Learning in Virtual Worlds

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are playing increasingly important roles in corporate training and education. This not only enables a more sustainable transfer of knowledge, these innovative technologies also make compelling arguments when it comes to cost.

Virtual Reality makes training for dangerous or difficult-to-reproduce environments easier. Photo: Gregor Schläger

Virtual Reality makes training for dangerous or difficult-to-reproduce environments easier. Photo: Gregor Schläger

Nowadays when something goes wrong, it is invariably costly. Sometimes even the lives and health of our colleagues and fellow humans are at stake. Many jobs entail risks that only highly trained staff can safely mitigate. An incorrectly connected hose may contaminate huge areas of soil and groundwater when filling a tank system. Or when connecting power lines, small oversights can lead to tragic accidents. Incorrect assemblies in large-scale construction projects often result in catastrophic damage and astronomical costs.

The specialists responsible for such tasks must therefore often complete extensive training. Especially in the case of critical learning content, it is apparent that simply presenting instructions is not the best way to convey knowledge and training goals. This is emphasized by practitioners such as Marek Hadrys, a Technical Trainer at the EON subsidiary Avacon Netz GmbH in Oldenburg, Germany: “When trainees practice in safe and carefully controlled training facilities, the critical element of stress of the real situation is missing. Yet even such limited training scenarios are by far better than drily learning procedural instructions and safety guidelines off by heart.”

Diving in is better than reading up

Companies’ increasingly rely on virtual and augmented reality in their training programs. Photo: Volkswagen

Companies’ increasingly rely on virtual and augmented reality in their training programs. Photo: Volkswagen

This context has been a deciding factor in companies’ increasing reliance on virtual and augmented reality in their training programs. Thanks to the “immersion” that these technologies enable in simulated worlds, the tech has proven to be far more successful for conveying knowledge than conventional methods. When a student immerses themselves in a realistic, three-dimensional environment with all their senses, the content conveyed is far better anchored in their brain. Ultimately, this confirms decades of educational science: Those who actively carry out a process in practice learn better and more sustainably than those who merely study theory.

“This has been clearly proven in multiple studies,” explains Thomas Hoger, part-owner of the German VR/AR service provider 3spin. His company has implemented Augmented Reality training for a number of client briefs – prospective warehouse clerks for Lufthansa, for example. A hologram of a pallet and a vehicle is projected into the classroom using Microsoft’s Hololens AR headset. Participants learn how to safely secure the load on the vehicle, all virtually. Where previously more than 30 percent of the trainees had failed the final aptitude test, this fell to just 7 percent after the introduction of the new training method. The project was supervised by the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

Training anytime and anywhere

DEKRA also uses these new training methods. In collaboration with 3spin and an international customer from the oil and gas industry, a Virtual Reality training course on gas station supply and tanker logistics was launched. Dietmar Metzger, Executive Vice President of the DEKRA Group and Head of the Service Division Training, is enthusiastic: “Training of this kind has been difficult in the past because the effects of errors can hardly be articulated in real-life examples. Our VR application, which can be used internationally, preemptively anchors a strong problem awareness in the employee.”

In addition, the learning environment, contained within a compact device, makes it possible to carry out training courses at any location, as often as required, and at low cost. They do not require any special training rooms, and the participants do not have to take several days off work for a seminar. And yet the learning outcomes are demonstrably higher than those achieved when using traditional methods. These findings are leading to companies increasingly paying attention to such training and further education concepts, with Augmented and Virtual Reality increasingly finding their way into the training regulations prescribed by many European countries.

Icons: Dmytro Vyshnevskyi/istockphoto
Icons: Dmytro Vyshnevskyi/istockphoto

Intuitive content creation

Until now, the production of VR content has been comparatively complex and thus expensive; even small adjustments meant additional effort. The continuous distribution of content to VR glasses presented another cost driver. “The follow-up costs usually came as a surprise, deterring companies,” Dietmar Metzger knows. That’s why DEKRA and the VR pilot customers are relying on a novel platform approach that enables the creation of VR and AR content as well as its distribution in equal measure – and without any programming effort.

Avacon Netz GmbH is one of its users, and Technical Trainer Marek Hadrys vouches for its ease of use with an impressive example: “Our trainees are now designing their own training courses for their successors. This works excellently, because they can remember their own difficulties and can easily assess which content and implementation methods are effective.” This is how, for example, occupational safety training courses were created in which the learners, immersed in 360-degree videos, determine when the protagonists violate regulations or make mistakes.

The business cases must fit too

Training how to correctly maintain gas turbines is one application of Augmented Reality used by Siemens Energy. Photo: Siemens / Gregor Schläger

Training how to correctly maintain gas turbines is one application of Augmented Reality used by Siemens Energy. Photo: Siemens / Gregor Schläger

Of course, when implemented in businesses, it is not just the successful imparting of knowledge that can speak for adopting learning via AR and VR. It must also present a viable business case. “We have to prove that we can save money with digital training methods,” reports Michael Stavenhagen. The mechanical engineer works at Siemens Energy in an agile team that drives the development and marketing of digital training solutions.

