Our secret world of learning

Posted 22 September 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: professional development

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One of my peers in Australia, Arun Pradhan, is developing an app to help us learn smarter, faster and deeper.

To gain insight on how we learn in the real world, he’s reaching out to L&D professionals, CEOs, entrepreneurs, actors and artists who have mastered complex skills, with the aim of uncovering our “learning secrets”.

Arun asks 4 specific questions and my answers are as follows…

Someone telling someone else a secret

Q1. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from experience, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you used intentional practice, learned from failure, learned from ambitious projects and/or used reflection)

When I first got into e-learning, it was all very new for everyone. Of course computer-based training had been around for decades, but when the World Wide Web took off in the 1990’s, it transformed education.

When I assumed my first role in this space, I learned mostly through experience because there weren’t many alternatives available. I would learn what I needed to “on the go” or just in time, immediately putting it into practice and seeing how it went – whether that be the design of a web page by tinkering with HTML and JavaScript, or the production of a saleable product by getting onto the platform and just working it out.

Q2. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from people, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from project teams, mentors, coaches and/or broader social networks)

Over time I’ve realised that learning from other people is not only important but crucial to my professional development. Conferences get a bit of a beat-up these days, but I always learn something useful from seeing what other people have done. I also like meetups, and social media has taken my peer-to-peer networking to a whole new level.

I think it’s important to maintain relationships with people who are not only knowledgeable and experienced, but also open and generous; these relationships are two-way streets as you learn from each other. I also know someone whom I respect immensely and whom I consider a mentor; I seek his insight on matters that I’m thinking about, and I’ll bounce ideas off him to get his perspective.

So my recommendation is to actively engage with other people, utilising all the various means of doing so.

Q3. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from courses, research or investigation, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from reading on the web, reading books or attending conferences/courses)

It’s all very well to learn from experience and roll with the punches as you go along, but you have to beware not knowing what you don’t know.

When I decided to make e-learning my career, I went back to university to do a Masters in Learning Sciences & Technology. This course opened up my eyes to concepts that I would never have appreciated otherwise, such as learning theory, and raised my awareness of important empirical research.

Post-uni, I read lots of blogs and keep an eye on the academic journals. I also like to run my own “mini” research studies at work by trialling something new and seeing how it goes.

Q4. What’s your top advice for someone who wishes to develop faster and learn complex skills in modern workplaces?

You have to do it. Yes, read widely and talk to lots of people, but not at the expense of giving it a go. Only then can you gain the insights you really need and appreciate the nuances of real-life application.

The workplace is only ever going to get more VUCA, so by maintaining an experimental mindset you can be confident to take on whatever comes.

Blue dot   Blue dot   Blue dot

If you would like to respond to Arun’s questions, he invites you to do so here.

A use for 3D Printing in the corporate sector

Posted 6 September 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: 3D printing, collaboration

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I’ve often wondered about the relevance of 3D printing in the corporate sector because we rarely produce a thing. Our products – such as bank accounts and insurance policies – are essentially 1’s and 0’s floating in the ether.

Then I attended a webinar presented by Jon Soong from Makers Empire. This Australian startup is active in the K12 sector, helping teachers bring 3D printing into their classrooms.

With the right hardware, software and guidance, teachers and their students can visualise abstract concepts (Mathematics, Science), produce replica objects (History, Geography) and create original objects (Art).

As the following video demonstrates, the technology can also be applied to problem-based learning.

I like what I see at St Stephen’s School, not only because of the pedagogical benefits that 3D printing affords, but also because it makes sense to familiarise our children with emerging technology.

This particular technology is already impacting manufacturing. A diverse range of products is currently being 3D printed, including clothes, jewellery, candy, teeth, prosthetics, tools, car parts, architectural models, furniture, toys and accessories.

I predict one day in the not-too-distant future, hospitals and medical device companies will dispense with their warehouses. Instead of stockpiling surgical equipment in big rooms – or worse, waiting for products on backorder – a hospital will be able to build the device it needs on-demand. No more need for storage and transport; just a licence to print the proprietary design.

A 3D printed umbilical cord clamp

In the corporate environment, however, we don’t make widgets.

In this context, I suggest we turn to the students from St Stephen’s for inspiration. When the kids use 3D printing to solve a problem, a by-product of that activity is collaboration. Following their lead, we could split our colleagues into teams and task them with producing a 3D artefact; whether or not that artefact has practical application is irrelevant. What is relevant is how the team members work together to achieve the goal.

