Can VR help a business world held hostage by COVID?

By: May 11, 2020
Pat O’Connor, co-founder of

Military training has long relied on VR technology for hazardous environment training. In the new, COVID-19 landscape, this technology can and should be embraced by industry for myriad reasons says Pat O’Connor, sitting right, co-founder of VRAI.

Henry Mintzberg is a leading business thinker who has focussed on emergent strategy. Mintzberg assumes, unlike analytical strategy, that you cannot predict the future, therefore you must prepare your organisation to be adaptable. Mintzberg summed it up saying
“When the world is predictable you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people.”

I believe that post-COVID-19, along with the growing impact of climate change, we are entering a less predictable business world. A world where businesses will need to be adaptable to their customers, employees and the environment’s needs.

We have already seen a major boom in the progress of flexible working technology. Companies like Zoom have catapulted themselves from being an afterthought to a necessity. It goes without saying, the worldwide shift towards remote work has accelerated since governments around the world directed us to isolate to stop the spread of COVID-19. This speed of technological progress can be compared to similar developments from adversity in the past.

Following the financial crash and subsequent recession of 2008 – 2010, some very successful companies were founded and funded, including WhatsApp, Uber, Airbnb, Instagram and Dropbox.

Companies that can’t adapt to this ‘new normal’ may be left behind. Following COVID-19, businesses who do not prepare could also be in serious trouble. Video conferencing has allowed businesses to continue functioning and people to continue interacting, but we all know it has limitations and isn’t the panacea for all remote working needs.

So where can business leaders look to for guidance on how to prepare their employees in this unpredictable world? I believe the answer is the military.

The military has been using simulation training for decades as a way to replicate risky, remote and difficult to replicate scenarios. In 2018 VRAI produced a fully immersive VR experience for the UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service) mission in Somalia. This mission primarily focused on counter IED (improvised explosive device) training for soldiers in the AMSOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) with a view to reopening MSR (main supply routes) to FOBs (forward operating bases).

The simulation training adopted by the military highlights how technology and adaptive businesses can overcome uncertainty. Sometimes the simulation was to avoid the prying eyes of adversaries, sometimes simulation was about cost-saving and sometimes it was simply about utility – simulation training was better and easier to do than traditional training.

Until recently, military simulation training was often reserved for high-value roles like fighter pilots, or ships’ Captains, who trained in “sim centres”. These sim centres had traditional simulators with complicated hydraulics and expensive replicas of the real-world equipment. There is now a paradigm shift occurring in military training towards providing virtual simulation at the point of need. The training is contained in a VR headset that a soldier can use while in a hangar waiting for rotation flight, or a winchman can use during a “weather day”, or a ship’s engineer can use while hundreds of kilometres away from the naval college.

The added value of VR simulation is that its inherent data capture capability can be used to provide deep insights into how individuals learn and perform. The addition of physiological sensors can allow you to know not just what people do, but also how they feel when they do it; how they respond to those challenges. These data-driven insights can transform our ability to reduce the risk for our employees and ensure they are confident in performing the tasks that they will face in reality.

The paradigm shift towards simulation training was happening in the military before COVID-19, but it has now begun to accelerate as it is not an option for a military to be unprepared. Military commanders consider that they have a “duty of care” to train and prepare their troops appropriately, anything else would be a dereliction of duty.

This duty of care must now also extend from business executives to ensure their employees are prepared remotely in authentic, memorable and measurable simulated environments. The technology is now there to enable it, and the situation we now face demands it.

Main picture: Pat O’Connor, right, with co-founder Niall Campion and team.