Is Virtual Reality a good substitute for real-life training for engineering applications?

Group 9

Virtual Reality (VR) is a barrier-breaking technology which allows complete immersion into a virtual environment, letting communication of ideas be easily and economically undertaken worldwide. The usage of VR within engineering in particular provides a competitive advantage within the training sphere, allowing previously dangerous and costly instructional processes to be undertaken much more safely, cheaply and from anywhere. However, the technology is still in its early stages of development and could pose unforeseen risks if integrated into the workplace. The technology itself and its inclusion within an engineering environment will be explored to form a conclusion as to whether or not it is a feasible option.

Benefits of VR come at a cost

The level of training required for engineering applications may be high, as the impact of failure can be catastrophic. It is important to consider the uncertainty that comes with utilising VR technology before deciding its usefulness. If a company like Elekta, a radiotherapy device company, were to adopt VR to train assembly and design engineers, can it be guaranteed that all dangers are represented in the virtual world? Is the technology developed enough to give an accurate demonstration of how processes would be in real-life? Can such field engineers feel 100% confident they are delivering a fault-free system if they are training in a virtual world? This touches on the important issue of virtue ethics: whether or not the individual implementing a solution believes the solution itself is morally right, or more specifically, will not ultimately fail in a real-life situation.

Although using VR is a cutting-edge, exciting technology, using it for educational purposes such as this will not accommodate to everyone’s style of learning. Only 15% of the population are kinaesthetic learners1, and so VR is clearly not the most effective method of training for most people. The utilitarian view that new solutions must produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people is contradicted here: should a solution that benefits a greater number of people be used instead?

It is often difficult for engineering companies to adopt completely novel technological procedures as a lack of trust is present. Why should a company change how they train individuals if the method currently used is already efficient and so well-ingrained into company culture? VR may not be the best choice in this case, where the majority would prefer alternate existing solutions.

Utilising VR for training may lead to the loss of jobs of teachers and trainers, reducing job security. The poor virtue ethics involved in implementing such a solution proves detrimental for those in the training and HR sector.

As it is such a new technology, the long-term health damage inflicted on users of VR is currently unknown, but there has been indication that it could lead to eye or hearing damage. VR could lead to myopia or short-sightedness2, and long-term eye growth impacts are uncertain. Children and young people are most at risk from this and subjecting them to this technology without knowing fully its impact is seen by many as immoral. The technology can affect the eye-brain connections, and can cause eye-strain, headaches and nausea, sometimes called cybersickness3. This means that VR may not be suitable for those with pre-existing medical conditions, failing to meet Kant’s principle of universality: that for an action to be acceptable, it must be possible to apply to all people without any contradiction.

But, VR is the future

Utilisation of VR within training can prove massively beneficial from a safety perspective. VR provides a safe environment for beginners to practice their skills until they are confident enough to apply these in the real world; they are more likely to make mistakes during training. Decreasing the exposure of inexperienced trainees to unsafe environments such as those in the oil and gas industry ensures the virtue morals of an engineering company are upheld, as fewer unsafe and costly scenarios will take place. This provides much safer and lower risk training procedures overall. With the engineering industry having such high-risk applications, shouldn’t this be adopted by everyone?

With respect to office and data manipulation training, a much more visual training experience is made possible with virtual reality. Presenting subject matter in an appealing 3D format improves ability to retain knowledge more effectively, this being essential in a population with 65% being visual learners4.

This technology is developing rapidly and becoming suitable for high-risk engineering purposes, for example nuclear power5. VRgineers is a company who have built a VR headset with engineers in mind, to ensure they get all the benefits from the device they require for their applications6. With technological advancements going in the right direction, getting involved with VR appears to be the next logical step.

VR reduces or completely removes the need for travel, supervision and physical equipment costs of training procedures7. Monitoring the progress of these practices using VR provides benefits not otherwise seen in real-life variants. The speed of learning and quality of work from new recruits will improve due to the provision of comprehensive feedback. These provide an overall long-term cost benefit to engineering companies despite the high initial equipment costs. Mitigation of these costs means that companies will have more disposable income to use for employee benefits and innovation, supporting the universality principle of a company, as all employees will see some benefit from the effective use of technology.

Utilising a learning platform using technology which many already use for social and entertainment purposes provides a competitive advantage. Trainees who are familiar with VR technology will see training as something more enjoyable and will already know how to exploit it to great effect. This will encourage those more apprehensive to engage with the technology, employing Kant’s theory of universality. 

