Labster CEO Michael Jensen was on XR for Learning not-too-long ago, talking about how XR can teach kids science in the classroom. Now he explains to Alan how that same technology is making professional training safer and more cost-effective.
Alan: Hey, everyone. Alan Smithson here. Today we’re speaking with Michael Jensen, CEO of Labster, a venture backed, award winning company that focuses on revolutionizing the way science and safety is taught at companies, universities, colleges, and high schools all over the world. They started with creating multimillion dollar science labs in a VR headset. And now they’re ready to take on the enterprise training world. All that and more, coming up next on the XR for Business podcast.
Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Hey, Alan, thanks so much, honored to be here.
Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure to have you. I know you were on my partner and wife Julie’s podcast, XR for Learning. And I learned all about how Labster is revolutionizing how we teach science, and making it more exciting, gamified, but also bringing the opportunity to create multi-million dollar science labs for the cost of a cup of coffee. So let’s unpack that. Michael, how did you get into this?
Michael: Yeah, so that actually started about nine years ago, when my co-founder and I saw an opportunity to create much more engaging online learning content for students and learners around the world. Basically, most people were learning in very boring, non-engaging formats as we saw it. And at the same time, we saw these billions of dollars being invested into the gaming industry to create really engaging games. And we thought, why not find a way to combine and merge the learning world and the gaming world in a more engaging way, so that we can engage learners in the content, make them more excited about the topics, but also use these mechanisms to help them understand some of these more complex concepts in a much better way.
Alan: Walk people through what a typical Labster lab looks like, and why this is exciting.
Michael: There’s two main components that we really looked at. One is engagement — as I just talked about — and the other one is timesaving, cost savings. And so what we looked at was, how can we best address some of the biggest challenges in the industry by presently creating virtual training — similar to a flight simulator that was revolutionizing pilot training — and then create, for instance, virtual laboratories to simulate dangerous experiments or dangerous scenarios — like safety training — and then that way help the universities, in our case as well as high schools — but now also corporates — dramatically reduce their cost and saving, as well as the time spent on this training.
And we did a huge research project now — about two years ago — a $6-million research project involving hundreds and hundreds of employees around the world in large pharma companies, to really analyze and understand, does this really help? Is there a way for us to create better, more engaging content? And if so, does that really help students or learners understand it better? And does it also help save costs? And the results were quite overwhelmingly positive, was published and peer reviewed — among others — in Nature magazine, where we saw more than a doubling of the learning outcomes, as well as engagement for learners, compared to — for instance — standard online e-learning training, or even personal one-on-one training. So even compared to a personal one-on-one trainer, we found that this virtual immersive training format can be far superior, both in costs, as well as an engagement, as well as the time spent on the training. So really huge, huge opportunities, really exciting.
Early results are two years ago, and since then we’ve really just been on a mission to create hundreds of different training simulations covering more than 18 different courses now, and now incorporate training we’re especially focused on the OSHA safety training. So anything around safety training, where we can see that training is either very dangerous or very time consuming or very expensive. Those are typically the areas where we can see that virtual reality or augmented reality or even also just immersive desktop/laptop based learning can have a significant impact on the learning outcomes and results.
Alan: Where can people find more information? I’m assuming that’s the SIPROS project that you were referring to.
Yeah, correct. So on labster.com/research, we publish and share all the different research studies we do. And there’s more than 16 different peer-reviewed studies now. And the one– here’s especially the SIPROS related one, as well as one that was published in Nature Biotechnology, as well. It was very– a really great study. And we have also studies comparing virtual reality to desktop based learning, to really, for us, to learn and understand, when does it really make sense to use XR — or virtual reality in our case — and when is it fine to just use laptop based training? Because there are specific scenarios within which virtual reality really adds a lot of value to the training.
Alan: A business person who is looking into– maybe it’s an H.R. manager or a training manager who’s saying, “OK, well, I keep hearing about this virtual reality thing. Where does it make sense to engage virtual reality, versus augmented reality, versus just PDFs, or what they’re already doing now, maybe video training?”
Michael: So one of the key areas we found as well in the industry is that one of the really hard things, for instance, for corporate learning is the engagement piece. So really engaging the employees and the learning is really important, so that you actually– you get your employee– the employees to train, and spend time on the training. And one of the big challenges there is often that the existing content is just really boring. We’re talking PDFs of teaching safety training, or often very short in-person trainings that are very limited due to safety concerns, good safety concerns. So I think anyone, any learning department in a company who is considering creating more experiential learning or finding ways to engage their employees more, make them more excited about the learning, should really consider even any type of immersive learning.
