Don’t have NASA’s training budget? VR and AR onboarding could be the next-best thing

Very few organisations wield a training budget like NASA. Astronaut-cadets are put through every scenario imaginable, including experiencing zero gravity in the KC-135 “Vomit Comet”, spending up to seven hours underwater where they practice on full-sized models of spacecraft in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and using equipment in the life-sized Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility.

For most companies, however, training using life-size equipment and real-life scenarios is impractical and expensive. But rather than having to settle for theoretical knowledge, new hires are increasingly being offered the next-best thing: training using virtual and augmented reality.

In this article, we examine the difference between VR and AR, summarise the technology’s advantages, explore which may be the better option for your organisation and identify costs of VR/AR training.

VR vs AR: What’s the difference?

Virtual reality takes a user into an immersive virtual environment, made possible by a VR headset. Augmented reality projects digital information onto the physical world, making no attempt to create a virtual environment. AR does not require a headset and can be used with a smartphone or smart glasses.

Something to keep in mind is that VR, being fully immersive, means users cannot safely move around while they are in the headset unless they are in a specially designed safe space.

Advantages of VR and AR training

Advantages of VR/AR training include increased knowledge retention, active learning rather than theoretical (text-based) information, trackable training data from devices, reduced onboarding time, improved workplace safety, and fewer business interruptions for training purposes. With the addition of gamification, VR/AR training can also be highly engaging and fun for new hires.

Which is the better option for your organisation?

The choice between AR and VR really depends on the scenario you intend to train for. If the scenario involves interacting with the physical world, AR is the best choice. For example, a worker could be trained in the safe operation of a machine while wearing smart glasses, with step-by-step instructions and safety alerts appearing in their field of vision as they look at the machine. In this respect, AR replaces the need for an instruction manual.

VR is ideal for training an employee in responding to a hazard without exposing them to real-life danger. For example, a VR hazard perception training program might focus on driving, working at heights, confined spaces and working with electricity. Sophisticated headsets can also track users’ eye movements to ensure they are looking at the right things, such as watching the road during a driving simulation.

VR training can also save significant disruption. Take lockout/tagout training: rather than having to shut down mains power to access a particular piece of machinery, the training can be conducted in a virtual replica of the assembly floor without bringing production to a halt.

Travel costs can also be saved by giving headset wearers a virtual tour of other locations that they might ordinarily fly to, such as an overseas office or a mine site.


VR headsets are undeniably expensive (although Google Cardboard is an exception). Popular headsets for corporate virtual reality training programs such as the Oculus Quest 2 or the Pico Neo 3 Pro start at around $700 each. Custom VR training programs typically take 8 to 10 weeks to develop and can range from $20,000 to $150,000+, depending on the size of the organisation.

Is VR scalable? At present, the cost of VR training puts it out of reach of all but the largest organisations. But there is every indication (including Mark Zuckerburg’s $100 billion investment in the Metaverse) suggests that VR for corporate training is going to increase in popularity.

AR, on the other hand, can have very low equipment costs if employees are able to use their own smartphone devices. Otherwise, companies may use training tablets such as iPads. For hands-free learning, organisations will need AR glasses (also known as smart glasses). An AR training program typically costs between $12,000 and $25,000.

Watch this (virtual) space

VR headsets and AR glasses may soon be as common in the workplace as company laptops. At this point, it will become more financially viable to design safety onboarding programs around VR/AR technology. Until then, it is worth reviewing your safety training program to identify which elements would be most suitable for pilot programs in virtual or augmented reality.