In the last few years, a number of technological innovations have evolved that offer the ability to immerse users in virtual spaces, creating numerous opportunities for innovative new approaches to learning and development to emerge.
Of these, the latest wave of virtual reality (VR) technology has arguably occupied the highest profile, thanks to widespread consumer understanding of the concept and the eye-catching launches of devices such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, but new developments in the field of augmented reality (AR) have the potential to be just as ground breaking, if not more so.
Although the technology remains in a state of relative infancy, AR could deliver a number of revolutionary new advances for learning and development in the near future, meaning it could be vital for those in charge of staff training to get up to speed on how AR could change the way they work.
Although AR is not as well-known a concept as VR, the principle itself is relatively easy to understand - especially now, thanks to the blockbuster success enjoyed by the AR game Pokémon Go in 2016.
Whereas VR immerses the user within a fully digital space with a purpose-built headset, AR uses a wider range of devices to superimpose computer-generated images, information and data over people's real-life surroundings.
Bespoke AR devices such as Google Glass and Microsoft's HoloLens are emerging to allow users to view this digital data through a head-mounted display, but one of the biggest benefits of AR is how easily it works with any camera-equipped smart device - as the sight of Pokémon Go players taking to the streets to view digital creatures on their phones has proven.
However, there's much more to AR than fun and games, as learning and development professionals are quickly realising that the capabilities of AR are ideally suited to providing trainees with a form of highly engaging, visually rich experiential learning that has never previously been possible.
Instead of having to talk employees through a process in theoretical terms within a classroom-style environment, AR allows learners to get directly involved in the task at hand, with digital indicators appearing in their field of vision to provide step-by-step coaching. By giving the learners the opportunity to experience situations for themselves, much higher rates of engagement and motivation can be yielded than would be possible with passive observation, meaning staff can achieve the required level of competence faster than ever before.
AR also offers considerable potential for larger businesses with global workforces spread out over multiple locations, for whom it is currently very difficult to provide simultaneous, collaborative training. Using AR, people from across the country or even around the world can all see and experience the same sights and information at the same time, delivering a more consistent experience and fostering a feeling of real collaboration - even when the individuals involved have never actually been in the same room.
Amongst the most significant trends in learning technology, AR is expected to have one billion users by 2020. Analysis from Digi-Capital has predicted that the combined VR/AR market will be worth around $108 billion (£82.57 billion) by 2021, with AR accounting for the majority of this total. Already, professionals in numerous sectors are seeing exciting new applications for AR emerging, including step-by-step surgery guides for medical professionals, real-time safety alerts for construction workers, and virtual space exploration tools for scientists and engineers.
The gradual emergence of AR into the mainstream also offers a significant opportunity for forward-thinking businesses to get ahead of the curve. Those who are able to harness its potential early stand to benefit from a considerable advantage over their competitors, as it could allow them to train their teams much faster and with greater efficiency and retention rates than would be possible with more conventional methods.
With its ability to deliver rigorous training programmes in a more engaging and interactive way than ever before, AR technology has every possibility of becoming the future of learning and development - and businesses should be watching its development with close interest.
Summary: Augmented reality technology is becoming an increasingly viable method of providing engaging, active and visually rich learning experiences for staff receiving training.