus of Control”. According to psychologist Julian B. Rotter, internal locus of control promotes the belief that outcomes may be directly influenced by one’s actions, rather than by uncontrollable external influences. Scholars have recently started to analyze the effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on locus of control, one of them being the achievement and retention of learning gains. Although further research is needed, it is foreseeable that such experiences will find successful application in distance learning, training and life-long learning.
In order to be deemed effective, in the TVET context the skilling, reskilling and upskilling of workers and trainees, need to be demonstrated by a certification that, according to national standards, will prove the acquisition of the target competencies. In the enormous environment of XR training solutions, only a few companies provide certification at the end of a training.
Finland-based ADE is one of them: “VR has proven to be just as high quality and up to four times faster than the traditional form of traditional face-to-face teaching in term of time”, says ADE CEO Pasi Porramo. The training packages developed by ADE include theoretical e-learning knowledge acquisition lessons delivered via online classes, practical exercises in their VR simulator, and assessment through the virtual presence of an accredited assessor in the simulator.
In a landscape where the word “disruption” becomes synonym with “opportunity” and the people working in the XR ecosystem imbued it with an optimism that calls for no limits, it is important to reflect on how, as we walk the proverbial line situated “on the frontier of digital and virtual” (to quote Lorenzo Capannari), to make sure that the human component stays afloat.
In his piece for the New Yorker titled “Can Virtual Reality fix the workspace”, tech expert Cal Newport wonders if “virtual reality could take the overlapping onslaught of information that we currently squeeze into the limited real estate of a laptop monitor or smartphone display, and spread it back out, over both time and space, returning us to a more human rhythm of tackling one thing at a time, each in an environment that’s conducive to the effort”. Laurens Schröder is the head of marketing and sales at Arthur Technologies. Arthur is a large-scale virtual office space provider that enables organizations to meet, collaborate and manage their work in virtual reality. Arthur empowers organizations to maximize the level of remote productivity. Laurens believes that there is no productivity without the prior building of a sense of presence. Only if and once participants feel present in the virtual space, you can promote productivity. When it comes to facilitate productivity in TVET contexts, Laurens advocates for a mixed-reality type of training: “The future is blended” he says “a successful training package should include a mix of 2D-approach, hands-on-sessions with real-life instructors, and VR components”. Of course, the building of digital and XR ecosystems is key for the success of TVET trainings and learning scenarios, and it is crucial to promote partnerships with XR providers and governmental and non-governmental agencies, especially in developing countries.
The key role of the instructor in XR TVET training is highlighted by Antonio Fernandez Perez, Business and Partnerships Director at Seabery Augmented Training. Seabery developed “Soldamatic Augmented Training” for welders training, having helped customers saving 68% of the costs associated with welding training and increasing 34% the qualified welding students while reducing training time by 56%. Saldamatic pairs real-life instruction with students’ simulation in a safe AR environment where trainees’ skills are assessed and analyzed before being tested in a real welding workshop. “The AR component of the training is very easy to master” says Antonio “the issue relies on training the instructors to embed the needed content into the simulation to match their learning goals”. Antonio argues that “the average age of a welding instructor is 56: the aim of Seabery is for instructors and trainers to be an active part of the augmented reality training”. Nobody should lose their job to XR: with Seabery train-the-trainer program, is a proactive way of ensuring that the XR TVET landscape is one that benefits not only the learners but the trainers as well.
From “niche” to “ecosystem” is what Martin Mbaga, social entrepreneur and Technology For Development Expert at ImpalaBridge strives for. Impala is active in Benin with a variety of projects ranging from STEM education and gender inclusion in STEM learning, to the development of AR solutions designed to help nurses and midwives to make life-saving decisions for mothers and newborns. “The problem” Martin argues “is capacity building in Africa, and a lack of an ecosystem that can allow local workforce to be trained in XR solutions, without having to rely on expensive external providers”. The partnership that ImpalaBridge has developed with digital tech providers and with local universities and hospitals in Benin is a huge and necessary leap towards the building of a local XR market.
The concept of niche, or rather of “bubble” comes to mind when looking Mark Zuckerberg’s video promoting the Metaverse. Regarded as the next era of the Internet, the metaverse is a merged space that unifies digital and physical reality. It’s “an embodied Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” Zuckerberg boasts. Users will be able to communicate and navigate “across different layers of reality” he continues. In this eerily familiar future, the sense of presence, the principle of agency, increased productivity, immersive chances to socialize, collaboration and learning opportunities are just a few of the promises made by the metaverse.
In the Metaverse our avatars and holograms beam from the life-altering opportunity to have spent many hours straight in “immersive all-day experiences”. Cal Newport bemoans the metaverse’s emphasis “on the fantastical and its easy dismissal of analog experience”. If that is the direction we are headed, it is crucial that, as actors in the TVET landscape, we ask ourselves the following questions:
Jason Lanier said “We, the technology people have forgotten some of the responsibilities we have to the rest of society. We have promoted technologies that have an anti-human dimension, which have bankrupt people instead of helping them. This does not work. The paradise we are creating simply does not work for a large number of people.”
We might not have all the answers yet, but, as Fabio Nascimbeni argues, at this time and in this context, posing the right questions is half the solution. In the meantime, unlike the dystopian cyber-friendly future envisioned by Barlow in Davos, we must thrive to not only acknowledge the workforce at both ends of the XR receiving line, but to value their presence and shed light on their absence by providing affordable skilling, upskilling, reskilling and life-long-learning opportunities to workers, trainees and trainers alike.
Learn more about the ITCILO XR Expo 2021 and meet the thinkers and companies that are working to provide innovative inclusive XR solutions for the TVET workforce.