Virtual reality — long touted as the next big thing in tech — hasn't taken off as a consumer product, but employers are embracing it as a more efficient and effective tool for on-the-job training.
This year, Walmart is training more than 1 million employees using virtual reality. And moving companies, airlines, food processing and financial firms are all using VR in different ways. In the virtual world, cashiers are taught to show greater empathy, mechanics learn to repair planes and retail workers experience how to deal with armed robbery.
The sensory immersion is key to its effectiveness. Because things look and sound as if they were real, the brain processes virtual reality as though it were a real experience, says Stanford communication professor Jeremy Bailenson, who also founded the school's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
"People learn by doing ... getting feedback on mistakes, and then repeating and iterating," he says.
Not every workplace situation is conducive to virtual reality training. Some tactile skills, for example, are better experienced in real life. But the technology is especially useful for training people for novel or emergency situations.
Verizon, for example, has been using the technology to train its retail workers in handling armed robberies — a common crime in the wireless industry. Retail workers can reenact being held at gunpoint, and in the process learn proper ways to prioritize safety and minimize physical harm.
Feeling like they're at gunpoint creates a real stress response without putting employees in danger. Verizon employees who survived robberies say the video version is true to life, says Lou Tedrick, who heads the company's learning and development.
"The emotions that they felt during the robbery experience they feel during the VR experience," she says.
That realism, she says, makes them better prepared and more likely to remember the lessons. "By the end of the [virtual reality] experience they feel like they've been robbed three times, and by the third time their confidence is significantly higher," Tedrick says.
The concept for VR training started as a project in Bailenson's lab at Stanford. Its first real-world application took place nearby, on the school's football fields.
Five years ago, Stanford head football coach David Shaw tested an early prototype of 3D video goggles with his quarterbacks and defensive linemen. Players could look around and feel as though the moves were unfolding in real life.
"This crazy thing happens when guys get in the VR — usually within 10 minutes, most of them start to sweat," despite the fact that they're barely moving in real life, Shaw says. "But their brain is seeing these visuals, these different formations and motions and plays and defenses. The more they see them, the quicker they react."
In this way, players could do reps — or repeated practice plays — without being on a field, on their own time. In 2016, two years after starting VR training, Stanford won the Rose Bowl, and Shaw says he thinks it helped the team win. The technology has spread to the NBA, NFL, Olympic skiers and other elite athletes.
The early prototype Shaw used became the basis of Strivr, one of several companies using VR in training.
The concept of practice through repetition is useful across many workplace tasks, says Derek Belch, Strivr's CEO and founder, and a former student of Bailenson's. "For sexual harassment training, for interviewer training, we've got to give you reps too," Belch says.
But using VR to address things like unconscious bias or sexual harassment is still a new frontier.
Current software isn't yet good at responding to subtle things, like how an employee rolls his eyes or raises his voice. So virtual reality could someday be programmed to understand the complexities of human interaction and help people make better decisions. But for now, there isn't enough research to say where those limits lie.
There's no evidence VR training can change how people think or feel, says Chris Dede, an education professor at Harvard.
"The goal isn't somehow to make people unbiased, which I don't think is possible; the goal is to make you aware of your biases," he says. The hope is that virtual reality will make people more aware of the right behavior and give them opportunities to practice that.
Walmart is already testing it as a way to interview job candidates, says the retailer's head of learning, a man aptly named Andy Trainor.
"With all the data you get from VR, you can see where they look. You can see how they move and how they react," Trainor says. "You could do an interview in VR and based on the way they answer the questions, you can preselect whether or not they'd be a good fit for that role."
The retailer purchased 17,000 goggles that it's using in 4,700 locations to train most of its workforce this year. Trainor says VR is a far cheaper and easier way to train people across a big organization.
For example, Walmart recently introduced a new machine used to retrieve orders customers placed online.
"Previously, we had to send three to four people to the store to train how to set it up, how to maintain it, how to interact with customers with it," Trainor says. "Now we just send a pair of VR goggles. We have VR modules that teach them how to do all of that stuff without any human intervention."
Editor's note: Verizon and Walmart are among NPR's financial supporters.