2016 has been heralded as the the year of VR. After a few high profile flops in the ´80s and ´90s when the term virtual reality was first coined, VR is back in the headlines with the Spring launch of two high-end VR headsets: The Oculus Rift (launched on 28 March and acquired by Facebook) and HTC Vive (developed by HTC and Value Corporation and released 5 April). Sony will launch PlayStation VR later this year. It has sparked predicable discussions in the global press concerning the application of VR. A recent study predicts that gaming, football and porn will make up the main VR content. Daniel Terdiman writing in Fast Company says, for now, it’s likely that games will make up the bulk of what people do with systems like the Vive and Raymond Wong writes an unnerving piece in Mashable about VR porn:
I found myself transported into a bedroom. Kneeling before me was a female porn star who was seductively talking dirty to me. I looked down and saw some guy’s muscular body. Well, that’s not mine, I thought to myself. I was confused. Whose body was this? Then I realized, was now this guy.,, I dropped into a female body, a male porn star who was thrusting into “me” was so up in my personal space, I swear I smelled his armpits.
Surely there is more to VR than gaming and simulated armpit smelling? Knvul Sheikh writing in Live Science thinks outside of the box headset by exploring applications for military, healthcare, manufacturing, crime scenes and education; others see applications for advertising and marketing.
As someone who works in the field of leadership development, I see some tremendous opportunities to use VR to develop and train leaders. Here are a few ideas:
Crisis management. When I was a young and keen first-time manager I was invited to become a crisis management rep. for my department which I thought was a great accolade until I realised that nobody else wanted to do it; and I´m not surprised – the training was dull. We spent one day a month locked in a crisis management room in a basement reading scenarios from scraps of paper and making pretend telephone calls. There is a saying that you don´t know the strength of a tea bag until you pour hot water on it but the problem with traditional crisis management exercises are that you never feel the hot water. With VR, the possibility to create a programme with a real-life crisis scenario adapted to individual business reality where facilitators monitor a leader´s decision-making and stress levels in a simulated crisis is immense. I dug a little further and discovered that two or three visionary companies are already using virtual reality in crisis management training. There goes my multimillion-dollar idea.
Role-Playing. How many of us have looked awkwardly at each other in resident leadership programmes as the facilitator announces a role-playing exercise where we are required to act out various characters (underperforming team member, angry customer, disengaged stakeholder and the like) for the benefit of our equally chagrined co-participant play-acting the leader. Some companies have experimented using trained actors playing the roles which is very effective but involves high costs in hiring, prepping and accommodating the actors. Virtual reality could be an excellent substitute where participants engage in a virtual scenario and are observed by co-participants providing feedback. Such programmes could be standard or tailored to the participant´s reality.
Simulations. No leadership training programme is complete without a business simulation exercise. The problem is that so many of these simulations use duplos, blindfolds, ropes and balls that often fail to create a realistic business challenge and require a pretty sharp facilitator to draw connections back to the business and business leadership. A decent VR programme could create a realistic business challenge where participants are stretched and monitored. Such an approach could still retain the all-important group debrief.
Psychometrics. Most psychometrics are scenario based with multiple choice responses. For example: you are at a party do you mingle or stand at the side? Logistically, traditional paper-based psychometrics are cumbersome to administer: taking up a lot of time in set-up, assessment and scoring. Computer-based psychometrics are usually done as pre-work but are not facilitated. Such instruments require the participant to simulate scenarios in their mind and record preferences; wouldn´t it be more effective to do this in a simulated VR environment? With the party example, you could have a simulation of a party and the participant´s body language and reactions can be measured and instantly scored. Imagine it: no messy scoring, more data points and no word-based language barriers. VR psychometrics? Now that could be a money spinner.
Virtual leadership programme. Experts will tell you that e-learning is effective for building skills whereas face-to-face learning is effective for building behaviours (the latter usually facilitated by a qualified behavioural developmentalist). The problem with face-to-face training is the high cost (Deloitte costed global training in 2013 at $24 billion) and the time away from the office. I can imagine a future where leadership programmes are fully VR based, where the participant collects the headset, goes into a small meeting room and participates in virtual leadership training with VR psychometrics, simulations, role playing and knowledge building designed around key competences that have been programmed to suit the organisation. Such an intervention will be learner-paced, cost effective, measurable and consistent across the organisation. If this is the future, I guess I need to look for another job.
The drive to simulate reality has had a long and checkered history dating back to the panoramic paintings and stereoscopic photo viewers of the mid-nineteenth century. A new report suggests VR is still 6-8 years shy of becoming mainstream; but if and when VR does finally come of age in this second VR wave, let´s hope it finds useful applications beyond the predicted gaming, football and porn. Without doubt, it could revolutionise education, particular in the area of developing individual leadership skills and behaviours.