Learning in The Matrix
Thirty years ago we would gawk at the simple vector drawings on screens that represented buildings, terrain, mountains and trees in flight simulators. Those giant multimillion hydraulically driven machines were the envy of every kid dreaming of becoming a pilot. Those flight simulators were custom-built, expensive to operate, and while they looked great with all the buttons and panels and switches, they “boasted” the same lack of ergonomics in design as real airplane cockpits did.

Twenty years ago, PCs became cheaper and more powerful. Tools to create nice graphics became available, and the concept of CBT (Computer Based Training) Took off. by using images, small video, and flash technology, companies were able to create training material cheaply, and spread it far and wide. In parallel, video gaming started to see first releases of simulators for airplanes, spaceships, etc. that look much better and had a balanced degree of realism compared to commercial sims. Unfortunately CBT and Simulation games grew apart, and denied us the best of both worlds: Cheap, stunning, easy to use interactive training simulations!

Ten years ago, militaries across the globe started to adopt interactive simulations as a serious means of training for vehicle operations, tactics and strategic decision making. Requiring lengthy certifications and complex standards, meant that the technology used in such simulators was behind the tech curve by at least three years. Game engines still cost millions and were hard to license, and CBT and web-based learning had reached its limits of usefulness. While some visionaries saw the potential of visually rich and interactive simulators for training in any skill, most companies were disillusions and didn’t believe such training to be available or effective.

Flight_simulator_at_the_Aviation_Museum,_Bucharest

Simulators Then…

modern A380 cockpit simulator
  …Simulators Now

That future has arrived. Interactive 3D simulations are better, cheaper and more useful than ever. They are being applied to many industries, from mining to shipping, from the military to peace organizations, from basic skills like welding to complex soft-skills like ethics and management. A sim that would have cost millions to make just a decade ago, can now be produced with better graphics, realistic physics, and complex dynamics at one-tenth that cost. Game engines are commercially available to anyone, and a huge number of software developers, 3D artists, and users are proficient at using them. Innovative input systems such as the Kinect and glove controllers have matured in just the last ten years and multiple companies are working on the future of lightweight hi-res wearable virtual reality goggles. Fully interactive virtual reality training has arrived, has proven effective,  and is here to stay – it’s now up to visionary managers to start adopting these technologies.

Humans gain skills by repeatedly performing tasks and getting feedback on them. Interactive simulations are currently the cheapest, fastest and only scalable platform we know of for teaching skills, and even if direct skill downloads may never become possible, the infrastructure to efficiently deliver skills on demand is certainly taking shape.