The technology is the vehicle with which a collaborative situation can be engineered, experienced, observed, and reflected upon.

And we can go further. Consider a methodology such as Human Centered Design. By baking HCD into the task, the team members can practise it in a low-stakes scenario – for example, creating an office mascot. If the artefact doesn’t gain the target audience’s approval, it’s relatively cheap to make the necessary modifications or even go back to the drawing board.

After the team members build up their experience with the methodology via this seemingly silly exercise, they can apply it to the organisation’s real products and services.

Pokémon whoa!

Posted 9 August 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: augmented reality, games

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When I was a teenager I was addicted to video games. Not stay-awake-for-three-days-and-die-of-starvation kind of addicted, but I would spend every conceivable moment playing.

While I enjoyed car games and classic shoot’em ups, my favourites were the more strategic kinds of games in which you could explore, think, and discover. There was always somewhere else to reach, something fascinating to find, another stratagem to try.

I ended up imposing a ban on myself in order to focus on my studies, and I did not lift a video gaming finger for years afterwards.

Then along came Ingress.

Ingress screenshot

Ingress is a mobile game developed by Niantic (an offshoot of Google). You choose to join one of two factions that are fighting for world supremacy by capturing virtual portals – which are represented by public landmarks in the real world such as statues and fountains.

Ingress is oft described as an augmented reality game, but I disagree. It’s an alternate reality game. And it’s addictive. There’s something about covering a swathe of land in deep green (or blue, if you’re one of them) which elicits that sweet dopamine of achievement.

The plot isn’t real, of course, but that doesn’t matter. The emotion is.

Eventually I had to give up Ingress because I could feel my dubious history with video games flooding back, and I was chewing through my data like a hot knife through butter.

Zubat over Sydney Harbour

It is in this light that I look on with amusement at Niantic’s latest offering: Pokémon Go.

I was vaguely aware of this game since I maintain a general interest in augmented reality. Then one day it exploded. Suddenly everyone was playing it!

I hadn’t planned to play Pokémon Go myself, but given its sheer popularity I felt it would be remiss of me as an e-learning professional to forgo an informed opinion. So I gave it a go.

Frankly, it isn’t my cup of tea. Indeed I find the game a bit childish and pointless. When you catch one Pokémon, you catch another, and then another… ad infinitum. So what?

Still, I can see why others enjoy it. All the key game mechanics are there: it’s intuitive to play; your first Pokémon is easy to catch; you level up quickly; and the Pokédex is an interesting element that taps into the collector’s mentality.

You can also earn ownership of a gym (reminiscent of becoming a mayor in Foursquare) and you can incubate and hatch eggs (reminiscent of the parenting responsibilities for Tamagotchi).

Pokémon Go players congregating undercover by the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.

Predictably, Pokémon Go has provoked a torrent of criticism from non-players, and I say some of it is warranted. From public nuisances to privacy concerns, the game has also fuelled discourtesy, disrespect, and self harm.

Personally I don’t think that you are stupid just because you play Pokémon Go. However, I do think the game is a vehicle for stupid people to express their stupidity.

I also think the decision to assign churches as gyms was ill advised, though I realise there is a technical reason for this and thankfully some churches are using their lemons to make lemonade.

Pokemon Go screenshot

On the plus side, Pokémon Go gets people walking – that’s unusual for a video game, even a mobile one – and it has single-handedly introduced millions of people around the world to the concept of AR.

And if we needed it, it’s yet another reminder to L&D folks that people love games.

3 uses of Virtual Reality in workplace education

Posted 19 July 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: virtual reality

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I’m always surprised when someone makes a sweeping declaration such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace”. I heard this very statement recently at an e-learning conference. Yep, an e-learning conference.

Sure, VR is an emerging technology, but as 20 real-world examples of Virtual Reality can attest, early adopters are indeed putting it to use in the workplace.

I suspect the dismissiveness among some of our peers stems from their uncertainty about how they might apply it in their own contexts – particularly if that context is corporate.

However, I propose the opportunities for using virtual reality in the workplace – or more specifically, in workplace education – remain consistent across sectors according to the 3 use types that I outline below.

We corporate folks can learn from our peers in other sectors who are pursuing these uses, and translate their ideas in our own workplaces. All it takes is a bit of imagination.

1. Virtual reality can substitute the real environment.

Virtual reality may be a feasible alternative when the real thing is infeasible – perhaps due to expense, logistics, or sheer impossibility.

