Training beyond reality

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The British Safety Council is introducing immersive technologies into its training courses, both online and in the classroom, and becomes the first health and safety provider in the country to do so.

My first experience with virtual reality was in 1994, at the London Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus. Its Funland was one of the best arcades in Europe, full of the latest state-of-the-art gaming machines and a mecca for the nation’s teenagers.

Funland’s virtual reality games were made by a company called Virtuality. Their huge brightly coloured headsets and futuristic seating pods all added to the experience. At the time, virtual reality (VR) was set to become the next big thing in the arcade games industry.

That didn’t happen, however, as the technology wasn’t quite there and the arcade game had already had its heyday – think Space Invaders and Pac-Man over a decade earlier.

By the late 1990s, arcade games had declined massively in popularity and the home console industry was growing in the other direction. Consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation could give arcade-like experiences from the comfort of a living room. And with that, VR faded into obscurity.

Fast forward 20 years and manufacturers were ready to try again – this time bringing VR into the home and the pocket. Headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive provide incredible gaming experiences but now there is a lot more they can offer.

The digital revolution has occurred: back in 1994, video was on VHS tape, music was on compact cassette, TV and radio were both broadcast in analogue and photos were taken on 35mm film; now all are digital and media can be streamed on-demand over the internet.

Virtual reality headsets offer massive potential for training providers and are already used extensively in military and medical fields

VR, therefore, has much wider appeal. In addition to playing games, users can watch 360-degree videos including live sporting events, visit places on the other side of the world, use social media to meet with friends, and consume educational content. This time, it seems, VR is here to stay.

The Rift and the Vive require powerful PCs to make them work and as such will likely remain niche products, but now almost everyone has a smartphone in his or her pocket. It’s this device that makes VR accessible to the masses.

Smartphones are already equipped with the technology they need – large high-resolution screens, gyroscopes, and more computing power than a supercomputer of 20 years ago. Manufacturers are now using smartphone technology to produce all-in-one virtual reality headsets which retail for as little as £200.

This is where the British Safety Council began its VR journey.

Virtual reality headsets offer massive potential for training providers. They are already used extensively in military and medical fields and have been used to help treat mental illnesses such as anxiety and PTSD. Walmart has used VR to help train staff to prepare for Black Friday and to handle a variety of customer service issues, while KFC has done so to train new recruits to prepare chicken in what has been described as a terrifying game-experience.

Both companies have described their training as hugely successful – benefiting from shorter training times and improved performance.

The British Safety Council is using VR to teach the evaluation of risk. In the traditional classroom, there is little similarity between the taught processes of assessing risk and what takes place in the real world. Online training is usually even more far-removed, focusing on hazard spotting in images where the hazards are so obvious, even a young child could identify them.

The British Safety Council’s virtual reality exercise has nothing to do with spotting hazards – in fact the hazards are all provided to you before you begin. Students are presented with the challenge of assessing and evaluating risk, this is real-world risk that may depend on several factors, including human behaviour.

In the new VR training, students are thrown in the deep end of a working restaurant kitchen

The experience begins with a short tutorial in which students are made familiar with the equipment and taught how to interact in the virtual world. They are then thrown in the deep end of a working restaurant kitchen. Oil sizzles and water bubbles.

Orders are shouted out. Service staff hurry around while chefs are busy chopping, cutting and cooking. Deliveries come in and kitchen hands work to try and keep everything spick and span.

This is an extremely immersive experience and one in which the temptation may be to just walk around in awe of the virtual world. There is no time for this, however, as the head chef will quickly become impatient of time wasting. Evaluating risk in such an environment is a real challenge. Students must talk to characters, examine and interact with objects, and notice subtle clues of which there may be several contributing to a single risk.

Students are expected to spend between 15 and 20 minutes in the virtual world after which a debrief session will take place.

It is in this session that the real learning will take place. By discussing their experiences, classroom students can challenge each other and discuss what they may or may not have seen in the virtual world. The tutor will be on hand to facilitate this discussion and contribute where necessary. Digital learners will benefit from a video debrief session in which they will see real students discuss their experiences and hear a tutor talk them through all the risks.

The experience has been built specifically to take advantage of mobile technology. Classroom learners will be provided with Oculus’s newest headset, the Oculus Go. This is a lightweight all-in-one device with a controller and it makes the experience truly portable. Digital learners will be able to use their smartphones in a British Safety Council branded Google Cardboard headset provided free of charge.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is harder to describe than virtual reality, and really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Whereas VR replaces the world with a completely artificial one, AR adds things to the real world, or changes things in the real world.

The applications of AR are numerous and diverse. It is already being used in high-end vehicle navigation systems. Rather than look at a separate screen, a driver can see navigation arrows pointing at the actual street to turn into. AR is also being used by companies to overlay step-by-step instructions to accompany complex tasks for example by pointing at individual screws to tighten or bolts to undo.

Companies such as IKEA are using it so that customers can see what furniture looks like in their homes before purchase.

The British Safety Council is using it to add virtual objects to the real world – in particular, heavy-duty industrial machinery.

The consequences of operating industrial equipment incorrectly can range from embarrassment to severed limbs or death. We know that people learn from mistakes but a severed limb is not a mistake anyone should have to learn from. 

By using a piece of virtual equipment, students can explore and discover its operation without risk. They can make mistakes and learn what the consequences of failing to close a guard or tighten a chuck fully could be. They can also learn the correct procedures through trial and error.

In the classroom, each student will be provided with a brand-new iPad. By looking through the iPad, they will be able to see a life-sized pedestal drill mounted on the floor in front of them. They will be asked to complete tasks using the drill but will be given no further instruction – they will simply be told when the task is complete.

Again, this will be a challenging activity and students will have to draw upon all of their knowledge and experience to complete the task without error. The point here, however, is that error is a great learning tool.

The British Safety Council VR Risk Assessment experience will be available from November to both classroom and online learners while the pedestal drill AR activity will be available to classroom and online learners from mid-November. Both experiences will also be available to try at our annual conference on 14 November and at our stand at coming health and safety expos. Further pieces of equipment will be available in 2019.

More information at: britsafe.org/training-and-learning

James Mansbridge is head of digital learning at the British Safety Council






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