Walmart’s 200 “Walmart Academy” training centers are all planning to incorporate virtual reality by the end of 2017, after an earlier pilot program. The limited curriculum is being produced by Strivr, a company previously known for helping NFL players train through VR. New Walmart employees will put on an Oculus Rift headset and enter different real-world scenarios, during which they’ll be asked to make simple choices based on what they see. Eventually, Strivr and Walmart hope to expand the program to all stores, not just the academies.
Training simulators have been part of VR since the very beginning, but they’re more frequently associated with industrial labor or military training than with service work. The goal here, says Strivr CEO Derek Belch, is to put employees in scenarios that would be inconvenient to physically re-create — like dealing with spills, or preparing for a Black Friday shopping spree.
“WE LITERALLY KNOW EXACTLY WHERE SOMEONE’S LOOKING.”
“We’re using computer vision to map scenes, so we literally know exactly where someone's looking,” says Belch. “If they don't look at [the right place] and press the button indicating that they have seen the stimuli that we're looking for, we know.” Wearers might look around an environment and find the spill, for example, then answer a multiple-choice question about what effect it could have on the store.
One of the biggest problems for Strivr and Walmart is that high-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift are expensive and space-consuming. That’s why, for now, only one person will go through the training at a time, while other people watch on a flat screen. Everybody will eventually get to spend time in VR, but only over the course of their two-week training period, with each session lasting between 5 and 20 minutes. “In a perfect world, everybody has a VR headset,” says Belch. “VR is not there yet. Even the mobile devices, there's a lot of challenges in getting that much hardware out into people's hands at scale.” So for now, VR is a small, supplemental part of Walmart training.
But Belch thinks that we’ll see it expand rapidly. “This is something that we have talked openly with [Walmart] about, that very well could be at every Walmart store in a couple years,” he says. “You could imagine this area where there's a room in the back and there are three mobile headsets hanging on the wall, and employees have to go through continuing education every month, going through VR modules.” That’s right: if you work for Walmart, maybe soon you can enjoy Black Friday every month.