Important factors in such calculations include the absence of travel costs for staff and trainers, the time saved for the learners and the performance monitoring, which is often directly integrated into the training. Stavenhagen’s team implemented these principles in a training course on the assembly and maintenance of gas turbines. Needs based on a company’s global positioning also deliver strong arguments for such concepts. “In certain markets, such as North Africa or Asia, staff turnover is higher than elsewhere,” says Stavenhagen. In his experience, digital training is faster and lowers on-site training costs, while simultaneously increasing the quality of the results. “We also try to keep the requirements as simple as possible,” adds the training expert. “What can be achieved using a smartphone, we prefer to use just the smartphone on its own. After all, the phone is already on site, while the user may have to wait a couple of weeks for a Hololens.”

However, employees with many years of professional experience are often skeptical of new methods, reports the engineer. They have acquired their knowledge in the traditional way and can build on many years of experience. “That is why another crucial aspect is that AR solutions, for example, are not just restricted to training uses,” says Stavenhagen. “During assembly work, AR can work like satnav in a car.” This means that the next generation of fitters can also be sure to remain on the safe side. Training, on the other hand, can often be integrated into the day-to-day in small chunks. This can often win over the old hands who used to have to attend week-long seminars.

Benefits in production monitoring

This is why many AR projects in the automotive industry find themselves halfway between training and process support. For example, Volkswagen uses AR applications to train employees in the assembly steps for the new Golf 8. “In every start-up phase, such as with the new Golf, we are faced with the task of qualifying our employees for new assembly processes. In the future, AR headsets could be another method of making such training even more efficient,” says Tim Ritzmann, who is responsible for technology and processes in VW’s engineered plastics department. Aided by a headset, an employee follows an assembly procedure consisting of over 50 individual process steps. The specialist sees the real-life component and the virtual displays simultaneously and works through the instructions step-by-step. The AR system also provides information on particularly quality-critical sections of the component and shows how these are to be examined. “We worked with the corporate IT department on this project from the start. This enables us to continuously develop the knowledge we have gained and share it with other brands and business units,” reports Ritzmann.

Comprehensive solutions

„AR and VR technologies have really grown up,” summarizes VW Group IT department’s Innovation Manager for Digital Realities, Wilhelm Hieb. The cross-brand “Augmented Reality Group Strategy” shows how seriously the Volkswagen Group is taking the topic. The associated management duo of Wilhelm Hieb and Lukas Lehmann, who is responsible for AR in digitizing VW Group’s production department, aims to leverage the potential of AR applications along the entire value chain. This is exactly where the strategy comes in with its mission statement to “develop standards, stage processes and involve users group-wide.” In addition to universal solutions in education and training, there is also a focus on topics such as remote support, quality control and documentation, as well as supporting manual activities.

Nevertheless, the same rules apply here as they do to any project: The added value of using this tech must be higher than the investment. “We have a wide variety of use cases in the VW Group that precisely meet this requirement,” explains Lukas Lehmann: “Now the task is to leverage synergies through the rollout of cross-brand solutions.” And even where these are not necessarily a matter of life or death, this is a strong argument for this innovative technology.

Drei Fragen an Dietmar Metzger, Executive Vice President of the DEKRA Group and Head of the Service Division Training

AR and VR technologies have established themselves in recent years, predominantly in the gaming scene. In business however, there have been relatively few use cases that have been established. Why is this the case, and what value does this technology hold for DEKRA?

In fact, many people still label the topic as recreational fun. But as the examples described here show, technologically leading companies in various industries have long since recognized the potential for professional applications. Complex manufacturing processes can be equalized in VR training and safety risks can be impressed upon people with greater immediacy. This leads to a significant increase in the efficiency of in-house training measures. The last two aspects in particular are part of DEKRA’s DNA. That’s why we not only work with this technology ourselves, but also integrate it in customer projects.

Dietmar Metzger, Executive Vice President of the DEKRA Group and Head of the Service Division Training. Photo: DEKRA

Dietmar Metzger, Executive Vice President of the DEKRA Group and Head of the Service Division Training. Photo: DEKRA

How should we picture that?
We’re constantly looking at innovations in learning technology and incorporate our findings into suitable internal and external projects. This results in customized solutions, but also certain standards that customers are able to flexibly rent. The driving forces are often an increase in effectiveness or an enabling of otherwise not feasible applications. Or simply the reduction of travel costs.

Efficiency is always welcome. What sort of projects are especially well-suited for AR or VR applications?
In general, it can be said that VR is always needed when employees must be prepared to perform practical activities that in reality are risky, expensive, or de facto impracticable. Think of anything involving fire, for example. Complementary AR can support the practical execution, guarantee quality, and mitigate risks. We’re happy to share our experience.

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