Vocational school teaching in virtual reality in the Würth metaverse

The Würth Industrie Service metaverse comprises around 90 worlds. One of these is inhabited by teachers and students from the Erich Bracher School. We've taken a look at how commercial apprentices are learning to design sales floors in virtual reality (VR).

Tobias Ladewig (Global Head of WIS Innovation HUB), Christopher Gröne (Virtual Reality specialist at WIS), Jannik Ehret (Head of Retail at the EBS) and Bernd Lorenz (editor at the "Handwerksblatt", magazine of the German crafts sector) meet together on a Friday afternoon in May in the WIS metaverse. "This is likely to be the first interview in the world to be conducted by the three parties as avatars in AR," explains Tobias Ladewig with delight. As head of development, and together with his team, he has set up and developed the WIS Virtual Experiences VR platform.

Würth metaverse

The starting point for the journey through the WIS virtual world is the "iHub Yacht" – anchored in uncharted digital waters. "Currently it is still the only freeverse environment where all visitors can move about at will. However, in the near future, there will also be other worlds that are publicly accessible," explains Tobias Ladewig. The WIS iHub technicians and graphic designers have already created between 80 and 90 worlds on the virtual reality platform. Most are for closed user groups.

Access to WIS showroom 

One of these is the next to be visited. External visitors need an "invitation code" to enter the main WIS showroom. Super administrator Tobias Ladewig provides a short sequence of digits. This is entered in the main menu of the “WIS VR Toolbox” virtual reality software in the "join by invitation code" field. A few seconds later the four avatars meet again in a kind of lecture theatre. "Welcome to the world of WIS!", says Tobias Ladewig, greeting the small group again.

From the lecture hall into the test laboratory

There is a digital screen in front of the ascending stairs of the lecture theatre on which films and presentations are shown. On the side walls there are two small buttons labelled "Travel". When these are activated by the avatars, a file is downloaded for the rooms behind them. "One button takes you to our test laboratory, the other to a 3D model of our company premises which can be walked through," explains Christopher Gröne.

The Würth Group uses the virtual environment for a range of different purposes. "Customer appointments, internal meetings, sales training or onboarding of new employees," explains Christopher Gröne, listing some examples. And let's not forget trade fairs. "We can only present a fraction of our systems on a single stand. Using the virtual reality glasses, all of them are available at all times and wherever we are."

VR world for Würth customers

Würth customers who have been given an insight into the virtual world of WIS are now also beginning to understand the reasoning behind this. "Many of them are asking if we can set up a separate VR world for them on our platform," explains Tobias Ladewig. One of them is a well-known German heating contractor, for which the WIS iHub team is currently building a training centre. Another is the next stop on the virtual press tour through the Würth's virtual environment. “Please follow me to the EBS!"

Vocational school in virtual reality

The Erich Bracher School is one of Würth Industrie Service's partners. Tobias Ladewig's team has set up a separate virtual reality world for the commercial vocational school from Kornwestheim. "Our company wants to support the next generation in the best possible way and in return also learn from their experiences," explains the WIS VR manager, explaining the background of the cooperative arrangement.

He is anticipating honest feedback from users in the school-based environment. "Students are happy to just say what annoys them and what can be improved." Virtual reality teaching is also being used to stress test the technology. "We are curious to see how the system responds when a group of 15 students wearing virtual reality goggles is active in a virtual environment at the same time."

Greeted in front of the school

Jannik Ehret is already waiting in front of the school building. "Can you see the EBS logo on my T-shirt?" asks the avatar of the vocational school teacher. In virtual space, you can see the other people, but not the entire body of your own digital avatar. Only the hands can be seen. Gamers call this the first-person perspective.

Clicking on the controller or on the mouse opens the front door of the Erich Bracher School. The iHub team's programmers and graphic designers from Würth Industrie Service clearly did a good job when designing the school building and the rooms. "Our students are impressed at how close the VR environment is to reality," explains Jannik Ehret in praise of the design.