Exemplars that spring to mind include: Google Expeditions which teleports you to wonderful places like Machu Picchu; VR Mars which let’s you walk on the surface of the red planet; and The Body VR which takes you for a ride through the human circulatory system.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself visiting any of these places anytime soon. But I can visit a duplicated environment now, virtually. Of course I’m not really there, but it’s the next best thing.

This substitutive use of VR is being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, real estate agents offer virtual property tours; hotels show off their rooms; while architects visualise their designs (and modify them quickly and cheaply). The technology allows us – their customers – to experience each environment without having to physically go there.

Similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the substitutive use of VR. Ask yourself: where would you like your colleagues to visit though it is currently infeasible to do so?

In my case, my employer is currently trialling new-look “concept stores” to transform the provision of financial advice. This strategic imperative relates to the overarching transformation of our organisation, so it’d be great if all our employees (and prospective customers!) could experience our flagship store in-person. But with people in different locations all over the world, that’s never going to happen. A 360° virtual tour is a feasible alternative.

2. Virtual reality can prepare you for the real environment.

Virtual reality can be the first port of call when the real thing is high stakes – perhaps because it’s dangerous, emotionally charged, or financially sensitive.

Flight simulators are the obvious exemplar of this use of VR. These systems enable trainee pilots to test their skills and learn from failure in a replicated environment, without the fear of losing their life or causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

This preparatory use of VR is also being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, engineers preview the hazards of mining; electricians manipulate high-voltage switches; while someone I know in a rural fire service is looking into using 360° video to help volunteer firefighters get a sense of what to expect in a bushfire.

Again, similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the preparatory use of VR. Ask yourself: what will your colleagues be doing that is high-stakes? Bearing in mind that in the corporate sense, “high stakes” is probably financial.

In my case, my employer is progressively remodelling our office building into an Activity Based Working environment. This represents a significant shift in how we go about our day-to-day business, so the project team has been running regular group tours to prepare each batch of employees who are scheduled to occupy the newly decked-out floors. I dare not calculate how many hours multiplied by the number of tour leaders and tour followers have been spent on this. A 360° virtual tour would have allowed everyone to learn the basics at their own pace at their own desk, without any loss of learning outcome.

3. Virtual reality can foster empathy.

Finally, but no less importantly, virtual reality can foster empathy by putting you in another person’s shoes.

An exemplar that springs to mind is Fear of the Sky which uses 360° photos to immerse you in Syrian towns ravaged by barrel bombs.

This empathic use of VR is also being leveraged by players in the workplace. For example, doctors experience the hospital system as an emergency patient; while aged care workers see life through the eyes of someone with dementia.

The need for empathy is not restricted to charity and healthcare. Consider a retail environment in which your sales people can interact with a virtual customer, then have them replay that experience through the eyes of the customer. I also see an opportunity with VR for police officers to experience what it’s like to be hassled on the street, and conversely, for the public to appreciate what it’s like to be a police officer.

Returning to the corporate sector, ask yourself: where are the social interactions? In my workplace, the retail sales example that I suggested could be similarly applied to financial advisers, while our claims assessors would benefit from experiencing our company in the shoes of a grieving claimant. Then there are meetings, presentations, performance appraisals, and myriad other scenarios to simulate.

VR headset

In summary, sweeping statements such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace” are nonsensical. Plenty of people are using the technology in their workplaces, and they are doing so according to 3 use types.

The substitutive use of VR allows us to experience an environment without having to go to there; the preparatory use of VR allows us to experience an environment before we go there; while the empathic use of VR allows us to experience our own environment as someone else.

I encourage you to consider how you might explore each of these use types in your own workplace.

In the meantime, those who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of those doing it.

The future of entertainment

Posted 28 June 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: virtual reality

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In the space of a couple of weeks, I have previewed the future of entertainment twice.

Promo for VR Noir

The first instance was at AFTRS in Sydney, where I attended a presentation of VR Noir: A Day Before The Night.

Billed as an “interactive crime thriller”, this immersive virtual reality experience might best be described as a combination of a film and a game. Set in the style of the gumshoe genre we know so well, you play the part of a private detective who must decide whether or not to take on a client’s case. Your actions drive the story forward, and your decisions along the way impact the final outcome.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and commend AFTRS on the quality of their work, I was also fascinated by the unique technical challenges they encountered. One of the most pressing ones was point of view: in a 360° environment, there is simultaneously no POV and all POVs. (Maybe their next VR film will be about Schrödinger’s cat?)