Initial Decision

VR provides many benefits within the training sphere, specific to certain applications. The image8 above shows in which circumstances VR might be appropriate. However, many are apprehensive, particularly within engineering. Therefore, partial implementation of VR to augment existing methods seems like the most optimal solution as this current point in time.

31 thoughts on “Is Virtual Reality a good substitute for real-life training for engineering applications?

  1. In your opening paragraphs you don’t make the ethical dilemma clear. Why should we use VR, why shouldn’t we? I’m not fully clear on what the principle issue is, perhaps in Assignment Two you can clarify this for me.

    1. The ethical issue faced discusses whether or not the unforeseen long-term risks are worth the short term benefits made clear within the article. Is it worth risking people’s jobs and the health of users for a solution to a problem which does not necessarily exist? Another principle is that the technology only targets a fraction of the engineering industry, limiting its use for non-kinesthetic learners and those with mobility issues. Is this a worthwhile technology to attempt to implement into the wider engineering industry?

  2. This is an interesting prospect. Have you considered the possibility of VR also being suitable for low complexity safe scenarios, for example, getting trainees used to identifying components from CAD files and their uses pre-production? By training before production lines are up and running you could kickstart development.

    1. That is definitely an important point to consider. However, it needs to be evaluated whether or not investment in the technology itself will be worth it. It is unsure that the initial money used to implement the technology would pay off in the long term for applications like these where training is already relatively cheap, easy and mobile (can be done online etc).

    2. Definitely a possibility. Although I do agree that possibly, the financial investment required for this technology may not be worth it for less complex applications. These applications are most probably relatively inexpensive to train for and so this technology is not likely to reduce the cost of training in these scenarios.

  3. The point that only 15% of the population are kinaesthetic learners is clearly important for training, but maybe even more so for recruitment for which it seems to be increasingly used. In the short term this may save money for employers if it means recruitment processes are cheaper. But if it ends up rejecting 85% of candidates because they are less VR-friendly, rather than for their skills and strengths, then it will eventually benefit noone.

    1. An excellent point to consider especially considering the current trends in the field as you said. An only partial implementation of this technology would certainly be necessary in order to maintain utilitarian ethics within recruitment.

  4. VR training is at best an insight into a conditioned scenarios , not replacement for actual event as there are many external factors that can not be imagined that will have impact. it is an aid and not replacement

  5. VR is currently applied in Formula 1 racing , as a race training aid tool to help driver awareness and their split decision making whilst actually racing. The effect of using VR is successfully show in the reduction of accidents on the race track.
    Overall I believe that VR should be used as a complementary aid to current practice’s in use and not as a replacement as you can not put value on reality methods

  6. VR most certainly is a technology which is now being applied across the many
    avenues covered by the all-encompassing term, engineering.

    The discussion document is headed: ‘Is VR a good substitute for real-life training for
    engineering applications?’ That’s an expansive title, where the pros and cons of VR
    technology are covered in a very broad manner and this approach has a top-level
    value, but will likely leave a practical engineering team looking for the substance to
    justify buying into this technology.

    It identifies justifiable concerns related to VR technology:

    – Initial commissioning, set-up and ongoing operating costs.
    – User health risks (therefore company liability)
    – Very high proportion of the population likely to have difficulty learning
    and retaining VR delivered information.

    Disappointingly, there are no profound points setting out the benefits of VR within the
    many engineering fields where a picture/short instructional process would deliver a
    training instruction worth a-thousand-words, or how VR delivered image can show a
    proposed change to; a building layout, a complex component assembly, a
    manufacturing technique, a changed work process and a related cost saving.
    Many spheres of engineering have established practices for using modelling and
    simulation (M&S) technology to determine the suitability of a new design and validate
    behaviour when it is incorporated within an existing system, for example a renewable
    energy generation scheme when embedded within the national grid. VR will be able
    to offer an extra dimension to M&S for certain engineering structures, in the same
    way that 3D printers have revolutionised rapid prototyping.

    It is easy to understand how VR can benefit such complex assemblies as flight
    simulators, training people to cope in dangerous situations eg; emergency services,
    military operations, emergency manual intervention of process systems. For such
    applications the VR will likely need to be at least 4D.

    Based on personal experience of servicing and maintaining complex electrical power
    generation plant there is a paramount need to detect abnormal smells, detect
    uncharacteristic vibration, irregular instrument/data monitoring information, and
    unusual pitch sounds within the normal operating noise of the plant. I’m not sure if
    such a multi-dimensional VR is available.

