The term and concept of Virtual Reality can be traced back as early as 1938, in Antonin Artaud’s influential book The Theatre and Its Double. He described the environment and concept of the theatre as “la réalité virtuelle”, a place that allows an audience to experience characters, objects, audio and imagery in a purely fictitious imaginary world. It is in our nature to pursue new, exciting and out of the ordinary experiences and this drive is now as strong as ever.

Virtual Reality as we know it (a reality experienced digitally) has only recently began to enter the mainstream due to recent technological advances in both hardware and software. Bringing cost down whilst substantially increasing performance has been key to the movement. The 90s saw several attempts to bring Virtual Reality to the masses. However, it struggled to cement itself in popular culture. Problems with cost, performance and applications caused Virtual Reality to become a distant memory of gimmickry and failure. Virtual Reality had fallen at the wayside but as we know, it would rise again with a new strength previously unseen.

There are many factors that contributed to the development of modern Virtual Reality. A major factor was the development of the crowd funding model. One of the most popular crowd funding sites in use today is Kickstarter, which was the platform chosen by Oculus VR. The California based company used Kickstarter to raise monetary contributions directly from those who backed and supported their ideas. In its initial crowd funding phase Oculus VR raised US$2.4 million to develop their first ‘development kit’, DK1.

In 2014 the social networking company Facebook purchased the Oculus VR start-up company for US$2 Billion. This move sparked serious interest in the VR industry and soon other large competitors began to invest in their own Virtual Reality ventures and the race to release the latest and great VR product had begun.  The current two front runners are the Oculus Rift headset and the slightly lesser known HTC (in collaboration with Steam) Vive headset. Although the Vive is slightly lesser known, it is becoming increasingly popular and is considered to currently offer the most immersive virtual reality experience to date due to its more advanced hardware.

The HTC Vive headset allows the user to experience 360 degrees of tracking through a 1200 by 1080 pixel screen. The most impressive feature is that the Vive is tracked using two laser emitting devices, each called a “lighthouse”. These enable the hardware to track your movement in a space as large as 15 square feet. HTC’s lighthouse technology now frees the user from their desk and chair, encouraging them to stand up, interact and explore their virtual world rather than a seated observer.

So what does all this mean for us now? The initial bugs have been ironed out, the technology is ready, we can now create! We know virtual reality has massive potential in the gaming industry, but equally as much potential in the digital learning and training industry. Although still a hugely profitable market, the digital learning industry has not seen much in terms innovation for quite some time and Virtual Reality could be the catalyst for change we have been waiting for.

The term gamification is often the first answer for those in the digital learning industry push forward when asked about innovation. Gamification can be an effective tool but can often become a gimmick that dilutes the learning experience in an attempt to create something “innovative” and in some cases means that the goal of creating a game overshadows the initial learning objective. Virtual Reality may initially suffer from some of the same assumptions associated with gamification and may even get overlooked. Nevertheless there are ways that it will benefit and transform the industry.

Until now we have been screen bound. We are visual learners that benefit from learning through experience and to a certain extent we have been able to satisfy our needs digitally with current technologies on offer, however there are gaps. Recently the blended learning approach has become a popular answer in bridging these gaps between needs. An example of a blended approach could be a method used to train those in the construction industry. Individuals would be able to interact with digital materials through a learning portal as well as being able to digitally asses and grade their progress, occasionally they would be required to experience some onsite training. Onsite training can be difficult to entirely replace digitally especially when learning to operate and repair machinery or when dealing with health and safety in a dangerous environment.

Screen based simulations are to certain level effective. They do bring added value to the learning experience and allow for some training which is otherwise difficult to carry out in real life. 3D simulations will allow us to explore and interact with objects and environments, all be it limited by a screen, but still with affect. For instance an individual could interact with a 3D model of a jet engine; removing parts, applying different stresses and experimenting with the object to produce different outcomes learning through experience. All in the safety of an office environment. Therein lies the key issue “in the safety of an office environment”. We struggle to feel a sense of danger or self-placement when an experience is screen based. Virtual Reality transports us from the safety of our office into a completely immersive world.

Imagine standing on the platform of a huge oil rig out in the ocean with no land in sight, the waves are crashing against the huge metallic structure below whilst large industrial equipment is swaying high above your head. Even as you speak you can barely hear your own voice over the clanking of metal and crashing of the ocean. Everything is telling you to prepare mentally and physically for an unforgiving environment that deserves your complete constant attention. A man in high visibility clothing approaches you and informs you that a pump has been blocked and needs your immediate attention. You carefully inspect the pump, two mechanical components dislodge from the pump and crash together, almost trapping your hand in-between them. Once you’ve assessed this risk you continue to work, fixing the remaining issue before returning the pump to full working order.

The entire experience was carried out in a virtual environment using the Virtual Reality headset and a pair of custom handheld controllers. As someone who has experience using VR equipment, I can assure you that no matter what your prejudices are against it, I guarantee you it will only takes a few seconds to be completely fooled into believing you are there. Even as you tell yourself that “this is not real” you still cannot control you instinctual reactions in a situation that throws dangers at you in the same way you would experience them in the real world.  Using these technologies to train individuals tests them against what they think they would do in certain situations, against what they would really do, thus proving invaluable in helping avoid real life mistakes, even after training.

A virtual world can feel both dangerous and demanding but it is also forgiving. It is only second best to real world activities, but it does have the huge benefit of allowing for mistakes. When mistakes are made on an oil rig people can be seriously injured or killed. Virtual Reality is the only way to train these individuals in their working environment without consequences past the virtual world, no matter how real they feel.

The oil rig scenario is extreme, granted. However Virtual Reality is not exclusively out there to simulate danger, Virtual Reality is designed to create immersion of all kinds. The scenario previously mentioned of a jet engine simulation, would be well experienced through a Virtual Reality headset. With Virtual Reality you can experience a true sense of scale and rather than the jet engine taking up the size of a standard monitor, you can stand in front of what feels like a real life sized piece of machinery. A sense of scale is essential when learning to understand how a particular component looks and sits within the rest of the machine or how to manoeuver around certain aspects of the machine. You now have to physically stretch and bend to observe and interact within the training. You will learn what is difficult to access and the best ways to reach it first-hand. We can move beyond the limitations of the physical world and pull apart the jet engine with ease, viewing cross sections, applying stresses all instantly without the worry of damaging expensive equipment. This is the freedom that Virtual Reality gives us to learn and experiment.

We have to also consider that learning with Virtual Reality is not only applicable to industrial training, it is hugely liberating to those that want to learn and experience but would normally struggle to do so in real life.

Children can explore rock formations in cave systems on the other side of the world, learning through direct experience, engaging on levels unachievable in any other way short of visiting them in person. Virtual Reality can spark imagination and inspire children to learn about subjects they had previously never considered to be of interest to them. The elderly and disabled no longer have to allow their physical limitations to hold them back, no matter what your physical abilities are, you can explore the highest mountains and the lowest depths of the oceans.

The dawn of Virtual Reality brings with it new horizons for learning. Our journey has just begun and the path ahead is bright.