Black Friday Every Day: Walmart Uses Virtual Reality to Train Its Employees

Walmart’s Academy training centers are planning on incorporating virtual reality (VR) as a part of their employee preparation by the end of 2017. The company will use this technology to assist in educating the estimated 150,000 employees that enter the 200 Walmart Academy training centers each year. VR software company STRIVR Labs, along with gaming PC and head-mounted display (HMD) Oculus Rift will be used to showcase the VR training materials.

STRIVR Labs is popularly known for its use as a simulation tool for player development in college football and the NFL. It was also how Walmart’s Senior Director of Operations, Brock McKeel, got the idea of using VR for employee training. He saw the University of Arkansas football team using STRIVR VR experiences during practice. Shortly thereafter, 30 of Walmart’s training centers started using STRIVR’s software as a part of a pilot program. Since then, the two companies have worked together to develop 360° experiences (ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes) for employees at all levels. Their goal was to put employees in scenarios that would be difficult to reproduce in the real world, such as spills, product breakage, and major shopping crowds associated with Black Friday, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, regarded as the first day of the traditional Christmas shopping season, when retailers offer special reduced prices. “We’re using computer vision to map scenes, so we literally know exactly where someone’s looking,” says STRIVR CEO Derek 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.” For instance, trainees might scan a virtual store environment and find a spill, and a multiple-choice question will pop up asking what the effects of a spill on the store are.

Currently, one of Walmart’s biggest hurdles to integrating VR training has been the high cost of the HMDs. For now, only one person at a time will be trained with the headset, while others will watch a flat screen. The headsets will be linked to a video screen that shows the rest of the class what the trainee is seeing, allowing for teacher and classmate feedback. Eventually, each person will have a turn with the HMD, but only over a two-week period and with each session lasting between five minutes and 20 minutes.

Needless to say, VR training is currently a small portion of their training. Walmart would like to make VR a larger portion of the employee training, but Belch says, “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.” Still, Belch thinks this area will rapidly expand. Long term, he says it’s possible every Walmart store will have “…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.”

Up until this point, VR simulation training has been mostly associated with military and industrial applications. STRIVR’s technology demonstrates how VR training can be used in new areas such as sports and retail. Since signing with Walmart, the VR software startup has started garnering interest from a financial services company and automotive manufacturer. Using VR as a training device may be the niche the technology has been looking for outside of gaming. In the past couple of years, many companies have developed VR solutions. However, VR technology as a whole has been floundering to find a role in either consumer or enterprise applications due to the high hardware costs and more complex immersive software requirements. VR content providers such as AltSpaceVR and Jaunt should consider exploring the same space as STRIVR by developing simulated scenarios for employee or emergency training to bring more brand recognition to their companies.

By: Tracy Woo