Another challenge was the stitching: the actors had to remain within the narrow confines of the frame, lest be sliced in two.

However the medium also afforded opportunities. One of them was the audio: by plotting the source of a sound at particular coordinates, its realism increased by orders of magnitude as I moved my head, or stepped closer or further away, while the stereophonics adjusted accordingly.

If and when multiple users can interact in the same VR film at the same time – that is to say, when the experience becomes social – the opportunities to replicate real-life situations will increase exponentially.

Indeed, my second preview of the future of entertainment was social.

The virtual reality experience offered by Zero Latency in Melbourne might best be described as laser tag on steroids. Armed with a headset, earphones, mic, and a plastic gun, your mission is to seek and destroy the hordes of zombies that have taken over the city.

Up to 6 players can traverse the 400m2 physical floor space as a platoon. Of course, the virtual world is much larger than that – as the website states, “We reuse the space with some nifty tricks we have developed.”

Saying that Zero Latency is loads of fun feels like I’m committing an injustice. Suffice to say the shoot’em-up genre has been elevated to a whole new level. I think my adrenalin is still pumping!

VR headset

Beyond the novelty factor, I was deeply engaged by both the interactive film and the ambulatory game. Having now experienced both, I am left in no doubt that virtual reality is the future of entertainment.

And if that’s true, then it’s also the future of lots of other things, such as learning.

Good gear

Posted 14 June 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: virtual reality

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I was in the market for a new smartphone recently, so I took up Samsung’s offer of a free Gear VR headset with a purchase of the new S7.

As readers of Paper cuts will know, I’ve been toying with virtual reality via the Google Cardboard headset. Now I had the opportunity to compare my experience with another headset one step higher up in the food chain.

Here I share with you my observations…

Gear VR

Headset

There’s no doubt about it, Cardboard’s ace in the pack is its price. For about $20 you obtain your very own portal into virtual reality.

Having said that, the Gear VR is only around $150, which I find surprisingly cheap and dare I suggest affordable. Whether it’s worth the greater investment will depend on your needs, but the following advantages that it holds over Cardboard may influence your opinion:

  • The Gear VR headset is sturdier than its Cardboard counterpart, provides a snugger fit, and is more comfortable to wear.

  • My S7 snaps perfectly into place on the Gear VR, whereas it sometimes goes a little off-kilter in the Cardboard.

  • Gear VR’s tracking wheel allows me to focus my lenses, whereas Cardboard’s one-size-fits-all approach can result in blurry vision.

  • Gear VR’s sensor responds to a simple tap of the finger, whereas the push button on Cardboard feels clunky.

Gear VR’s sensor also has scrolling functionality, but I find this tricky to use. I never seem to put my finger in the right spot, and I find the act of scrolling imprecise. I suggest an Xbox-like control stick (or perhaps a ball) would be a superior mechanism for both scrolling and selecting.

Screen shot of The Night Cafe

Apps

To use Cardboard, you need the Cardboard app. To use Gear VR, you need the Oculus app.

Third-party apps are searchable in Google Play, but as I mentioned in Paper cuts the results can not be filtered out by Cardboard compatibility. In contrast, the Oculus app has its own store that I can access via the headset, and while all the apps I see are compatible with Gear VR, there’s no search facility. That means I must scroll through the apps, which is tedious to say the least.

Then I worked out I can access the Oculus Store on my phone via the app without using the headset, which affords a much better user experience – complete with search facility.

As for the Oculus apps, I’ve found their quality to be a notch above the Cardboard offerings. So far I’ve tried Smash Hit VR, The Body VR, Speech Center, and The Night Cafe – all are excellent.

While some of the apps that I know via Cardboard – such as Vrse and Inmind – are also available via Oculus, not all are. I wonder if one day VR apps will be standardised so they work across all the major platforms. A pipe dream… I know.

360° photos

In Paper cuts I reported a drop-out problem when taking VR photos with my S4. I’m glad to say this is no longer an issue on my S7.

I must point out that VR photos taken via Cardboard Camera are not 360° photos; they are simply panoramic shots that are stitched together at their ends. While these are impressive, the black spots above and below the photo fall short of the definition of “virtual reality”.

Again in Paper cuts I expressed my surprise at the absence of multi-directional photo-stitching as per Photosynth, and it appears the boffins at Samsung read my blog. The S7 has a “surround shot” mode that enables you to take multiple photos in all directions, which are then stitched together to produce a true 360° photo. Mind you, this mode is not available on the phone by default – you must download it!

