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March 2, 2018

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VR: What you need to know

Well-told stories fire the imagination like no other medium.

They convey emotions and affect attitudes and values in ways that resonate long after they’ve been told. So it’s no wonder the most forward-thinking organisations now blend time-honoured storytelling with modern VR technology – immersing individuals in health and safety training in ways never thought possible with trusty PowerPoint.

After successfully pioneering VR for a major UK construction project and a global telecommunications provider, Clare Solomon, commercial and creative director of Tribe, has advice for any leader intrigued by the possibilities offered by this new, immersive learning platform.

Virtual reality safety

In this article, Clare cuts through the hype surrounding VR, and explores its practical use as a tool for forward-thinking health and safety engagement.

“I watched a film on an aeroplane recently – just me with my headphones on, travelling alone, and I found myself sobbing away, like an emotional wreck! Whereas when I saw the same film at the cinema a couple of weeks before, I was nowhere near as moved by it.

“Funny thing is, I got up midway to stretch my legs, and there were four other travellers all sobbing as well! That made me think – when no one’s watching you, you don’t limit yourself on how much you engage with the content.”

Clare believes the same rule applies to VR. When participants don their headsets, they temporarily leave the confines (and social norms) of the workshop behind, and enter a different realm where their attention is engaged in its entirety.

“In a VR workshop every individual gets totally immersed in their own VR bubble. So unlike a group watching a film together in a room, you aren’t aware of how others are behaving. There’s no pressure to react in a certain way and no distractions.

“But when the headset comes off, you’re back in the room again with your peers, having had a very personal experience. Then you get all the usual advantages of healthy discussion and debate.

“I’ve seen people come out of VR with very different conclusions from what they have seen which makes for a fascinating discussion on perceptions. People see different things when they’re free to experience something on their own terms.

“I’ve noticed that when people feel emotionally affected by their VR experience they’re more likely to stand up for their own ideas and interpretations too. You don’t just get people going along with whatever the most senior person in the room thinks – like you might in an ordinary workshop. They speak up – which is key to an engaged culture.”

Crafting an engaging story

Yet, as Clare is quick to point out, you can’t rely on technology alone to capture people’s imagination. To create learning experiences that last, VR must deliver carefully crafted, compelling stories.

“For one particular project – building new sanitation infrastructure, we wanted to create a feeling of pride in how people are empowered to make positive decisions that affect everyone.

“In the VR experience you meet project members and their families at famous landmarks where you get to enjoy the view along with the characters in the story.  Then a character turns to you and asks you a question – suddenly you go from being a bystander to an actual character in the drama.

“VR puts someone right in the middle of the action, in real-time, like installing equipment on top of a radio mast for example – the wind in your ears, a vertigo feeling with the scary drop beneath you – that’s what we’re working on right now for a major telecoms provider. The story is all about raising awareness, so managers appreciate what they’re asking staff to do – without ever leaving the office.

“In VR you’re free to engage with what you want too – it’s not a single narrative like with a film – you can choose what to look at, and different people notice different things. So that means you have to plan clever content and slip messages in there subtly for them to discover individually.”

Be subtle and clever

With VR finally reaching a tipping point on cost and accessibility, there’s still the challenge of cutting through the hype. In our haste to adopt the latest technology, people risk forgetting that VR is just a tool like any other. Granted, it’s a profoundly radical one, but like any platform for delivering a cultural message – you need a strong, consistent vision and plan to back it up.

Clare has more advice to help achieve just that.

“The key is the content – how are you going to use this to make a difference? The novelty of VR will bring people along to your course – that alone will spread its appeal like wildfire. But on its own that is not enough.

“So, what we’re really careful to do at Tribe is try to create an experience that’s worth putting a headset on for. It’s got to be interesting and different and emotional – that’s the challenge. You’ve got to be one step ahead – how do you keep this immersive? and use it to present content that evokes a personal experience.

“At the moment VR is all shiny and new – soon everyone will be jumping on the bandwagon. What I’d say is think carefully before you buy into this. Ask yourself: are you and your people ready for fresh ideas and something very different to what might have gone before. What are the stories you can to tell? And are you ready to empower people and create a movement around those stories – one that in all likelihood will take on a life of its own?”

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steven brough
steven brough
6 years ago

We recently filmed a VR film for a water utility client around the subject of mental health which has been a great success. I agree it takes people into the world you want to create very vividly with sights and sounds. It should however be used in conjunction with other media to avoid over use. Bite sized chunks at a time.