Augmented Reality: L&D's Untapped Superpower

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It's becoming increasingly evident that training is undergoing a transformation; shifting towards more highly-immersive formats.

Case in point: About 75 percent of Forbes World’s Most Valuable Brands have created some type of augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) experience;

In 2019, they were forecast at 16.8 billion and by 2023, AR and VR are predicted to be a $160 billion industry, according to Statista Forecast worldwide market size from 2016 – 2023.

If training with immersive technologies is rightfully taking its place as a leading trend in the world of talent development, what are the implications for current training leaders?

Walter Davis, Head of Talent and Learning Application at Aggreko, shared the role that augmented reality plays at Aggreko, why it’s a trend and key considerations for integrating it at your company.

Q: Starting with the basics - how do you define augmented reality and how does Aggreko utilize it?

A: Augmented reality gives employees’ superpowers–enhancing their physical surroundings with digital overlays, as opposed to virtual reality where you’re fully immersed/transported to another place and time, and your physical world no longer exists.

Training was the first area to explore AR-based learning in 2018. Now we’re building our first end-to-end experience around our new compressor that’s planned for global launch and have additional products lined up for Quarter One.

I’m particularly excited about the maturity of the technology and being able to now move out of the “explore” phase into the “deploy” phase.

We’ve broken down and classified our AR definition into three key areas that allows us to strategically focus the type of AR with its intended use and prevent any confusion:

1. Augmented Fully Digital Experience: This is how we approach the training/learning aspect of AR.

If we want to learn about something (i.e. a physical product), AR can be used to represent a fully digital version of that object at full scale allowing employees to have a full scale experience in the real world without the use of a physical product.

2. Digital Assist: With this experience you can now incorporate instructions onto a physical object/product and reuse much of the work done during the fully digital experience for deployment into these assisted scenarios which are great for performance support on-demand.

If I’m looking at something and need help, there'll be digital overlays to assist with the physical object. We’re looking to use this for both learning and operations within our authorization processes for working with energy.

We’re also experimenting to see if an employee can go through the appropriate activities on the product before they're authorized or as a way of demonstrating competence. 

3. Remote Support: I can’t say too much on our use of this at the moment however; this type differentiates itself by allowing another person (i.e. a Subject Matter Expert) to join either of the other two mentioned experiences and have things such as annotate, file share, etc. available to them.

If, say, the digital assist didn’t resolve the current challenge after completing the process, they can remote in someone else to view what they’re seeing and guide them through the rest of the process.

Q: What does training look like now and where does AR fit?

A: We’re a broad but thin organization. We have about 6,500 employees and around 3,000 contractors. We deliver Healthy, Safety and Environment (HSE) training (for authorization to work with electricity onsite) in about 100 countries, in 13-18 languages.

We have web-based, video-based and instructor-led training. We’ve struggled with virtual classrooms–some of it is from the nature of our business and the key audiences that are impacted.

Our technicians are our most critical audience but they can be in very remote places. AR functions similarly to mobile learning in that you can take it with you and learn even when away from the office.

AR helps us bridge the digital with the physical. I would say it sits in both online learning (WBT) and classroom since it has elements of each type of experience.

Q: With the skills gap in mind - what do you look for in a new hire re: AR?

A: We’re struggling with this right now, looking to partner with organizations and universities next year on this topic. In industrial organizations like ours, you might already see some skills in engineering in your business because they’re using 3D models and already have a spatial mindset, but most training teams have never taken advantage of using these tools.

Engineers can move and adapt quickly because they’re used to turning around 3D models of products, taking things apart and working spatially from different angles. So there could be some existing resources that have the skills needed to augment your L&D team.

Also spatial thinking, 3D modeling (key for advancing) and many 2D skills are still applicable like graphic design, animating or even video development if you want to have that as an added resource to the experience.

Q: What are some of the pros/cons you've experienced when implementing AR at Aggreko?

A: For augmented reality, the cost of fully digital experiences has been the major reason for not starting to deploy this technology sooner, especially as this is an emerging technology.

There are a lot of organizations who have been leading the way and developing in AR for a few years now but that has been with substantial investment in resources, development and tools.

By 2023, AR and VR are predicted to be a $160 billion industry, according to Statista Forecast worldwide market size from 2016 – 2023.

Now we’re seeing not only the cost of the creation of experiences dropping dramatically with the launch of click-to-build tools such as ScopeAR, but this is the first year I’ve really seen the launch of enterprise features and the things needed to scale at an organization–Things like managing AR experiences online, User Management, Single Sign-On, all with details on AR experience completions and metrics with data that can be built into your People Analytics Dashboards.

All are really important before considering to deploy AR at scale and integrate into your learning portfolio as a supported offering.

We did look at VR as well which is a much more immersive experience and effective way to learn–by using VR you are high-jacking a person’s senses through immersion and mitigation of external distractions.

This can be a massive benefit when you think of attention spans and the challenge learning professionals have with physical environment consideration such as getting a phone call or text message.

