Virtual reality to revolutionise safe skills development

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Virtual reality is being used by local businesses for training, collaboration and visualisation.
Virtual reality is being used by local businesses for training, collaboration and visualisation.

Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way since its beginnings that were routed in gaming and cinematic experiences. The emerging technology is increasingly being used by industries to train workers on safety measures.

Business Science Corporation (BSC) is one of the local companies creating these VR training experiences. BSC uses science and technology to help clients solve problems and increase their performance. VR is one of its speciality areas.

"A significant challenge facing mining and other industries is skills development and the question of how to move the needle when it comes to ensuring memory retention in safety training," says Darren Cohen, associate partner at BSC and portfolio head for virtual reality.

"VR technology offers a solution that is both more efficient and more effective at skills transfer, which can sometimes be a matter of life and death."

Previous to some mining companies using VR to train their workers, they would be shown a PowerPoint presentation on safety before being sent underground.

BSC has developed an application where the worker wears a VR headset and it feels like they are in a mine and can experience for themselves the potentially hazardous conditions.

"It is really hard to communicate to someone the feeling of being in a situation, of being immersed in an environment, of going through and seeing very dangerous things happening.

"Using the VR program, you are inherently in a safe environment and if you do something wrong, you are lucky enough that you can actually make amends for the decision. Whereas, if you were actually working in an underground environment and you walked into an unsafe environment, and there was a fall of ground, it is probably the last time you will ever know about it," says Cohen.

This visceral observational training lets users know what they need to look out for before experiencing it in real life.

"What you [the worker wearing the headset during training] don't know," Cohen adds, "is that because it is software, we have tracked exactly where you have looked, what you looked at, how long it took you to look at each one and in what order you did it, and you can use all that information to actually come up with an analytical report that details your risk profile."

He says this report details each worker's strengths and weaknesses, and can be used as a decision-making tool.

"This is something that has never been possible before with the current methods of training, unless a subject matter expert in safety was hired to literally watch every worker like a hawk and do an assessment; a very costly exercise and impossible to scale."

Cohen says the client feedback from a major mining player in SA was overwhelmingly positive. The company said the training helped it achieve more in one day than it would previously have managed in a two-week training programme, and estimates it is saving between R4 million and R5 million per year in labour costs.

Cohen says this type of safety training is applicable to any industry.

"By enabling an emotional, visceral and cognitive experience, VR lets people retain knowledge at astonishingly higher rates of up to 80% as compared to traditional training mediums of around 20%.

"American educator Edgar Dale, in his 'Cone of Experience' concept, ranked the concreteness of information according to the number of senses involved in perceiving it. VR allows any possible work situation to be practised as many times as necessary, and safely. Gamification of training increases participant engagement by holding their attention and motivating them to reach a goal."

Cohen says BSC has done a bit of work in the telco industry around customer service, where it places a sales attendant in a VR headset to deal with a virtual customer with a pre-selected list of wants for an upgrade. The attendant, in a gamified environment, has to match the customer with the most suitable contract that would make the most business sense for the telco.

Through this exercise, attendants also learn how to deal with different reactions from customers, such as frustration, anger or satisfaction.

Other applications of VR that BSC has worked on for clients include: remote collaboration where VR is used by two parties in separate places to see the same thing; architecture visualisation for property developers; and engine assembly, which lets trainees learn about engine components and how they fit together.

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