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Does virtual reality live up to the hype? What you need to know

With careful consideration of human factors in the development and use of VR and simulation training, departments can avoid pitfalls that undermine training effectiveness

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For virtual reality training to be effective, it must rely on human training developers to ensure high fidelity.


During the videotape wars of the 1980s there was a battle for format supremacy between two technology giants. VHS (Video Home System) tapes made by JVC went head-to-head against Betamax, a different videotape format made by Sony. Although Betamax offered a technically superior picture quality, VHS won the war – and the hearts of consumers – because JVC had taken into consideration what Betamax didn’t: consumer behavior.

Google Glass, Segways and 3D television are all examples of other buzzworthy technologies that didn’t live up to the hype. Though technologically sophisticated, these products eventually fizzled out or morphed into something else because they failed to consider the human factor.

Overlooking aspects of human performance such as usability, ergonomic design, the mental effort required or social prestige doomed these once-promising technologies to market failure. Because it was practical, easy to use, affordable and popular, VHS survived and is even having a nostalgia-fueled revival.


While we all know gearheads who are eager to be the first on the block to acquire the latest technology, most people are not early adopters.

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and subsequent iterations are a theoretical framework to explain how people come to accept and use a technology. According to researchers, there are two factors that influence whether a person will use a technology:

  • Perceived usefulness – the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance.
  • Perceived ease of use – the degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort.

Or, in simple terms, is it useful and is it easy to use?
“If it’s overly complicated, even if it has benefit, it won’t get used,” said Lon Bartel, principal researcher at VirTra. “If it’s super simple and it has a little bit of benefit, it may get used if there’s support in the community and in the organization.”

Bartel, an expert in performance psychology, leads the development of VirTra’s virtual simulation training programs. When it comes to using virtual reality for law enforcement training, Bartel encourages agencies to be wary of investing hard-won budgets in shiny new training technologies that aren’t built on a strong foundation and understanding of human learning and skill development.

“There are a ton of aspects that have to be looked at and evaluated to make sure that we’re not using technology just for technology’s sake,” said Bartel.

Here are some considerations to be aware of.


Simulation training has been in use for decades and has been an effective method for teaching procedures that are linear in nature – like a step-by-step process for how to do a tracheotomy or land an airplane.

“Well, law enforcement doesn’t have that,” said Bartel. As most police officers can attest, a linear process doesn’t necessarily work when human emotions drive people’s behavior. “If you’re not able to represent emotions well, it becomes problematic.”

There is a concept called “the uncanny valley” that you may have encountered in watching a movie with computer-generated characters. Bartel points to an early example, “The Polar Express.” Although the movie is a Christmas classic, the adult characters are rendered with qualities that are lifelike – but not quite realistic enough – “and it weirds people out,” said Bartel.

According to the uncanny valley theory, as the appearance of a computer-generated image becomes more humanlike, our sense of familiarity with and affinity for the character increases. Our sense of empathy increases. But when the character appears as fully human – but not quite human enough – it enters the “uncanny valley.” The minor imperfections in the character’s appearance or movement make us unsettled, for reasons we might not be able to put our finger on. The character suddenly becomes creepy rather than cute, our affinity and empathy toward the character plunges and we are repulsed.

Why this matters in simulation and virtual reality training for law enforcement is this: There may be unconscious bias against the characters if they seem creepy. Also, you have to be able to read the biomechanical cues that indicate someone is about to assault you, for instance. CGI doesn’t render those subtle biomechanical cues well, so “the stimulus that the officer in training is expected to react to is not representative of the actual human performance response for officers,” Bartel explained.

To avoid falling into the uncanny valley, VirTra uses volumetric capture where they take a real human and put them in a studio with 360-degree cameras so they capture not just a human likeness, but also those subtle cues of human movement and nonverbal communication that signal emotion and intent – the raise of an eyebrow, a twitch of a finger or the blink of an eye.

“It’s all about threat pattern recognition so that we can connect to those individuals because we are able to represent emotion,” said Bartel. “What’s the advantage of a three-dimensional environment if I’m not able to represent that human space?”


Another potential side effect with some simulation and virtual reality training programs is “simulator sickness,” a syndrome similar to motion sickness that users can experience when there’s a disconnect between what their body feels and what their eyes see. Symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, sweating and blurred vision can occur.

“Simulation sickness can become a major problem in policing training. Say I drop a VR headset on somebody and they run an hour of training five hours into a 10-hour shift,” said Bartel. “They’ve got four hours left in their shift and have SIM sickness. How do I tell an officer to get back on the road when they are dizzy or feel like they are going to lose their lunch?”

There are multiple theories on what factors contribute to a user experiencing SIM sickness, but the length of exposure seems to be a factor trainers should consider.

To help users avoid SIM sickness, trainers should consider exposing officer trainees gradually to VR or simulator training and giving them frequent breaks to give their bodies a rest from the stimulation. Even adding real-world cues, like fans to simulate wind, can help align the trainee’s physical sensations with what they are seeing.


“There are also some major challenges right now with some of the tracking when it comes to weapons used in simulation and VR training,” said Bartel. “If my VR headset is off just a little bit and my weapon and my headset are not quite lined up, accuracy suffers.”

Being off by one degree at five feet is somewhat immaterial, he says, but small errors can magnify quickly. Being off by one degree at 13 yards means missing the target and at 100 yards, it means missing the target by 5.2 feet.

Bartel suggests not just relying on using marksmanship trainers in a VR space, but to use third parties to validate the accuracy and repeatability of VR weapons platforms.


Another concept that should be taken into consideration when choosing to invest in simulation or VR training is that of fidelity. According to motor learning researchers Richard Schmidt and Tim Lee, fidelity – the degree of to which the practice environment and conditions replicate the target context (the real-world scenario where the skill is to be applied) – is essential for the transference of learning.

The fidelity of the training environment is why simulation and virtual reality training can be so effective. But if a high degree of fidelity is not achieved, the training can have little or no benefit or even be harmful.

Fidelity is made of both physical and psychological components.

Physical fidelity refers to the extent to which the physical characteristics of the training environment and equipment closely mimic that of the real-world setting. This can include not only the equipment, but also spatial dimensions and sensory feedback.

Psychological fidelity refers to how well the practice environment replicates the cognitive and emotional demands of the target environment, including stress levels, the decision-making process and perceptual clues as noted above.

According to Schmidt and Lee, the transference of learning requires high physical and psychological fidelity so the trainee can adapt those skills to the real-world scenario. This requires the input of human training developers to ensure that high fidelity is reached.


“We are still a little early on the VR aspect from a training environment now,” said Bartel. “There are aspects to VR that are highly, highly exciting, but there are also some limitations.”

To maximize training effectiveness, we need benchmarks, says Bartel. If we don’t know what those benchmarks are – if we don’t know the human factor component ranging from the uncanny valley to the SIM sickness to weapons accuracy – we risk VR and simulation training going the way of 3D television and Betamax.

“I think that as the tech improves – not only how we capture characters, but how we render characters, and how the human component interacts with them – the effectiveness of VR training is going to get better and better. At the end of the day, it’s those improvements in realism that will better approximate human interactions, enable communication and make the skills transfer when the officer takes their training experience into the real world.”

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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.