Boring manuals and costly mentoring schemes may become obsolete in a few years if virtual reality–based training continues to develop. A new study tested the differences between traditional and immersive virtual reality training in preparing people for carrying out physical laboratory tasks at a company. The virtual reality simulation was more effective than studying manuals and almost as effective as being trained by a colleague. According to the researchers, the greatest challenge is incorporating different storylines and experimental outcomes, and the physical feel of executing tasks into virtual reality simulations.
A highly educated workforce is crucial for high-tech companies. In the biopharmaceutical industry, human error causes one quarter of quality defects. Therefore, companies often use resource-intensive and time-consuming training that requires testing facilities and experienced trainers. The biopharmaceutical industry alone spends an estimated USD 7 billion on employee training each year. A new study of virtual reality training methods indicates that the industry can save some of this money.
“Simulator training has already been used successfully for training surgeons. One advantage of using virtual reality methods for laboratory training in pharmaceutical companies is that the training is identical every time. But this is also the greatest challenge, because reality cannot not always be simulated by the programmers . Solving this challenge would enable companies to replace traditional training methods,” explains Philip Wismer, PhD student, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, Technical University of Denmark.
Nearly as effective and engaging
Surgical training uses simulators with great success, and proficiency is systematically assessed after the training. Gamified laboratory simulators are already being used to teach high school and college students science, and studies have shown that the learning outcomes are better than or equal to those from traditional teaching methods. Nevertheless, these methods have not yet been used as a substitute for real-life laboratory training.
“VR laboratory training has not been systematically studied and the educational community still perceives simulation as supplementing theoretical teaching methods. Together with an eLearning company and a pharmaceutical company we investigated whether virtual reality simulations could be used to learn some of the practical skills required in everyday laboratory work,” says Philip Wismer.
By combining experience in surgical training with educational games, the researchers also integrated underlying theoretical concepts into the VR simulation and used scorekeeping and interactions with fictional characters in the same way as in educational games. An important prerequisite was that the training time was comparable to existing practical training.
“We compared the skills of the people who had carried out the virtual reality simulation with people trained by an experienced colleague, and people who had to learn the material in a completely traditional and accepted way using standard operating procedures – a long manual describing the many details of procedures to be followed in a highly regulated industry such as the pharmaceutical industry,” explains Philip Wismer.
Although conducting and documenting pH calibration and other standard procedures in company laboratories involves many necessary details, the results were encouraging. Of the three training scenarios, studying the standard operating procedures was the least effective, least enjoyable and most mentally draining method of acquiring theoretical knowledge, whereas virtual reality simulation was nearly as effective and engaging as real-life training.
“However, understanding the procedures at a theoretical level is insufficient for biopharma manufacturing employees. Our virtual reality simulation was 79% as effective as the real-life training for acquiring practical skills, so the virtual reality simulation seems to be a very cost-effective alternative to real-life training because it does not require very experienced instructors or test facilities,” says Philip Wismer.
Potential savings on large training budgets
The virtual reality simulation was not quite as effective as real-life training but has considerable benefits. It is easier to standardize, so that everyone experiences identical training, which can be a great advantage in a highly regulated biopharmaceutical sector focusing on uniform quality and preventing costly mistakes.
“Conversely, standardization also comes with its drawbacks , because real lab environments do not always follow standardized rules . Compared with a traffic simulation, for example, in which the trainees are exposed to a limited, known number of rules, many more variables must be considered in open-world virtual reality laboratory simulations in which the combinations of different interactions are endless ,” explains Philip Stefan Wismer.
According to the researchers, virtual reality is therefore better suited to some types of training than others. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical companies have much to gain from this type of training in becoming more efficient and saving on their often large training budgets. Another aspect is that virtual reality simulator training systems still have room for improvement.
“Imitating the physical feeling of handling equipment is still a challenge. Evidence even indicates that laboratory simulations played on standard desktop computers are almost as good as VR So the technology isn't yet fully living up to the promises from a few years back that claimed that VR will revolutionize education. But I still believe the technology will have a great impact since it merges reality and fiction in an unprecedented way,” concludes Philip Wismer.