So we actually– we typically work with companies to start using laptop based training. So 3D environments, but on a laptop. So imagine it as a flight simulator, but for laboratory training or any other type of manufacturing type of training, safety training. And then start with that, because that’s usually the easiest way to get started. That way you get comfortable and familiar with the technology, get it integrated to the learning management system and LRS systems and so forth. And then from there, our technology is cross platform. And then what we typically do is work with companies to slowly adopt a virtual reality component as well. So any simulation can be played either on the laptop or in virtual reality.
So once they feel like they have a lab ready, we typically start with pilot projects where we have maybe a few hundred employees go through the VR training as well, to see the results there. Then they can test it out in a more smaller scale format and get — again — comfortable with the practical aspects of using VR. And in terms of when it makes sense to VR, so what we see is that any type of scenario that is is hard to– or typically requires an emotional response to really practice it well, such as — for instance — an explosion or a fire in a laboratory. You can imagine reading about a fire in a PDF and then you can imagine having it in a virtual reality environment. And if anyone has tried VR, you know how immersive it is and it can feel incredibly real, and you actually get an emotional response, which allows the employees to also train much better under those stressful conditions.
So a simple example, also, we have is around– we have a lab safety simulation where there’s an acid spill, where the employee accidentally gets acids into the eyes. So that’s actually part of the training experiment. And they have to then — with limited eyesight — you have to run to the safety station, and rinse your eyes and practice the process of rinsing your eyes in VR. So you see people actually bending their head down, doing the actual body motions that are needed to perform such an important safety training. Which is something you can’t really do in a real world scenario, you don’t want to put acids in anyone’s eyes. And it’s hard to simulate limited eyesight as well in a stressful situation.
So we really try to use virtual reality, the auditory experience to recreate as close as possible to the real world scenarios. And what we see that– the effects that we see on virtual reality compared to, for instance, laptop based training is that the the memory recall is significantly higher. And we have some specific studies that dives a lot more into the details of it. But it’s really interesting to see that if you have a scenario that requires a spatial environment, for instance, where you need to practice in a specific lab layout, where the safety station — for instance — is in a specific area, then when you’re trained in a virtual environment, you can much, much better recall the process, the steps of actually doing when you go into the real lab. So that’s one of the big areas that we see the benefits of.
Another interesting concept — this applies mostly to conceptual training — but if you have a very complex concept, such as, let’s say, organic chemistry or something– biology, for instance, where we need to understand more complex concepts, virtual reality can really help the students understand concepts in a 3D spatial environment again. And that also is something that really helps them understand the concepts. And in some of the cases, we work with companies to train their employees and certain pharmacology research — for instance — so that they can better apply cutting edge research in their own research, and find new innovative ways to cure certain diseases. So there are lots of of great cases and application of VR. But I still recommend always companies to start first with the laptops, get familiar with that, just run some tests so you also get to the whole technical setup, the IT infrastructure set up to support that. And then slowly start adapting virtual reality across the different destinations. And that’s driving huge results.
And even one thing I haven’t talked much about here, but I can quickly mention as well, there’s the increased motivation and appetite for learning that that it creates in employees is really important here as well. Many companies struggle with actually engaging their employees in learning. And it’s so important for companies to stay innovative, that their employees continuously evolve their skills. And we see that when you use these immersive, engaging type of learning contents, it also makes the learners much more interested in learning more. So there is this reinforcement effect that helps the company increase their learning outcomes. So, again, any learning department who cares about their employees learning more in being engaged in the learning, I think this type of technology has a huge potential.
Alan: One of the things that we keep saying and keep hearing from the industry is that learning in general — or education, and just training, learning — is competing with AAA games, Hollywood movies, and social media. So unless we are as engaging or as exciting as those three, we’re falling second fiddle when training people.
