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Why Virtual Reality Represents the Very Real Future of Business and HR


Too often, in my opinion, talk of virtual reality (VR) seems relegated to the realms of science fiction, video games, film and television. Virtual reality is no novelty. The real-world benefits and applications are already surpassing entertainment. VR resides in the domain of exponential technologies -- digital advances that are transforming the world through intelligent sensors, machine learning, robotics, synthetic biology and 3D printing. Consider the latter. Three-dimensional printers don’t merely produce models and art. They’re capable of constructing habitable living spaces, tools, prosthetics and even rudimentary food. Likewise, virtual reality is changing the face of medicine and education. It’s also strengthening diversity by bridging philosophical divides and empowering people to empathize with others. For all these reasons, VR represents the very real future of business, workforce development and talent management.

VR Liberates Us from Physical Limitations

Why does VR have the potential to become one of the most indispensable business tools of the future? It enables people to free their minds from physical constraints and explore places that exist only in a digital environment. As Bernard Marr wrote in Forbes, the digital world operates under a different set of rules: “Objects can be conjured into being by simply describing them. Travel between destinations takes place in the blink of an eye. And any damage that you do can be undone with the press of a button.”

This “consequence-free” yet emotionally engaged interaction is a vital development that enhances processes of experimentation and innovation. Consider a VR app called VRvisu, created by Jason Smith, a student attending the University of North Florida.

“Using MRI scans, the app recreates a patient’s tumor inside VR at an accurate scale,” Jamie Feltham explained in a post for Upload, a company focused on VR education and media. “The doctor is then able to pull on a headset and inspect the tumor in detail, with relevant information appearing in breakout boxes within the virtual space. Helping doctors to better understand the nature of a patient’s cancer better at an earlier stage can assist them with treatment and surgeries going forward.”

Feltham also recalled how a heart scan viewed through Google Cardboard helped save an infant’s life. The possible uses for VR in healthcare are limitless.

  • Medical schools are using VR to train students in sensitive surgical procedures through a “hands-on” virtual experience.
  • VR is successfully treating people suffering from anxiety by placing them in serene, lifelike environments, which also guide them through calming breathing exercises.
  • Doctors treating autism are using VR to help patients develop social skills, recognize cues and respond appropriately.
  • For the 8 million Americans living with PTSD, VR has worked wonders in the field of exposure therapy, which pushes patients to recount their traumas, visualize them and explain to doctors or therapists the stressful scenarios taking place as events unfold. For military veterans returning from combat, this is vital for assimilating into civilian life.

The Business Case for VR

VR endows us with the power to accomplish great things. However, its benefits aren’t just reserved for lofty, life-changing efforts. VR influences innovations across the spectrum, great and small. As Marr pointed out in his article , “Just about any process that can be carried out in the physical world -- and in business that would range from customer services to marketing, finance, HR and production -- can be simulated in VR. In general, tasks that it can carry out can be split into one of two categories -- training, or practical application.”

VR is revolutionizing prototyping and design, while saving millions of dollars in the process. VR allows every component, mechanism or part of a solution to be examined and tested -- without the costs or safety risks involved in constructing material objects. Virtual showrooms and virtual training environments are expediting and augmenting the customer experience. At the same time, they’re increasing operational and cost efficiencies for organizations.

  • Boeing relies on VR to prototype new aircraft designs through these simulations.
  • Pilots are also being trained on intense in-flight scenarios through VR.
  • Architects can craft virtual replications of buildings, which enables customers to explore them digitally. Imagine the cost savings -- nothing is built, and everything can be modified to motivate a client’s decision to buy.

VR in HR

By allowing scientists and doctors into the “minds” of others, patients are realizing tremendous enhancements to their treatments. As NextAvenue explained in Forbes, “In 2016, one of the biggest trends in technology was the consumer realization of virtual reality (VR) -- the ability to become immersed in another world.”

Unlike watching a film, where the viewer experiences the story as a somewhat detached observer, VR draws the audience into the character’s sensations directly. “VR puts you in this world and that creates empathy, which has been shown to lead to better communication skills and professionalism for the health care workforce,” said Carrie Shaw, the chief executive of Embodied Labs.

Have you ever wondered why journalism is considered a dangerous profession? Or have you scoffed at the notion? Thanks to a game called Blindfold, you can experience what it’s like to be interrogated by a hostile government for publishing or distributing information. The VR game places you in a room with Asadollah Lajevardi, an infamous penal figure from Iran’s 1979 revolution. Stephanie Chan described the gameplay for VentureBeat:

It’s short but urgent, a snippet of what it’s like to be a journalist in Iran who’s being forced to confess to crimes by an oppressive regime. Blindfold has just two characters — Lajevardi and another man, whom he threatens to kill in front of you if you don’t confess to your crime of providing photographs to the foreign press.

When you’re asked a question, you can only nod, shake your head, or remain silent. If you answer too quickly, the interrogator might question whether or not you’re telling the truth. Too slowly, and the same might happen. Navigating the subtleties of the interaction was an intimate and eerie experience, made all the more so because I knew it was based on real life. Lajevardi was an actual prison warden of the infamous Evin Prison in Iran, and at the end of the game, I saw a photo gallery of journalists who had been killed for reporting on their governments.

Simulations like this aren’t just won or lost by a strategy. They take on a more visceral, immediate sensation that forces a human response rather than a transactional decision. Here, in these reactions, is where VR shines as a tool for training, empathy and inclusion. That’s one reason why the virtual world promises a wealth of opportunities for staffing and HR professionals.

  • VR can replicate physical conferences and candidate interviews.
  • VR opens the doors for global classroom instruction, skills development, training, onboarding experiences and orientation.
  • Through VR, staffing agencies can showcase a client’s employment culture to prospective candidates, who get to experience the working environment for themselves.
  • VR may also emerge as one of the most effective resources for bolstering diversity and inclusion.

According to sociologists, educators and psychologists, the real culprit in lackluster diversity programs is empathy. Many people can sympathize with another’s plight, yet they can’t feel the weight of those struggles without the same shared experience. In terms of employment culture, empathy is crucial. What if managers could see the world from the eyes of their talent? What If they had direct insight into their pressures, challenges, successes? What if workers got to experience a day in the life of their managers? Perhaps they would walk away with a different opinion of how difficult those roles may be. Creating empathy, which is what VR does best, could improve every aspect of work. And it’s already happening.

Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is using VR as a tool to help police departments and the National Football League (NFL) combat discrimination and bias. As Jeremy Bailenson, the lab’s director, explained to USA Today, replacing real world scenarios with interactive VR scenes brings the brain closer to “believing what it is seeing. The effect of such realism could be lasting behavioral change.”

“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made to do,” he added.

Through VR, people can experience discrimination, or women fighting for equal pay to take care of their families, or transgender people who are told which bathrooms they must use. Imagine the benefits of seeing your office from the eyes of a disabled person. If we could share their challenges, we may gain a much stronger idea of what accommodations we really need in order to create a workspace that increases productivity and comfort for every worker.

New technologies are changing the world, and they bring boundless possibilities to our industry. We’re just scratching the surface. If we, as business leaders, are receptive, creative and attentive, we can find amazing uses for all the exponential technologies coming our way.

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