Over 30 years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow astutely remarked that, “You can see the computer age everywhere except in the productivity statistics.” These words seem more prescient than ever for today’s reality-bending learning simulations. Virtual reality (VR) provides immersive experiences where learners and instructors interact seamlessly as lifelike avatars, collaborating and learning together in their day-to-day work contexts. Moving learners seamlessly from the real-world workplace to an immersive learning space is upending learning as we know it.

However, for VR to make a substantial impact on learning productivity, it must leap from experimental novelty to large-scale deployment. Unlocking the true potential of VR demands significant investments, and learning leaders must construct a strong business case for the value of such a commitment.

Identify Strategic VR Use Cases

A compelling business case should address a strategic problem that leverages VR’s unique capabilities. Virtual reality learning excels in delivering immersive, hands-on spatial training for tasks that are too risky, expensive, or impractical to practice in real life or on a flat computer screen. VR has a proven track record in safety, equipment handling, operations, logistics, manufacturing, emergency response and health care. Think of VR as the “flight simulator” of most procedural training that requires muscle memory. Just like pilots learn to fly in flight simulators, VR offers affordable cognitive “reps and sets” of skill practice in a range of areas.

Cost Savings

Once the big bang use cases are defined, their values must be estimated. Cost savings can be readily quantified — including reduced need for instructors, minimized travel and infrastructure expenses, and lower material costs. VR also offers the underrated benefit of operational continuity, as companies often face costly interruptions during traditional training sessions. Time efficiency is another compelling cost saving; a day’s worth of training can be condensed into a few hours within the VR headset, translating to significant time savings for learners.

Performance Improvement

While cost reductions are easy to count, the boosted employee performance is what really counts. Fewer accidents, increased sales and heightened productivity will make profits soar. Harder to measure, but no less significant, is the impact on employee engagement, retention and talent recruitment. Field experiments with control groups can correlate the impact of VR training on performance and successful business outcomes.

Investment Cost

The cost of the initial VR training investment includes new software and hardware. Content development is typically the highest initial cost. Developing a digital replica of the workplace involves a multifaceted and iterative process of 3D artists, game developers and learning designers. Few learning organizations have all these skills in house. Engaging with VR providers can accelerate execution and maximize the probability of success. Such an investment, though sometimes significant upfront, can be amortized over multiple years. While the lifetime of the VR headsets might be two to three years, the content can be used for roughly 6-8 years. The hardware cost can be limited by leveraging a smaller pool of shared headsets.

Leverage Cross-function, Cross-platform Investment

The return on investment rationale for VR reaches well beyond training. Investment in a pixelated workplace can be leveraged across diverse business areas such as product strategies, operations, customer engagement, marketing and recruitment. Our clients frequently showcase their VR simulations at recruitment expos and marketing events. They also make them available on various platforms, from mobile phones and tablets to large-scale touchscreens at exhibitions.

A cross-platform and cross-functional business case will keep VR out of “pilot purgatory” and bring the technology to the only step that will bring significant productivity increase: Implementation at enterprise scale.