Virtual Reality for Training Purposes / by Rosana Vidal

While virtual reality technology has long been associated with gaming, we are starting to see more and more potential uses pop up. One of the most intriguing VR applications is in job training. From the military to the medical field, VR technology is allowing trainees to practice high-stakes procedures in a risk-free environment. Here’s a look at some of the industries that are using VR to train professionals.

Training for Astronauts - On Earth and in Space

As you can imagine, it would be incredibly dangerous to send astronauts into space without ample training. However, it can be difficult (and expensive) to recreate the experience of being in space here on Earth. Since the early 1990s, NASA has been using VR to train astronauts at the Johnson Space center in Houston, Texas. The VR lab started out as an experiment, when the Hubble Telescope needed to be repaired after its launch in 1993. Astronauts needed to practice making repairs while weightless, and the experience was difficult to recreate within the existing facility. NASA engineer David Homan had the idea to create a VR lab, which is still in use today.

Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue teaches astronauts how to navigate their way back to the shuttle if they become detached. Extra-Vehicular Activities, or EVA, provides training for spacewalks. Astronauts wear high-tech virtual reality glasses and special gloves while instructors watch their every move on a monitor. Several of those who have gone through the training have commented that their spacewalking experience was just like what they saw in the VR lab - a testament to how intricate and realistic the VR lab’s graphics are. VR is also used to help astronauts practice manipulating objects in zero gravity.

Now, NASA is extending the VR training experience into space as well. Astronauts have been using makeshift head-mounted displays for a few years now, but this summer NASA teamed up with Microsoft to send two proper headsets to the International Space Station. The headsets will help astronauts interact directly with crew members on the ground and have augmented reality overlays to help the crew learn to use certain objects.

Hands-on Practice for Surgeons

Traditionally, surgeons would learn their craft by observing other doctors and helping out with small tasks until they became ready to take over entirely. Most patients would probably feel apprehensive about being someone’s first solo surgery - and rightfully so. The medical field has adopted VR technology to create surgery simulators that allow doctors to perfect their technique.

Surgery simulators have touch-feedback simulators which allow surgeons to feel the sensation of using a scalpel or drill in addition to seeing and hearing their virtual patients. The simulators can also use data from patient CT scans to create patient-specific models, which means training doctors as well as senior surgeons can make use of the models for challenging cases (or to sharpen skills that haven’t been used recently). Of course, the simulators provide the added benefit of allowing surgeons to practice at no risk to patients.

Flight Simulations for Pilots

Flight simulators have been used to train pilots in the military and commercial air lines for over twenty years. VR allows pilots in training to see out the windows of a virtual airplane while they operate controls in a cockpit that is identical to what they would see in an actual plane. Pilots also hear rushes of air around the “wings,” and the simulator tilts and shakes to make the trainee feel as though they are controlling a real plane.

Boeing uses VR to train pilots to fly their 787s for a variety of commercial airlines over a period of three weeks. The pilots start by training in a cubicle with a head-mounted display, sitting in their traditional locations, with the captain on the left and the copilot on the right. They also complete a virtual walk-through of the plane for pre-flight inspections, and learn the intricacies of the landing gear. After 12 days of intense training, pilots are brought to the motion-based simulator, which can recreate weather conditions, mechanical failures, or any other problems pilots might face while flying a 787. The flight simulator is a cost-effective and safe method of training pilots, since it can be operated without damaging the aircraft.

The military simulators provides similar training for normal, abnormal, and emergency conditions and allows users to practice flight maneuvers for combat. Given that military aircraft is becoming increasingly powerful, it’s more important than ever to train pilots in a virtual environment. VR allows trainees to try out particularly lethal (and dangerous) weapons systems without placing anyone in danger.  

Screening and Training for Welders

Metal fabricating companies are finding it increasingly hard to find workers who are truly qualified to perform the skilled labor of welding. VR simulators allow employers to determine the baseline skill of applicants without having to use up resources (or risk injury to the applicant). The virtual environment also collects immediate feedback and delivers it to the recruiters to speed up the screening process.

Once qualified candidates are selected, they still require additional training. Again, VR technology allows manufacturers to train employees without damaging equipment and other valuable resources. Trainees gain an understanding of welding technology and develop muscle memory for techniques before ever entering an actual welding booth.

Practice for Athletes

The best way to improve at a sport is through repetition. However, in sports like football, where athletes are at risk for concussions and other injuries, physical practice has to be somewhat limited. VR technology can allow athletes to run through plays and maneuvers multiple times without getting injured or fatigued. The NFL has embraced VR technology for training after a recent collective bargaining agreement that limited the amount of time that players can spend practicing.

While it’s certainly not a substitute for physical training, it’s proving to be a useful supplement. Quarterbacks are particularly good candidates for this type of training, since they operate within a small portion of the field which can be easily simulated. However, VR technology can bring to life any vantage point from the field and can be used to train the whole team.

The software captures plays from team practices and creates 3D images, which are later fed to players through Oculus Rift headsets. Players are allowed to walk through real game experiences as if they were on the field. Coaches can get closer to the action as well, seeing small details like hand placement on the ball, which allows them to give more specific feedback to players. Over time, VR simulators are expected to reduce injuries among football players, and will likely be adopted by other sports leagues.

VR provides a safe and (relatively) inexpensive way for people to gain valuable on-the-job experience in fields that are considered dangerous or difficult to learn. In some industries, VR has been used for job training for decades, but applications in other fields are still being discovered. We expect that as VR technology becomes more widely available, virtual job training will become even more prevalent.