Senior Strategist

Immersive Technology: What It Is and How to Use It in L&D

Has your organization taken the plunge into the world of immersive technology? Maybe you dove in headfirst right away, but if you’re like most, virtual reality seemed out of reach until recently. Now we’re at a positive inflection point where immersive learning—like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)—is becoming a practical option.

When a new tool, concept, or technology hits the L&D market, it’s exciting—but it’s often treated as the solution to all of our problems. That’s just not true. We believe in treating new trends as interesting ideas to thoroughly evaluate for how they’d advance our learning efforts. That means resisting being wooed by a new idea, but staying curious enough to explore it and consider it with a “yes, and … ” mentality. If you’ve been wondering about the reality behind the buzz of immersive technology, you’re in the right place.

How can immersive technologies help L&D create more-meaningful learning experiences? How can VR & AR be used to impact your learners and your organization? In what cases will immersive technology increase the value of your learning experience—and when is it just a waste of money? Let’s take a closer look.

Immersive technology definition

What is immersive technology? Let’s start with a quick 101. Immersive technology integrates virtual content into a physical environment, to varying degrees, allowing learners to interact with it using sight, sound, and touch. Immersive technologies include the following:

Virtual reality (VR)

A digital environment that completely replaces a learner’s physical surroundings. A virtual-reality headset or head-mounted display immerses the learner in a computer-generated, 3-D environment that mimics a real-world environment. Learners may use motion controllers or haptic gloves to interact with their surroundings.

Augmented reality (AR)

Digital content that is superimposed over a real-time physical environment. Augmented reality bridges the physical and digital worlds with enhanced and interactive digital elements, usually through a camera lens or glasses.

Mixed reality (XR)

The newest of the immersive technologies, mixed reality is a blend of real-world and digital elements. Learners maintain a foot in the real world while interacting with both natural and digital elements as if they were all part of the real world. In mixed reality, it’s nearly impossible to tell where reality ends and the virtual world begins.

History of immersive technology in L&D

The hype around immersive technology is nothing new. In fact, there have been headlines about AR and VR in learning and development as early as 2017. But as is often the case, the hype around a buzzworthy new technology or concept often precedes its practical use. In reality, it took at least another year for both VR & AR to graduate from Gartner’s Hype Cycle to become maturing technologies, and it took even longer for those technologies to reach L&D.

But at long last, we’re at an inflection point where immersive technologies are becoming more practical, accessible, and affordable. The PwC 2022 US Metaverse Survey found that 51% of companies are either in the process of integrating VR into their strategy or have already built VR into at least one dedicated line of business.

But here’s the thing: just because you can implement VR & AR into your learning strategy doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Immersive technology alone isn’t a cure-all for your learning challenges—but it is a powerful tool to consider adding to your toolbox. Learning is a process, and immersive technology is particularly effective in reinforcing knowledge transfer—the “Do” stage of the Tell, Show, Do, Review learning blueprint.

Before turning to immersive learning technologies for your next project, consider first if it’s truly the right tool for the job. What is the problem you’re trying to solve? At what stage in the learning process will you use it? What constraints are you facing? Answering a few key questions before diving in will help validate that immersive learning with VR and AR is worth the investment.

Using augmented reality to train employees

Once you’ve determined that immersive technology is the right choice, you’ll then need to decide between AR and VR training. AR is delivered through mobile devices and enhances the learner’s real-world surroundings.

AR is a great choice when you want learners to interact with their actual environment and you’d like to avoid using additional hardware. If you’re wondering how augmented reality can improve training and knowledge transfer, it’s all about creating an immersive, hands-on environment—think information overlays, 3d holograms, and virtual simulations.

What is AR training best suited for?

Let’s run through a list of considerations that may indicate that AR is the best fit for your learning experience:

  • It’s beneficial for the experience to occur in the learner’s real-life surroundings.
  • The learner needs to be able to move through the environment and walk, run, or explore more than a few feet.
  • The training must be completed by learners, individually, without an instructor or handler.
  • A headset is not possible (e.g., cost prohibitive) or may be detrimental to the learning experience (e.g., a population prone to nausea).
  • Learners are bringing their own devices, versus devices being provided to them.

Using virtual reality to train employees

Virtual reality, on the other hand, completely replaces a learner’s physical environment. Training with VR is the best choice when you want to create fully immersive, controlled simulations.

VR is also a cut above AR when engaging learners in highly skilled and technical kinesthetic activities. VR technologies are further along in being able to track learners’ body movements and providing real-time feedback, enabling learners to safely train in an environment that mimics real-world challenges.

What is VR training best suited for?

The following list of criteria will help determine if virtual reality is right for your learning experience:

  • The learner’s actual environment is dangerous, unpredictable, cost prohibitive, or otherwise impossible to train in (e.g., operating room, war, or outer space).
  • Having full control of the entire environment adds value to the training.
  • Haptic feedback would add significant value to the learning experience (e.g., surgery, mechanical procedures).
  • It’s beneficial to have a truly immersive simulation that replicates real-life sights, sounds, and feelings.

Alternative options to immersive technology

Not sure that AR/VR is in the cards for you right now? There are other ways to create immersive learning experiences. Think of immersive learning as creating a playground out of the content you’re creating—there are plenty of creative ways to accomplish that without using VR and AR.

Here’s just one idea for you. Within an authored SCORM course, you can use chained 3-D animations or live video to allow learners to interact with objects and environments through the course player. Depending on your specific objectives and constraints, alternative options, such as 3-D simulations (think 3-D games), might be more cost-effective and equally impactful.

We get creative with 3-D animation and interactive learning experiences all the time—drop us a note if you want to hear more ideas for custom, out-of-the-box immersive learning.

Is immersive technology right for you? Take the quiz to find out

Now that we’ve explained immersive technology and when to use it, it’s time to find out if it’s right for you. Every learning project is unique and what works for one initiative might not work for the next. That’s why our team of learning strategists built a tool to help learning teams everywhere determine if immersive technology—and what type—is right for their specific learning project.

This custom quiz walks you through key considerations for your project (learning objectives, audience, needs, and constraints) to generate personalized results about whether immersive technology is right for your learning.

Ready to find out if immersive technology is right for your learning?

There’s a quiz for that. Answer questions about your learning project’s objectives, needs, and constraints and get instant, personalized results.

Take the quiz
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