On the left-hand side in the foyer there are various information cabinets. At the moment, these are just decorative elements. "However, we are already working on an interactive version of the staff list and the room plan," reassures Tobias Ladewig. On the right, stairs lead up to the second floor. From here you can enter a range of virtual classrooms.

Onboarding for vocational school students

For the students at the EBS, the first VR day probably reminds them of their primary school days. Teachers meet them in front of the school building and accompany them into the classroom. "The aim with onboarding is that they first familiarise themselves with the VR environment and with the virtual reality glasses and controls," explains Jannik Ehret.

In room 209, both the familiar and the unknown await them. "The room, as we see it here, exists in the real EBS, but in VR we've also added a 'spawner' and a 'shredder'." Their buttons are located on the sides of the headset. The spawner creates virtual objects. With one click it produces a cup or a shelf. "Students are able to practice how to lift, move, and position objects." The cups and shelves produced by the spawner are then disposed of in the shredder.

"Order is maintained in the virtual world too," says the Head of Retail at the EBS, with a very obvious wink of the eye.

Lessons in the virtual supermarket

First-year trainee management assistants for retail services and trainee sellers are taken into entirely unfamiliar territory in the next double lesson. Just a few steps away from room 209 they come across a glass door. Behind this there's a supermarket. Other than a till and a long, refrigerated section, the room is entirely empty.

It has no number. The explanation is simple. "This room does not exist in reality. It is an expansion of the real world into the virtual world," explains Jannik Ehret. There is a new experience in store for the pupils. “Which trainees are ever given the opportunity practically, in the company, to plan a sales area entirely on their own, to position different product display elements such as shelves, counters or presentations in high and low sales zones, and therefore to specify a path to purchase for customers?"

Business administration teachers at EBS are now actually able to deliver the material from topic area four in a three-dimensional space. Until only recently, designing a sales floor was only possible in two dimensions using a floor plan on a piece of paper.

Generating products and product display elements

When selecting content for virtual reality lessons, EBS teachers take into account pedagogical and didactic concepts of vocational education and training. "In line with the principle of action-oriented learning, the aim is that pupils solve a specific problem in company-based practice as part of a learning situation and reflect on their results," explains Jannik Ehret.

Before the commercial trainees are able to get started on designing the sales floor in the virtual supermarket, they first have to download it. A few moments later, the glass door to the sales area opens. The pupils make their way past the till in the entrance area and refrigerated section and arrive in a separate store. Here, three spawners produce individual products such as jars of nut-nougat spread, packets of coffee or boxes of detergent, but also portable and bulky product display elements such as pallets and clothing racks or counters for vegetables or meat.

Object properties can be modified

Christopher Gröne's avatar sweeps in from the middle of the room and drops a packet on to the conveyor. However this is done carelessly and washing powder falls onto the floor. “The environment reacts physically in the correct way. Effectively, the laws of gravity apply in virtual reality," underlines Tobias Ladewig.

A cone shaped object makes its way to the till – this is the "Holston-Bierdosenpyramide" – a pyramid of beers from the Holsten brewing company. The name of this product and of other products differs from the familiar goods descriptions for good reason. "For the commercial trainees we want to be as close as possible to reality with the product names, but without placing ourselves in a vulnerable position under trademark law."

The WIS-iHub team produces all goods and product display elements according to EBS specifications. Their properties can be changed according to the learning objective. For example, a packet of washing powder is easy to enlarge using the controllers.

Concept for vocational school teaching in VR

The concept for teaching in virtual reality had to be developed by the teachers at the Erich Bracher School themselves. "There was no source of reference at all which we were able to use," explains Jannik Ehret, speaking on behalf of his three colleagues involved in the pilot project.

In terms of transfer of knowledge, the result is a mixture of the traditional and the theoretical and also the implementation of what has been learnt practically in virtual reality. "We provide the pupils with the section from the textbook, or we give them a memo or an email from a fictitious boss asking them to plan a clearer path to purchase for customers," explains Jannik Ehret, naming one example.