However it just isn’t as deployable when you compare it against AR and can be aboutfour to five times the cost  to develop in VR versus AR. You can’t put your entire ROI into the technology. For VR, while its most definitely an effective learning tool to get the level of interaction we needed–which would require 3D models and interaction–it just wasn’t cost effective.

While we could have used 360 Video–a form of VR most tools support today such as Lectora and Captivate–it just didn’t give us the level of human interaction and simulation needed for our development priorities.

For an organization of our size, AR allows us to deploy at a much lower development cost, so the devices employees have in their hands are AR-ready without the need to purchase additional hardware (i.e. smartphones, immersive VR headsets).

AR also mitigates the risk of impacting operational processes like planning for equipment and scheduling; so there’s a high return since we don’t have a requirement to have a physical asset, there’s no downtime and the product can instead be operationally making a difference for our customers.

Q: How do you show the ROI for AR?

A: Our main focus is “time to competency.” There can be quite a delay in getting training because it’s hands-on and relevant to a product that you don’t always have with you. You can’t always provide training right when new hires join because you might be waiting for equipment to become available or a class to be scheduled to get hands-on product knowledge.

AR will help shorten that time, so new hires can familiarize themselves with the equipment and learn the basic processes even on day one. This also helps prepare them for further development in their allowing for more advanced self-paced learning and a higher level of competency before they jump into the higher level learning modules.

There’s also a savings in downtime as I mentioned earlier: we analyzed the instructor-led training we did in 2018. Equipment was down for at least a day or more for product training. If we would've done that training using AR instead of allowing the equipment to be available for customers, we would've gained over half a million dollars more in revenue.

HSE training, we’ll be able to teach and replicate things we never could before– high-risk activities which we have a few of due to the nature of our business. AR would allow participants to go through an activity and simulate what it would look like if something was done incorrectly, but mitigate the risk of them getting hurt.


Q: What advice do you have for companies who are interested in integrating AR but might be hesitant in getting started & testing out new technology?

A: The best way to get into AR is to simply start using it–just get your hands dirty. That’s how it is with most technologies. Block some time out in your calendar to familiarize yourself with the free off-the-shelf apps in the App Store to start getting comfortable with the technology regardless of how basic it is. This could be anything from Adobe Aero to many of the available social media filters on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

Also start understanding the capabilities of AR. It’s a new way of communicating–there’s a lot of language to learn (i.e., spatial recognition, object omission, etc.).

The majority of the expertise and drive behind this technology is coming from a corporate stand point. I’m on the Industrial VR/AR Forum Advisory Board, and there are VR/AR forums that are operationally-focused, but I’m finding the experts in this space who participate aren’t in the talent/learning community.

Training is one of the largest use cases by far yet what you'll find is there is a real lack of expertise in most L&D communities, so in turn many organizations have operations leaders leading the charge with little to no involvement from their L&D team.

The first thing to do is to start having those conversations with the rest of your business and see what capabilities you already have in-house that you can make use of. If you’re in an industrial market, there is a good chance your operations teams are looking at AR already. Keep each other in the loop on different aspects you’re working on so you can leverage and re-use each other’s work.

There are so many potential quick wins when you start to leverage and reuse business investments in AR with learning. A great example is simply leveraging existing CAD (computer-aided design) that your engineering or product design teams have at hand. Not only does this save L&D time on development, it also allows them to focus on the experience rather than the assets and in turn plays to the strengths most L&D teams have.

Q: Where do you see the future of AR headed?

A: I think we’re quickly going to see a bit of a convergence between a shared ecosystem for AR that we haven’t had before in training, aside from collaboration capabilities.

At Aggreko, we’re moving to a platform where we can learn, support and operate as a business, all in the same place. This is opening up opportunities for the learning team–integrating business data and visualizing how the equipment is doing, and now we have access to even more data on real world human interaction and simulation in our learning experiences.

This technology poses such a great opportunity for partnership as well, and this is giving us a nice medium to come together on, to work on mutually beneficial elements like training employees better and servicing customers better all within the same technology stack.

The next big change is going to be when AR becomes more socially acceptable. It’s going to take some time but that will be the turning point.

It’s more acceptable with younger generations, but that is still mobile AR. Once we make the move to socially acceptable AR headsets now that will be a real turning point for the technology and even more advanced use cases along with incorporation of natural hand/body movements, AI Assistance within AR experiences and more. It will fundamentally change the way we work especially for field service & manufacturing.

There are a lot of ways augmented reality can enhance learning that’s really close not just from a self-paced approach but from an instructor-delivery level, like the augmented/virtual mixed reality for instructors delivering training live and using a combination of AR & VR where it doesn’t matter how you join.

AR & VR are going to be like mobile is to the Desktop. So online is moving to the real-world AR and VCT (virtual classroom technology) learning is moving to combinations of both VR & AR.

In closing, I would add it’s not whether you should start now rather than how you can ensure you can retain and hire without it. There is a building expectation from young new hires that this technology is being used and applied in an organization.