If you tuned into the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, you would have encountered several panels of men lauding Virtual Reality. CES, and the media machine behind it, use words like “jaw-dropping” to describe the sonic boom that is the emergence of VR onto the tech scene. By all accounts, the technology seems like the immersive experience of our future — and our nightmares, according to Black Mirror — and (sans any cynicism) represents innovations made by talented engineers.
But thus far, the public seems more inclined to converse with Alexa than don one of the many clunky and alien-looking VR headsets. For years devices like the Oculus Rift have promised realistic gaming experiences to little widespread commercial success. But VR’s purpose may not lie with entertainment — but with the service industry.
Honeygrow, a growing salad bar concept from Philadelphia, uses VR headsets to train their employees. Founder Justin Rosenberg embodies the cool “I’m just like you guys” CEO image when describing to Entrepreneur how he wants to impress prospective employees and foster valuable connections between them and the corporation.
My immediate response to this is — why? It’s one thing to use a tablet or other software to assist workers in training, as we are increasingly responsive to their interfaces. But VR is intended as an all-sensory experience of something you could not otherwise attain, ie. flying a plane or traversing a battlefield on Mars. At restaurants, the environment you’re simulating is literally right in front of you.
Before you go out and invest in one of these systems — or apply for a job promising this service — consider why you have to simulate helping customers when you’re at a restaurant with live human beings. KFC’s training program, in particular, has gained notoriety as it’s designed like an Escape Room where completing their training is the only way to get out.
For the record, I would play this game if not sign up for KFC, which means their millennial marketing strategy is working on some level. But the reality about virtual reality is that once it’s over and employees begin their shifts, the suspense of disbelief fades quickly, leaving workers disillusioned.
In other words, VR isn’t a solution for insufficient wages, bad working conditions, discrimination, harassment, or any of the qualms that restaurant workers regularly face and forces them to leave employment behind.
I doubt VR’s ability to take over the gaming world and employee training, but I do see its potential elsewhere. Once an employee exits the headset and starts working, the fun ends and the real world begins — perhaps that’s why virtual reality programs the most similar to, well, reality have been proven to be the most effective.
The NFL made headlines saying it would invest in virtual reality to fight prejudice in the locker room. VR is being used to place outsiders into war-torn Syria and their humanitarian crisis. Others have suggested using it to eliminate gender bias in hiring. A holocaust museum developed VR so museumgoers can speak with concentration camp survivors.
All these instances demonstrate the power of VR in conjuring empathy. Studies like this one suggest that immersive VR experiences actually help human beings understand the struggles of people with different backgrounds and different experiences.
Perhaps this is where restaurateurs and techies should focus their energy, not on creating glossy or gaming versions of reality, but reflecting the actual realities others may face but you do not. The realities of workplace sexual harassment, for example. That could really change the restaurant industry.