Here’s my effort with a surround shot at a wharf on Sydney Harbour. As you can see, the stitching is by no means perfect. I think the differences between the light and shade caused problems, not to mention the skills of the operator. However I’m pleased to report that adding my photo to Google Maps via Street View worked perfectly and immediately. The app still doesn’t say something to the effect of “Thank you for publishing your photo”, but I’ve grown to expect this kind of UX from Google.

I’m pleased to report that Flickr also recognises my photo as a photo sphere and automatically enables user manipulation, though I found it unreliable in Edge so try Chrome instead. Flickr also provides embed code that you can insert into your website – with user manipulation similarly enabled.

A photo sphere of Kirribilli Wharf taken in Surround Shot mode on the Samsung S7

Back to Cardboard Camera, its VR photos can be viewed via the Cardboard headset – as you would expect. However a problem arises when you try to import a photo (such as a panorama) that wasn’t taken by Cardboard Camera. No matter whether I change the file name to PANO_date_x.jpg or run it through the Photosphere XMP Tagger, as user forums suggest, I’m invariably confronted by “This is not a VR photo”.

In contrast, all you need to do with Gear VR is create a subfolder called “360Photos” in the Oculus folder on your phone – though why it’s not already there is a another head scratcher – then transfer your photo into it. When you choose to see all photos in the Oculus app, you can go to “My Photos” and select yours. In fact, your photo need not be a true 360° photo; the app will stretch it into place (with mixed results).

A gripe I have with Oculus’s 360° viewing functionality, though, is that the slideshow mode is on by default. Just as you’re immersing yourself into the glorious coastline of Budva, you’re teleported somewhere else. Uber annoying!!

360° videos

Whereas Gear VR has the wood over Cardboard in relation to 360° photos, I maintain the reverse is true in relation to 360° videos.

On YouTube, all you need to do is click the little goggles icon in a 360° video to render it Cardboard compatible. It would be marvellous if we could similarly click a little oval icon to render it Gear VR compatible, but there I go again with another pipe dream…

A workaround for Gear VR is to use the Samsung Internet app to get to YouTube, play a video, toggle full screen, then change the mode to 360. Yet while this works, it’s inelegant.

A man wearing a Gear VR headset

Implications for business

Whether you intend on using virtual reality for e-learning, digital marketing, or some other business-related activity, I suggest Gear VR and Cardboard both have pro’s and cons.

In my opinion, Gear VR provides the better overall experience and looks more professional to boot. It’s handling of 360° photos is superior to Cardboard’s, and the S7’s compatibility with Flickr is useful for presenting them to the public. However, while $150 per headset is arguably affordable for an individual, you might think twice before buying 100 of them for your sales force.

Furthermore, Cardboard retains the upper hand with 360° videos. While Gear VR has a work around, it’s not really workable in a business setting. Until Oculus gets up to speed with third-party video, it might be worth having a Cardboard or two handy.

Clarifying the extension

Posted 10 May 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: extended enterprise learning, extended enterprise training

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Extended Enterprise Training (EET) is a term that was introduced to me by Don Presant in response to my previous blog post Educate everyone.

EET is poised to become the “next big thing” in corporate L&D, but what is it exactly? Most sources I’ve looked up agree with Webanywhere’s definition of the term:

Extended Enterprise Learning is any training that is provided to learners outside of your organization. The training could be targeted at dealers, channel distribution partners, suppliers, resellers, franchisees, and even your customers.

I don’t disagree with this definition, but I do wish to provoke deeper thinking by challenging it.

Inigo Montoya

Take franchisees as the first talking point. I consider it a stretch to think of them as being outside of your organisation. Sure, they might not be on your payroll, but my local McDonalds is a part of the universal Golden Arches empire. I bet my Big Mac that Ronald says so too.

I put dealers in the same basket. Indeed, the folks in Aichi Prefecture don’t pay the sales guy at my local Toyota dealership out of their own pockets, but they’d choke on their saké at the suggestion he didn’t belong to the Toyota family. And rightly so.

Partners, suppliers, resellers… these make much more sense to me. And I would replace “even your customers” with “especially your customers” – as that’s where I believe the untapped upside of EET lay.

So I guess my argument relies on the concept of brand. To me, anyone doing business wearing your logo is a part of your organisation, whether you pay them or not. Anyone doing business with you or for you, without wearing your logo, is not a part of your organisation.

I hereby propose EET applies to the latter.