When to use which training tool? Physical, VR and Desktop Simulations in Training

Last Updated on November 2, 2023

What is the right tech for learning, training and development in simulation?

Examples of training simulations you could provide include:

  • Physical simulator with 3D visuals
  • Virtual Reality / goggle-based 3D simulation
  • Desktop interactive 3D simulations
  • Interactive question-answer 3D simulation videos  
  • Play-pause 3D CGI simulation videos.
  • Slide shows and PowerPoints with multi-choice Q&A.

Which training platform to use?

As always the answer is – it depends.…

Here is a summary of learnings on the simulation technology and tools side, as this can be confusing. This is not written as a technical paper, just learnings from many of the conversations we have every day in chatting with clients about their needs.

The Biggest Commitment and Expense – Physical Simulators

  1. A use case for physical simulators is where learned motor skill is imperative. For example, when your kids learn to drive a car, watching a video is not enough. Learning the physical responses of the foot-peddles and indicator controls is a motor skill that requires repetition in context. When you first learnt driving, especially if you did it in a manual car, the accelerator-brake-clutch controls with indicators-gearstick-steering wheel take a bit of practice to get right.
  2. Once you have mastered car driving, new skills can be gathered conceptually, through mental logic processes. You can read or watch a video or listen to a story. A friend did a Defensive Driving course, and he told me about what it means at the lights. Rather than zooming off when you are in the front position, look left and right and wait a second for the red-light runners. Driving a Vespa at the time, and I took this advice and always do this new little skill from the lights – you have a lot to lose from a speeding red light runner when you are on a scooter.
  3. Physical simulations require staff to travel and physically go to a site. They have to sit in the simulator. Whether the simulator is just a steering wheel bolted to a desk or a full train cabin or even VR goggles – the trainee and simulator need to physically co-locate. Moving people costs money and takes time.
  4. One project sought to replace a “real” simulation for truck drivers for ‘vulnerable road user familiarisation for on-road construction vehicle drivers’. Here, the drivers needed to take time off of work, drive to a park in the city, someone organised a set of hire bikes, the truck drivers had to get on the bikes. They were often embarrassed because they were not always in the best shape and may not have ridden a bike for a long time, plus language constraints. The drivers then had to ride in the traffic, pending weather, to experience life as a vulnerable road user. This is a physical simulation. It was an expensive and awkward way to support the noble cause. It was also difficult/impossible to get to the sub- and sub-sub-contractors and repeat the process.
  5. Physical simulators of any type have a limited throughput. Usually, one person can do the physical simulation at a time. Often people have to travel to the simulator. If you run a regional or extended network – you have to locate it somewhere and people need to get to it. When you need to quickly train thousands of people in a change management process, physical simulators are not suitable.
  6. Large simulators often take 2 rooms – one for the object and for the control centre outside. There is rent and floorspace to consider.
  7. Physical simulators are expensive and can costs millions for the setup alone. Then there are changes and updates to the scenarios, the simulated environments and the kit. With the clients we talk to, the change management process with simulators is slow and expensive. To change an environment can take months.
  8. Physical simulators often have a ‘unique’ coding language and editing mode for setting up new scenarios. Client-users can build new scenarios within the environments with some, or a lot, of training.
  9. For all this kit and expense we expect powerful super-computers we expect incredible and realistic visuals. This is often the case. Whether we have computer screens or projectors as the ‘windows’ of the train or car cabin – getting the synchronicity and edge stitching and just the pure graphics quality of a modern computer game just doesn’t seem to be coming through.
  10. Trainee boredom can be an issue. On long route familiarisation processes in simulators, the trainee gets bored after a time and mentally switches off. This is a shame after spending all that money and effort.
  11. Kinetic motion is missing for a simulator. Even with chairs that wobble, our rail clients say you never get the ‘feel’ of a train – and you drive a lot by feel. Just as in your car. Thus, is it worth all that cost and inconvenience for a physical simulator when it can never do this piece of the puzzle?
  12. Physical simulation can be useful for ingrained muscle-responses learnt to specific physical controllers. When there is an accident or difficult scenario, the reaction to the brakes and horn can be critical. Putting trainees under stress and watching their physical reactions to the actual controls can be important.

But is all that expense needed for scenario familiarisation? Can you save millions and distribute this information to thousands of staff via the inter/intra-net? Certainly, this is what our clients are doing – with operators accessing the products via their phone in the field, as they need.

Further, given the limits of physical simulators are always real, you will never capture the feel of motion – can you test muscle control on a screen? Is it enough that the trainee knows the processes, logic and can tap a virtual button on a screen (or keyboard), in the right time and order compared to an exact replica physical button. This is an important consideration.

“It is hard to see the benefit of big expensive physical simulators in this age when we have super-computers in our pocket”.

There is real benefit when clients have purchased a major new piece of kit, like a plane or a train, with buttons and levers in new places in safety critical conditions. It is cheaper to have a replica of the asset and run a simulation to learn the physical layout.

Beyond this, agile desktop, distributed, cloud-based high fidelity simulators allow the client to provide a large number of scenarios and testing situations and deploy them in classrooms or via desktop.

I will talk next about Virtual Reality (VR) based simulations as an interesting middle ground. With some limitations on physical location (you still need staff to get to the VR location), but much less cost but also much less computing power and fidelity requiring considerable trickery to bring them off.

We provide advanced simulation capabilities using desktop, cloud-based and VR solutions that are light, agile, multi-purpose, flexible and best-in-class visual fidelity. We would welcome a conversation about your needs in training and simulations.