    I hope the above comments from a retired electrical engineer will be helpful.

    1. VR most certainly is a technology which is now being applied across the many avenues covered by the all-encompassing term, engineering.

      The discussion document is headed: ‘Is VR a good substitute for real-life training for engineering applications?’ That’s an expansive title, where the pros and cons of VR technology are covered in a very broad manner and this approach has a top-level value, but will likely leave a practical engineering team looking for the substance to justify buying into this technology.

      It identifies justifiable concerns related to VR technology:
      – Initial commissioning, set-up and ongoing operating costs.
      – User health risks (therefore company liability)
      – Very high proportion of the population likely to have difficulty learning and retaining VR delivered information.

      Disappointingly, there are no profound points setting out the benefits of VR within the many engineering fields where a picture/short instructional process would deliver a training instruction worth a-thousand-words, or how VR delivered image can show a proposed change to; a building layout, a complex component assembly, a manufacturing technique, a changed work process and a related cost saving.

      Many spheres of engineering have established practices for using modelling and simulation (M&S) technology to determine the suitability of a new design and validate behaviour when it is incorporated within an existing system, for example a renewable energy generation scheme when embedded within the national grid. VR will be able to offer an extra dimension to M&S for certain engineering structures, in the same way that 3D printers have revolutionised rapid prototyping.

      It is easy to understand how VR can benefit such complex assemblies as flight simulators, training people to cope in dangerous situations eg; emergency services, military operations, emergency manual intervention of process systems. For such applications the VR will likely need to be at least 4D.

      Based on personal experience of servicing and maintaining complex electrical power generation plant there is a paramount need to detect abnormal smells, detect uncharacteristic vibration, irregular instrument/data monitoring information, and unusual pitch sounds within the normal operating noise of the plant. I’m not sure if such a multi-dimensional VR is available.

      I hope the above comments from a retired electrical engineer will be helpful.

      1. I agree that the major concerns we tried to point out are initial commissioning, set-up, ongoing operating costs and company liability.

        You raise an important point how VR could deliver training quickly and efficiently “worth-a-thousand-words”. Something we hadn’t really considered, but making training easier and more accessible definitely maintains utilitarianism.

        1. You raise a very important point that VR would need to be 4D for use in engineering training purposes, to detect smells and vibrations.

          However, VR could still be a useful tool to use in parallel to conventional training.

          1. But, don’t you think that using VR in parallel to traditional training methods then removes the benefits of replacing conventional training? For example, cost reduction from removing the need for travel, supervision and physical equipment costs.

            However, I do agree that VR and real-life training has to be used together to compliment each other at the moment. I simply can’t see the use of VR completely removing and replacing the need for real-life training for engineers at this stage in its development.

  7. VR technology can enable more effective learning at a lower cost and in less time than many traditional learning methods. Thisis because VR can allow for repeated learning, when dealing with expensive, rare or even high risk environments.
    VR is not just about saving memory – it can provide better outcomes than many traditional learning methods, you can track the learner inputs, however the health issues relating must be considered.

    1. You make a good point with regards to being able to repeat training, which can benefit people who may require more time for whatever reason, keeping utilitarianism in mind.

      Another good point with the ability to track progress of the user. This can prove useful in determining if the user has received sufficient training and can now proceed with the intended task.

      With these in mind, do you think it should be used as an aid, or work towards completely replacing traditional methods? Still to bear in mind that long term health risks are unknown.

  8. We all experience learning and acquire knowledge in different ways. Any form of training that involves human beings (including engineers) will, by its nature need a blended approach to take account of this dynamic.

    VR can play its part, especially in environments that are hostile to humans or in those that don’t actually exist in the actual world where training needs to start early. The military have a key skill in investing in detailed training needs analysis before committing to designing any learning programme. At present, VR cannot replicate the smell of a working environment, physical touch of item but it can help visualise a key learning point, bring two dimensions to life and better understand and collaborate on an issue seamlessly across geographical boundaries.

    In a nutshell, is it a substitute? Yes. But is it a good substitute? Well that depends on which aspect of engineering it is being applied to IMHO. Congrats on a thought provoking piece of work.

    1. I agree about a blended approach being required, therefore, that means I can’t agree that VR is a sufficient substitute for training in engineering purposes. As you mentioned, VR cannot replicate smells of physical touch of the working environment, then using it for training for engineers could be dangerous if they haven’t been exposed to the real-life situation.

