Games & Simulations 2013: Is 3-D/Virtual Training Dead?

Hardly, but although it’s powerful, it’s not for everything.

By Gail Dutton

Just a few years ago, the training world was abuzz with the tantalizing possibilities of 3-D/virtual worlds. Companies such as IBM were experimenting with the Second Life virtual environment, and employees were busily creating avatars with which to populate the virtual reality world.

But today, the buzz seems to have died down to a soft murmur. Has 3-D taken a backseat to other training methods?

“Gamification is fairly new for training, but companies are beginning to fund these projects,” says Andrew Hughes, president of Designing Digitally, Inc. For example, some of his Fortune 100 clients use 3-D virtual environments to teach their executives how the overall business works, thereby breaking down functional silos. “Executives can interact, make decisions, and see how those decisions affect the company, based upon historical outcomes,” he says.

Although they are primarily known for training emergency personnel from many jurisdictions to work together smoothly, virtual worlds also are being used to help business learners improve soft skills, ethics, sales techniques, and logic, as well as cultural, spatial, and situational awareness. Virtual 3-D environments are being used to refresh skills, to simulate physical areas to improve warehouse and retail floor management, and to orient new hires during onboarding.

For example, when the U.S. Census Bureau trained 1.2 million part-time workers for the 2010 census, it deployed a 3-D virtual simulation developed by Designing Digitally to simulate a day in the field. It used artificial intelligence and virtual trainers to present situations and effective ways to address them to get census workers up to speed quickly.

Another example: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) uses a virtual world developed by BreakAway Ltd. to improve financial auditors’ risk assessment skills. Through interactions in a virtual world, auditors learn to better identify red-flag issues as they interview key bank personnel, review financial statements, and follow a money trail to expose fraudulent activities.

The Virtual Future

Virtual worlds may sound trendy, but researchers say they get results. Many studies indicate that well-designed 3-D virtual games and simulations can improve information retention by double digits. One research report by Traci Sitzmann at the University of Colorado at Denver indicates that procedural knowledge was 14 percent higher and retention was 9 percent higher for those trained using the active engagement of virtual environments. She attributed the increase to the ability to access the training multiple times, review results, and augment other materials. Other researchers also credit the adrenalin rush of a game that fixes elements of memory.

Because 3-D virtual worlds enable unique situations to be practiced safely, they are invaluable in safety and communications training and situations in which multiple teams work in a shared operational space, adds Andy Petroski, director and assistant professor of Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science & Technology. “Any time you can give employees the opportunity to practice and fail safely, it helps them become more confident.”

Today’s commercially available virtual worlds are explored using computer monitors. Virtual spheres that a person can enter and walk around in, wearing a wireless headset, are coming, Petroski says. “To some extent, it’s like a Star Trek holodeck in that there are no boundaries. At this stage of development, the sphere experience involves vision and physical movement. We’re looking into developing haptic feedback so players can sense pressure.”

That level of immersion could be used for personnel who need special spatial recognition skills. Petroski includes building inspectors, crime scene investigators, insurance adjustors, and industrial safety inspectors in this category. “They’re also useful for microworlds, to take learners inside the human body or inside a vehicle engine,” he adds.

Modern 3-D virtual games and simulations also can collect a significant amount of data on the players. “Serious 3-D games that rank players against comparable players often have higher degrees of interaction than other training methods,” Designing Digitally’s Hughes notes. Embedded analytics let developers show “what’s happening in the game, what players did right and wrong, improvement, who they met, where they went, routes they took, challenges they addressed,” Hughes adds.

Cautions and Caveats

Executives’ reluctance to gamify training is waning as they realize that virtual games are not just the purview of teens. The Entertainment Software Association reports that the average player is 37 years old, and 43 percent of PC players and 38 percent of console players are women. “It’s our clients, analysts, and logisticians who are playing,” says Phaedra Boinodiris, IBM Global Serious Games Program manager.

Although many adults engage in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), many others will need to learn to function in a virtual environment. That includes learning to build or select an avatar, learning virtual world etiquette, and becoming oriented to the space. “A meeting room offers a good entry, but holding meetings in a virtual world shouldn’t be the ultimate goal,” Boinodiris says.

It’s important to keep in mind that virtual worlds are not the best option for every type of training. For one retail client, “we considered developing a virtual environment,” recalls Whitney Cooke, account executive for Inward Consulting. “We looked at our goals and objectives,” and realized other approaches were more effective for that situation.

The complexity was one of the issues. Virtual environments require significant computing power and bandwidth to run smoothly, and many organizations find they must upgrade their hardware. Petroski says he can enter virtual environments with his three-year old laptop and a high-end graphic card, “but an off-the-shelf computer may have a problem. “ iPhones and tablets currently are insufficient, too, he says. Additionally, “you need high-speed Internet—DSL at the least—and some software installation. There are some barriers to entry.” He predicts a major technology breakthrough when HTML 5 is introduced at the end of 2014 and 3-D virtual worlds no longer will require software installation.

The cost was another concern. The costs associated with developing a virtual environment depend largely upon the amount of modeling that must be done, Hughes says, but extend to where the environment will be hosted. Those costs must be weighed against the cost of the problem to be solved, and the cost of not solving it.

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.