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How virtual reality training outperforms other methods

From improving retention to building empathy, virtual reality training offers near limitless potential to enhance your agency’s training efforts

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Virtual reality training offers an affordable, effective and flexible method of training for law enforcement. (image/Getty)

Sponsored by Axon

By Laura Neitzel for Police1 BrandFocus

Virtual reality or VR – originally the domain of gamers – is being used by professional football teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings to enhance training and get them closer to that elusive Super Bowl Championship.

Using VR in NFL training practices enhances player performance by allowing them to practice plays with far more repetitions than live training allows, train muscle memory and get real-time feedback in an environment that offers “zero risks of injury or concussion.”

For these same reasons, virtual reality is an excellent option for police training, especially training for real situations with life-or-death consequences that make the Super Bowl seem inconsequential in comparison.

Because the equipment needs and cost are relatively low (especially compared to other types of training), implementation is easy, and the training itself results in greater retention, VR training can be an exciting and effective alternative to more traditional training methodologies.

What is Virtual Reality, and how does it work?

Virtual reality is an experience that takes place within a simulated and immersive environment with a 360-degree environment, positional sound, interactivity and other features so the experience not only looks real to the user, but also feels real.

In an entertainment setting, the wearer can experience the sensation of flying like a bird, exploring the inside of a volcano or walking a plank on a high rise. In a police training setting, the virtual world can be made replete with a cast of characters and scenarios drawn from today’s headlines.

VR lets you create a training environment that heightens senses and introduces stressors that are hard to replicate outside of real-world scenarios, and it has been shown to increase retention rates. Because the VR experience feels real, it sticks in your memory better. Because of this, many industries have turned to VR as a method of employee job training. A report published by the National Training Laboratory found that retention rates for lecture-style learning were at 5% and reading rates were at 10%, while a method of virtual learning had a retention rate of 75%.

In this tech article for Mashable, Betsy Eble, a senior user experience designer at Lenovo, explains the science behind virtual reality:

“As you interact with the world, your brain accesses old memories as it simultaneously stores new ones and responds to sensory input based on a primal understanding of cause and effect. 360-degree video triggers more memory-writing areas of the brain when interacting with a new environment than it does simply observing a familiar environment.”

VR for de-escalation training

To address ever-changing scenarios in the field and de-escalate volatile situations involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis, today’s officers need comprehensive training that can help them understand and relate to that person’s experience. The need for it is significant: 7-10% of all police encounters involve a mentally ill subject and up to half of all fatal police shootings involve individuals with severe mental illness.

Axon’s VR training is specifically designed for de-escalation training and helps officers understand how to interact and communicate more effectively with someone suffering from a mental illness or conditions like autism.

“Our goal with our empathy VR training is to help law enforcement and communities understand each other and what each other is going through,” said Robert Murphy, senior director of Axon’s VR program. “Having VR as a tool for de-escalation training gives officers a chance to train in an environment that closely resembles real situations in the real world, but without the risk of injury to the officer or the person in crisis. It gives us nearly unlimited potential to help officers better respond to a range of situations.”

The effectiveness of VR in empathy training is backed by research. A 2017 study by researchers at Stanford University found that users who experienced a VR scenario about what it would be like to lose their jobs and homes developed longer-lasting compassion toward the homeless compared to those who explored other media versions of the VR scenario, like text. The participants in the VR study not only exhibited empathy over a longer period of time, the VR training resulted in the participants taking tangible actions driven by empathy, like signing a petition in support of affordable housing.

VR training engages all the senses and pushes the learner to make choices and react based on what they see, hear and feel. This combination of both physical and emotional engagement leads to greater empathy and motivation to find a solution. With the ability to alter the storytelling and try again safely, the learner can “fail forward” in their problem solving and continue trying until they achieve success.

Building a more effective training experience

Compared to other training methods like simulators, VR training has a significantly smaller physical footprint and is quicker and easier to deploy.

“Because you put everything into an portable, wireless VR headset, it enables repetitive training so you can go through training as many times as you need to or want to,” said Murphy. “You can see different avenues of the decision tree and how one decision takes things in one direction versus another decision that takes things in a different direction.”

Many training solutions focus on black-and-white outcomes like shoot/don’t shoot, but VR can cover the vast majority of other likely scenarios that require more subtle, empathic ranges of response from officers.

Making it real

Even though VR training has been shown to be effective in helping to build empathy, the technology is only as good as the experience it offers, says Murphy.

“No amount of impressive technology can overcome an experience that feels inauthentic,” he said.

To make sure its empathy training courses offer realistic, authentic experiences, Axon collaborates closely with experts, including career clinicians, community group members, crisis intervention trainers, mental health counselors, educators, individuals from affected communities, and active law enforcement officers.

Axon’s Community Engagement VR training courses include modules on schizophrenia, suicidal ideation, autism, and Alzheimer’s to aid police in responding to the public. In Axon’s schizophrenia module, for instance, the trainee wears a portable VR headset that plays the scenario in full 360-degrees video. Most other training solutions focus on black-and-white outcomes like shoot/don’t shoot, but VR can cover the 90% of other scenarios that require more subtle, empathic ranges of response.

The trainee logs in to the module and is then presented with two perspectives on the same event. One perspective is from the point of view of the person suffering a schizophrenic break with reality, allowing the participant to see what the person in crisis sees and hear the inner monologue going through his head. The second perspective is from the officer’s point of view, where the trainee can make decisions about what the officer says and what action he takes and sees the potential consequences of each approach.

Axon is releasing new modules monthly and has an extensive list of ideas for modules in development that are geared toward helping officers help themselves – including modules on post-traumatic stress injury and peer intervention.

Why VR is efficient and effective for police training

Because it is so flexible, portable and affordable, Axon’s VR training is ideal for officers wanting to undergo training when and where it’s convenient. More importantly, VR is more engaging than classroom or simulation training, making it more likely officers will seek out VR training and retain the learnings longer and more vividly when they do.

On a practical level, VR training has the potential to work better for departments, too. Most of today’s police training is either expensive (like multi-screen simulation training), not particularly engaging (like classroom training) or limited in what it can prepare officers for (a fixed number of drills that can’t approximate the real world). VR training, on the other hand, takes relatively little investment, doesn’t require a large space and can replace or complement in-person and group training in many situations, an important consideration in these times of social distancing.

“There is no doubt in my mind this will make officers better prepared to respond more effectively and professionally with the many scenarios they deal with on a daily basis,” said retired Deputy Chief Eddie Reyes, now a senior project manager for the Police Foundation, speaking to the potential of VR as a training methodology. “We can see how they will react in a hostile environment without putting them out in the street with a real violent person. And they’re going to be safer.”

By letting officers not only see, but also feel what it’s like to be in the shoes of another, VR training from Axon helps creates empathy and understanding while empowering officers to respond with greater confidence to individuals in crisis. The possibilities for VR training are almost as boundless as the imaginations of those looking to create positive outcomes for citizens and officers alike.

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Laura Neitzel is Director of Branded Content for Lexipol, where she produces written and multimedia branded content of relevance to a public safety audience, including law enforcement, fire, EMS and corrections. She holds degrees in English from the University of Texas and the University of North Texas, and has over 20 years’ experience writing and producing branded and educational content for nationally-recognized companies, government agencies, non-profits and advocacy organizations.