Michael: And actually, what you’re touching a little bit up on here as well is the ability to measure the impact. If we compare it to different types of learning, it’s typically very hard for learning department to measure if it really is better. And we’ve obviously — given our 16 different research studies — thought a lot about how can we actually measure the results. And what we find is that when you use these interactive type of learning formats, you can much, much better both administer, but also measure the actual impact that it has on the learners. So are they better able to perform the certain types of experiment or safety protocols and so forth? So even just using these types of trainings as an exam type training is also a possibility, where we can really measure in a much more realistic way if they’re really benefiting from. We’re really excited about it these days — especially some of the companies, large pharma companies, down to even small lab diagnostics firms, for instance — to see the impact it has both on the company but also on their learners, who constantly then want more. “What else can we now start training?”
Alan: I can imagine this is never ending. So actually, that was one of my questions. So I’m looking through your labster.com/simulations and it’s mostly science simulations, cellular respiration, chemistry, diabetes, it goes on and on and on… I don’t even know what “eutrophication” is… what is the process for creating a new module — for example — and how much of it can be reused versus new stuff? Like when a company says, “Hey, we want to recreate our lab, and here are the things we want to do?” What is the process for that?
Michael: Great question. We actually built a whole learning engine, so 3D immersive learning engine or platform, and that also means that we have a very high reusability of everything we do. So everything is actually modular. So you can imagine a little bit like Lego, you’re building a house, but then you can actually reuse that and reuse it again in other simulations. So we’re getting faster and faster and faster in building these. And since we have hundreds of simulations now today, every new simulation can be done — if it’s a simple one, reusing existing assets — it could be done in as little as one day. And we actually have companies who often take our training simulations, and then they customize them, change the protocol a little bit to match their own internal protocols, or change the quiz questions a little bit to test the employees in different ways. And that can be done in as little as a few hours.
And what we do a lot now in corporate training for instances is look at the OSHA standards for safety training. Beyond a lot of the higher training we have also now fire safety, chemical safety, and blood-borne pathogens — which is obviously super relevant these days — and biological safety, waste disposal, emergency response, hazard identification, and so on and so on. So anything that really relates to the importance of safety within a work environment is areas that we’re focused a lot on. And we actually right now, every single week, we launch at least one, typically two new simulations. So there’s high demand and also high kind of throughput on our technology and platform these days.
So we would often also in some cases, if companies have specific demands, we will work with them to create an entire virtual campus. So we actually have large enterprises where we work with them to understand how do they want to train both their own employees, but also how do they want to train their customers in using their technologies and machines and equipment. And in those cases, we work very closely together with their product departments to essentially convert their PowerPoint presentation into these much more engaging, immersive formats, where we’ll create the specific 3D assets and 3D machines of their equipment and so forth. And in some cases, we build an entire virtual campus. So it’s sort of a virtual training campus for a large corporate. And that allows them to actually not only improve the training of their employees, but also open up a whole new revenue stream for them, so they can actually now sell a lot of this training as well to their customers or even some of their partners around the world, which is another very exciting opportunity for us that we’re currently pursuing as well.
Alan: You mentioned Lego, and I understand that you guys are Danish.
Alan: Is that like a national thing, where whenever you podcast and stuff, you have to mention Lego or another Danish company?
Michael: Yeah. So it’s–
Michael: I feel like it! So actually, we collaborate quite a lot with Lego, so I think in our case, it’s also a little bit extra close to us. But yeah, I think anyone who grew up on Lego. I’m a huge Lego fan myself. And I think to some degree it’s hard to show, but I think our builder component — which is essentially a Lego for virtual environments, training environments — is in some way inspired by my young days of playing around with Legos, building pretty much anything my imagination could foster. And that actually reminds me of another important aspect of this: when Lego, for instance, is really known for their ability to spark curiosity and creativity in people, especially young adults, of course, but also in employees, it’s very important to have– to promote curiosity. You can imagine in the pharma industry, where you have to constantly come up with new innovations to cure certain types of diseases, curiosity is super important.
And so what we do a lot in our science experiences, the virtual reality experiences, is focusing on not just on how we train specific skills, but also how they can apply those to solve real world challenges and problems. So we’re known for this in the higher ed space, especially, where we coach and mentor students on how can they apply their biology/chemistry/physics skills to solve global warming or other types of really critical problems out in the world. And you can imagine how we can do the same in corporate environments, where we work with the corporates to understand, “Well, what type of creativity or curiosity or new types of innovations are very important for them? And then how can we create training simulations that promote that curiosity by helping them see how they can connect the dots in new, innovative ways?” So when you’re learning about eutrophication — or any types of important technique or skills that they might have to learn — how can they use electron microscopes, for instance, to come up with new ways of measuring or solving important problems?