      However, like you said VR would be very useful for training for environments that cannot be accessed by humans. This could be very useful for an engineering context, for example preparing for space travel. This sort of experience would be helpful for everyone, regardless of their preferred learning method, maintaining utilitarianism.

  9. This is an interesting article which highlights possibly a very exciting future between VR and engineering applications.
    Have you considered the cost of implementing this type of technology for engineering companies and how accessible this will be to smaller organisations?
    As this is an emerging technology, how can you be sure that the cost investment into this technology will be worth the benefits gained? Have you seen any examples where this has been a success?

    1. This is definitely an important point to consider. Although it initially will require a significant financial investment as it’s an emerging technology, the long term benefits are likely to recover this cost fairly quickly. As it becomes more popular in larger companies the technology will inevitably fall in price and be made accessible for smaller companies.

      1. As with the implementation of any technology there is always a risk financially, with no guarantee of it paying off. Maybe further research into this technology would be sensible before any large company implements it.

  10. You state that only 15% of the population are kinaesthetic learners, as well as the fact that VR may not be suitable for those with pre-existing medical conditions. This leaves a very small percentage of the population who are likely to benefit significantly from VR training. This raises the question to whether the expense and implementation of this technology is worth it? Does it really provide significant improvements worth the financial investment and change within a company?

    1. Even though only 15% of the population are kinaesthetic learners this does not mean people who learn better in other ways will not benefit from this technology. Also, as the technology develops the health-related issues related to it will become clearer. This will mean the technology can be adapted to prevent these issues from occurring in the long-term.

      1. Understandably, over time as the technology becomes more and more advanced, the relative impact that it may have on health will also become clearer. However, would you agree in that due to the potential impacts listed in the article such eye-strain and damage to eye-brain connections, sufficient experimental testing should be carried out before the technology is introduced to the market? With the extent of the effects currently unknown, it could indeed be incredibly risky to go ahead and allow it to be extensively used without this knowledge, and thus viewed as ethically immoral.

        1. Your statement is a very valid one. I do agree that considerable testing should take place before this technology is extensively used however, as was the case with a lot of new and emerging technology in the past, long-term health effects have not been known yet the technology has still be implemented in society. Although some see this as ethically immoral, it has not stopped the introduction of technology in the past.

  11. I agree that VR is likely to be the future of training within the engineering industry. With how fast technology is developing at the moment I do not think there is any stopping the implementation of this, especially in the larger companies, within the next 3-5 years. Inevitably this will push down the cost of this technology and make it accessible for smaller companies. Regardless of the negatives to this technology, developments in this technology will most likely act to overcome a large majority of these.

    1. You suggest that developments in technology will overcome the negatives to this technology but this will surely take a few years? Within these years new technology is likely to become available and other ways to train employees invented? Therefore won’t this technology become outdated and out performed by others?

    2. You suggest that with how fast technology is advancing, within the next 3-5 years many large companies will have implemented this way of training, yet do you think this timeframe is actually soon enough to prevent any other emerging technology replacing it? Especially as it’s likely to be much longer than that before smaller companies are made accessible to it.

  12. I think much more research and development is required before this technology can be implemented large scale, especially the long-term health issues. It should be made sure that any of these issues are resolved and the long-terms effects, if any, are known and made aware to the user before use of this technology.

    1. Currently a lot of technologies are used within industry where their long-term health issues are not known. It has not stopped companies from implementing technology in the past.

      Many companies have very strict health and safety regulations which are likely to identify if the technology is likely to have any serious long term health issues.

  13. You do a good job of unpacking VR and looking at all the different issues that get brought into view through the use of different ethical lenses, really interesting!
    Part of it reminded me about the moral panic thats happening around teachers and robots – once seen as one of the last jobs a robot could take, bots are being trialled in online learning environments. This though – like parts of your argument above – rely on a very restricted view of teaching and training, one where a learned gets dumped with a load of knowledge and they don’t need any help to make sense of it. I think that’s a really small part of teaching. So in essence, my primary reaction to your proposition is that I think it is “dehumanising”, in that you lose the social and relationship aspects of learning (and this is as true in companies as much as in school or University). I wonder whether Kant would have thought that was serving humanity. But then to a utilitarianist I guess the arguments are stronger: you can train more people, train people in inaccessible or hostile environments, and maybe even save the environment a little by supporting training without physically moving people around.

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