Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Virtual reality (VR) has been used for training purposes for decades as a cost-effective way to introduce students to simulated versions of high-cost equipment such as fighter jets and nuclear submarines. Now the technology is trickling down to the storefront.
Like most technologies, VR has been overhyped before it could find that one "killer" app that becomes a springboard to mass scale. Now it looks like it could be large-scale enterprise implementations that gives VR its big break.
Last week, Walmart announced it will use VR to train more than 1 million store employees in the US. The retailer will deploy 17,000 Oculus Go headsets in most of its 5,000 stores in an effort to provide training to customer-facing associates.
This announcement is in line with CCS Insight's expectation that standalone headsets like the Oculus Go and HTC Vive Focus will ignite a new wave of growth that will help broaden the appeal of VR, particularly in the enterprise and education markets (see Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Device Market Worth $1.8 Billion in 2018).
As costs of VR equipment have come down, workplace training is becoming a successful use of the technology. Unlike complex professional-grade flight simulators which can cost millions, VR headsets and software can cost less than $1,000, allowing companies to develop training tools that, according to some studies, can be more effective than traditional enterprise course work.
Walmart began testing VR toward the end of 2017, using it to train some employees on topics such as management and customer service. VR instruction was used at each of the retailer's 200 Walmart Academy training centres in the US, helping educate an estimated 150,000 employees. The company said it found that its employees benefited by being able to make mistakes in a safe environment and came away with skills and confidence unique to this type of experience.
Walmart plans to focus on three main areas with its VR training programmes: new technologies, customer service and compliance. For example, the company needs a growing number of employees to support its innovative Pickup Tower system introduced in 2017. Pickup Towers allow customers to buy online and then collect their items in-store by displaying a smartphone-generated barcode to a vending machine which then presents the pre-ordered goods.
The competitive environment created by Amazon along with changing consumer behaviour and expectations means retailers have to evolve quickly, keeping their employees' skills up to date. The use of VR as a training solution could help immerse retail employees in memorable experiences, while cutting down on the number of individuals needed to teach them. Other companies will join Walmart in implementing VR to create flexible and economically viable training tools.
Workplace training is a shot in the arm for makers of VR solutions. This is meaningful to Facebook-owned Oculus, which has been pushing into the enterprise space for several years, offering Rift bundles with support specifically for business uses. The partnership between Walmart and Oculus has scope to lead to bigger things for Facebook's subsidiary and drive future VR platforms and sales volumes.
VR technology still has several challenges to overcome if it is to become a mainstream technology, but this deployment of thousands of headsets could offer a significant boost and encourage other companies to follow in Walmart's footsteps.