Alan: Interestingly enough, you were part of the Educators In VR conference and people from — I think there’s 150 speakers from around the world — met in a virtual world, in virtual reality, in Altspace, and ENGAGE, and the Rumii platform. With this whole coronavirus outbreak and conferences being canceled, this represents a huge opportunity for virtual collaboration platforms like this. And what are you seeing as the next steps with this? Are you able to — in your simulations — also have multi-users and have multi-person collaboration around the world?
Michael: It’s a really exciting opportunity for us, of course. It’s a horrible situation with the coronavirus. But it does emphasize the upsides of using virtual immersive learning, or online learning in general. And the Educators In VR was an amazing event, showcasing how you can actually host now massive online events with thousands of people in the same environments, all remote, and have a really effective collaborative communication around it as well. So we are actually focused a lot right now, especially helping high schools and entire countries right now move their learning online.
So, for instance, Japan recently just closed down all their schools, I believe it was two million or so students that were suddenly prevented from going to school. And they now have to suddenly learn from home, where they have no science facilities, obviously. So we are helping build entire virtual high school science campuses. And we do the same as well in higher ed, where we build an entire online biology degree that works in virtual reality as well. And yes, similarly now for companies, we see the effects, but it’s actually already happening, because in the COVID world, we see very high cost of employees traveling from destination to destination to do the specific training, hosting the employees in these different locations, when in fact you could just ship a couple of VR headsets, or even have the online laptop based training and massively reduce costs.
So there’s already incentives for companies to do this. They have– they are already and our partners do it already to an increasing extent. And I think these types of pandemics, like the Coronavirus, will certainly promote or accelerate this adoption. And I think it will open up training departments’ minds much more to the opportunities in this type of training as well as the impact. And I’m very excited about it in the way that it will help these people, who have often been maybe a little bit resistant, like, “Yeah, VR…” or “Ah, yeah, well, do we really need this type of engaging, immersive learning?” They will now have to try it out because of the conditions right now. And they will see — I believe, at least in all cases of our customers — they will see that the benefits are far superior than any other existing training that they have today. And at the same time, they actually save costs in this, in a big way.
There’s really — as I say — literally no reason not to try this out and adopt this. And all the research, all the existing applications and companies using it today should be a proof point for more and more companies to try it out. So I’m excited for it, and I’m excited especially for the learners, at the end of the day. At the end of the day, we are a company that’s driven by the engagement and the passion that we can inspire in all the learners around the world, to come up with important solutions to global warming and other important challenges. And we see the effects here on the learners as soon as the companies are pushed a little bit in a healthy way to promote this new engaging type of learning. We are scrambling at the moment just to keep up with all the incoming requests and demands because of this, and doing our best to to serve as many students and learners around the world.
Alan: You’re doing some amazing work. How can people get in touch with you and your team, if they’re interested in bringing this type of virtual learning into their classroom or into their company?
Michael: So definitely go to labster.com. And then also go to labster.com/corporate, there’s a lot more information about our corporate initiatives, all the research and work that we’re doing there. And there’s as well a little contact form, and then fill out the form and then we’ll get on a call with you and talk with you about how we can help you and support you in this transition. We have an incredible team that’s guiding our partners through every single step of the process. So it’s very easy to get started and it can literally be done in as little as one to two days, if people are up for it.
Alan: You’ve probably already answered this, but what problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?
Michael: I have a personal dream, that really is what drives every inch of my motivation here. My hope is that in 10 to 15 years, we will see the Nobel Prize winner up on stage, who’s cured either all kinds of cancers, global warming, or other really important critical challenges out there in the world. And they will start by saying that it all really happened when they tried out Labster and they got inspired, they got curious about learning more and learning new skills and acquire those skills that really ultimately help them solve these important global challenges. So that’s my big dream. And I believe we’re definitely on the path to get there.
Alan: I don’t even know what to say about that. That’s amazing. So thank you, Michael, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us in the XR for Business podcast. And thank you, everyone, for listening. Make sure you subscribe to the podcast so that you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been the XR for Business podcast with your host, Alan Smithson, and our guest, Michael Jensen from Labster.
Michael: Thanks so much, Alan.
Alan: Great, man. Thank you so much.
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