The concept has been trialled since March 2022 and is receiving academic support from the Chair of Business and Economics Education at the University of Konstanz.

Two EBS classes are trialling the VR concept

EBS teachers have used the hardware available to determine the number of commercial trainees that can be taught in VR. 14 pairs of Oculus Quest 2 glasses are available. "There will also be three laptops for pupils who might get tired too quickly using the VR glasses, or who are prone to epileptic fits."

Currently, two classes at the Kornwestheim vocational school are trialling the VR concept. For the lessons, each class is divided into two groups. Each group is then split up into smaller subgroups of four to five trainees, and during the double lesson each subgroup is supervised by two teachers. "Each student spends a total of four school lessons or two teaching blocks per month in VR."

Teaching in virtual reality is hard work

Wearing VR goggles puts a strain on the body and the senses. Jannik Ehret has observed that students find lessons in virtual reality really exhausting. "Moving too quickly, for example, makes you kind of seasick. The proper name for this phenomenon is motion sickness," explains the vocational school teacher.

In the planning phase, it was assumed, due to a lack of empirical evidence, that 90 minutes of teaching in VR would probably be too much. He explained that, as part of the pilot project at the Erich Bracher School, a period of 20 to 40 minutes proved successful at the outset. "We may be able to expand this further."

Added value from vocational school teaching in VR 

According to Jannik Ehret, learning in virtual reality offers added value over learning in reality. It may be a simulation, he explains, but "the recall rate when being actively involved is much higher than when you are reading something," says the educator, referring to findings from cognition research and learning psychology.

Students' motivation and cooperation do not suffer as a result of the unusual learning environment. "They coordinate with one another and arrive at solutions together. This works at least as well as in lessons in the real world."

The training companies also benefit from the experiences of their trainees. "Besides specialist competencies relating to sales floor design, they are also developing media skills which companies are able to use for their own VR projects," explains Jannik Ehret.

New ideas, new functions

The end of the 2021/2022 academic year marks the end of the trial phase of VR teaching of commercial trainees at EBS. The plan is for it to continue with two classes after the summer holidays. Jannik Ehret and Tobias Ladewig are already thinking about how to optimise the technology and the teaching concept. "When you're really looking at a topic in-depth, you automatically get new ideas," says the vocational school teacher. In addition to sales floor planning, sales pitches, consultations, appraisals or performance reviews could also be simulated in virtual reality.

Development of a "save game" function

According to Jannik Ehret, one important function is still missing in the EBS virtual space. "It would make things a lot easier for teachers if we could prepare practice scenarios in advance, and then copy these into a specific room, save and open them again." This would also give pupils the benefit that they could gradually work on their individual sales floor design, save it as they go along, and submit the final result as project work for marking.

"We are already working on developing this kind of 'save game' function," reassures Tobias Ladewig. Overall, WIS iHub head of development expects to see synergy effects as a result. "This would mean that both the design of teaching and learning scenarios in VR, but also customer environments for WIS could be improved."

Access to the Würth metaverse

"There's a warm welcome for everyone in Würth's virtual world," says Tobias Ladewig. He explains that the "WIS VR Toolbox" software is free of charge and can be downloaded from the internet and from the Google Play Store or Apple's App Store. Once the program is installed, you can set up an account and create your avatar. The Würth metaverse can be explored using VR glasses, a PC, tablet or smartphone. If there are any other questions, or for a tour through the virtual reality worlds, the WIS iHub can be contacted by email.

Logging out of the metaverse

Clothing racks, shelving and pyramids of cans are enthusiastically arranged across the sales floor of the virtual supermarket at the Erich Bracher School. The time in Würth's virtual environment rapidly comes to an end. After two hours, all questions have been answered.

So, how do we get out? Tobias Ladewig laughs. "We often find with students that they first leave the lecture hall and then log out in the foyer." Pragmatism comes before politeness in VR.

So, it's Escape and then Logout. And back to the real world.

Source: handwerksblatt.de (German magazine for the skilled crafts sector), revised by iMOVE, January 2023