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Virtual And Augmented Reality Can Protect The American Workforce

The possibilities for training, upskilling, and educating workers that new technology offers could help workers succeed in an age of automation.

Virtual And Augmented Reality Can Protect The American Workforce
AR and VR are already being used by some of the world’s biggest employers. [Photo: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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Take a walk down any street in Silicon Valley and you’d be hard pressed not to run into a horseman of the impending workforce apocalypse–that is–if you don’t get run over by a drone first. With self-driving cars roaming the streets, robots that would make George Jetson jealous, computer algorithms that will replace the jobs of whole departments, and drones threatening to replace delivery drivers and paparazzi alike, it’s not hard to see why some pundits predict a dystopian, largely jobless future.

Meanwhile, America’s workforce is not only aging, it’s also being forced to compete in a rapidly changing global economy. Workers are stacked against less expensive talent from around the world, and face the looming specter of automation and data-driven efficiency.

Fortunately, the prospects are not so bleak as the pundits would have it. As any student of history or economics will tell you, technology has as much capacity to create jobs as to destroy them. Yes, the horse and carriage industry was devastated by the invention of the automobile, but the resulting auto mechanics, truck drivers, gas station attendants, and scores of others sure weren’t complaining.

Today, we face a similar transformation. Numerous industries and professions face existential crises, but at the same time, technology is creating new ways for organizations to create value, and thus new jobs. The problem is not a simple lack of jobs, but that the workforce is not equipped with the skills to fill them.

These new jobs aren’t just in high-tech sectors like software development. Traditional industries are having just as much trouble filling positions as new ones. A 2015 Deloitte study estimates that there will be 3.5 million manufacturing jobs available over the next decade in the U.S.–2 million of which will go unfilled.

To address the challenge, employers of all stripes must make major investments in training and retraining, also known as “upskilling.” And workers, to maintain a competitive edge, must be armed to attain information quickly, communicate effectively, and work more efficiently. So how can organizations teach so many new skills in ways that are economical, efficient, and get results?

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One solution comes, ironically, straight out of Silicon Valley: augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

AR and VR are already being used by some of the world’s biggest employers for training, upskilling, and educating their workers. A closer look reveals why: The technology makes it safer, cheaper, and more effective to train employees on expensive machines, uncommon situations, and key procedures. It’s even showing promise in advancing key soft skills, like empathy and teamwork.

Gamified, immersive simulations have been especially popular among the younger gamer generation that will soon anchor UPS’s fleet. [Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash]

Going Virtual to Prepare for a Changing World

In virtual reality, a person puts on a headset and is immediately immersed in a digital world. Using advanced computer graphics and a host of other technologies, virtual reality (when it works) tricks the brain into believing it’s actually in an entirely different location or even a new world.

This is a powerful training tool as it allows us to recreate nearly any situation, device, or environment without the cost, danger, or perfect timing of real life training. Just as pilots are asked to log thousands of hours in flight simulators, practicing everything from stalled engines to turbulent conditions, VR allows us to create any number of lifelike simulations.

Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s eminent railway company, is using VR to immerse job applicants in a day in the life on the job before spending an hour on the company payroll. Their VR content offers candidates the experience of inspecting the underside of one its newest Intercity Express trains. This has attracted talent and improved workforce retention, a critical competitive advantage in one of the world’s tightest labor markets.

UPS, the world’s largest delivery service with 100,000 trucks on the road at any moment, has turned to virtual reality in its training centers for similar reasons. The program trains new recruits to detect and avoid common road hazards by simulating the experience of driving a delivery vehicle. Trials have shown it more cost efficient, more engaging, and thus more successful. The gamified, immersive simulations have been especially popular among the younger gamer generation that will soon anchor its fleet.

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Walmart, the world’s third largest employer, has deployed virtual reality to 200 of its training centers to simulate its annual bacchanal of consumerism, Black Friday. Dropping trainees into the chaos of its most hectic day of the year–facing inventory shortages, crowd-control and customer conflicts–the tool allows for vivid preparation that couldn’t be created in real world.

Counterintuitively, VR is even showing potential to boost soft-skills training. Stubbornly difficult among employers to screen and train for, it is often these abilities–like empathy, emotional acuity and teamwork–that determine whether someone can succeed in a job.

Virtual reality has the ability to place the user in the proverbial shoes of another, and is uniquely suited to help people empathize with those they interact with. Doctors are using perspective-based VR to grasp the experience of patients and improve their bedside manner. The NFL, which struggles to retain women and minorities in leadership positions, is using VR simulations not only to enhance the skills of players, but also to raise sensitivity to bias and harassment across all employees, by immersing trainees in the role of the victim.

Not surprisingly, it’s much more potent to place someone in a simulation in which they feel the perspective of their colleague or customer than to tell them how to behave.

In GE’s wind energy division, technicians using “line of sight” schematics displayed through AR headsets serviced wind turbines 46% faster on their first use of the technology. [Photo: Eddie Kopp/Unsplash]

Augmented Reality As A Tool For Real-World Learning

Where VR takes up your entire field of vision, AR operates on top of your existing senses. It attempts to understand your world and place useful visual information over it. AR can be found in headsets, smart glasses, and even mobile phones, providing contextual information and tools in real time as though they were part of the physical environment.

The world’s largest elevator company, ThyssenKrupp, with its fleet of 14,000 service engineers, has made AR core to boosting the skills of its field force.

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The company has deployed Microsoft Hololens, a wearable AR headset, to train and support their 24,000 service engineers. Without being on site, technicians can view, visually disassemble and reassemble the latest product models in three-dimensional projections. In the field, they can overlay schematics, tutorials and make Skype calls with specialists while keeping their eyes on the wires and widgets in front of them. In trials, technicians have improved service time by 400%, and the CEO has spoken of major gains in training.

In trials, elevator company ThyssenKrupp says that technicians have improved service time by 400% using AR. [Photo: Microsoft]
One thing that makes AR headsets especially powerful in upskilling is that they can be used in real time to boost workers’ abilities while leaving their hands free to complete a task, thus having an immediate impact on productivity and increasing skill-retention for the workers. In GE’s wind energy division, technicians using “line of sight” schematics displayed through AR headsets serviced wind turbines 46% faster on their first use of the technology.

These cases comprise only the first wave of employers exploring virtual and augmented reality’s potential to empower our workforce. With ARKit now on nearly every iPhone and ARCore on most modern Android phones, as well as promises of cheaper, higher quality VR headsets coming soon, hundreds of millions of people will have access to AR in their pockets and VR in their living rooms.

This massive user base is an opportunity for companies to educate and empower not just their current employees, but also job seekers and even customers without major equipment costs, personnel requirements, or other disadvantages of conventional training. Imagine employees showing up on their first day of work not just excited to start, but having already completed detailed, realistic immersion in scenarios they will face.

Automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances are creating well-founded concerns over unprepared workers. While jobs aren’t simply going to vanish, gobbled up by robot overlords, they are going to change, and fast–compounding the need to improve training and skill-matching between employers and the workforce. By offering a safer, faster, more effective way to solve this problem, immersive reality can help both workers and employers to bridge this gap, preserving livelihoods in the process.


Will Byrne is former CEO of Groundswell, an Ashoka Fellow, and a Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur. He is director of strategy at Presence.

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Dale Knauss is virtual and augmented reality lead at Presence.