The three elements of building learning environments for VR training content

A 360 camera used to film an immersive VR experience

Just like writing a script for VR is very different than for a movie, designing a scene for VR training is very different than for your typical 2D training video. The VR filmmakers who specialize in building these 360-degree experiences are called immersive content specialists.

Immersive content specialists partner up with instructional designers, data scientists, UX designers, and business stakeholders to craft an experience that affords learners a sense of presence and engages them far more effectively than other training methods.

The sights, sounds, and people learners come across in the training module are all part of spatial design – one of the core components of the Immersive Learning methodology

White man holding a script directing his colleagues

Immersive content specialists also leverage filmmaking expertise to figure out how best to illustrate the concepts that need to play out in an experience, including:

  • Determining who to cast in order to achieve the learning objectives.
  • Collaborating to decide on a location for learners to be immersed in, and then figuring out the best way the action will play out during scripting.
  • Determining where scene elements, like placards, buttons, or objects of interest, will sit within the filmed space, and how the characters and the learner interact with those elements.

Best-of-breed spatial design for VR training incorporates three elements that serve to put learners in a state of uninhibited, naturalistic engagement with the virtual experience.


Preparing the scene

Hollywood and Broadway are not the only places where the concept of “Mise-en-scène” (French: “placing on stage”) is alive and well.

Immersive Learning requires careful planning around what the learner sees and who she interacts with to accomplish the learning objectives set forth by the business stakeholders. To prepare the scene for a learner, the immersive content specialists focus on two guiding principles: presence and engagement. 


Presence in VR is the feeling the learner gets that she’s really there in the virtual environment. It’s the first foundational step in bolstering learner engagement and retention.

There are three types of presence the immersive content specialist must consider. To illustrate, let’s set the stage in a shipping warehouse where the learning objective is properly packing a truck: 

1. Spatial Presence

Spatial presence occurs when the learner loses the sense that she is in a VR experience; it becomes real. Immersive content specialists use lighting, positioning of both actors and objects, and audio to immerse the learner in the space.

For example, the learner hears loud echoes of heavy machinery moving across the warehouse floor. She sees boxes being staged around her to be placed in the truck. She feels as if she is on the floor of a warehouse.

2. self Presence

Self presence is about getting the learner to believe she has agency within the virtual world, to look around and interact with the virtual experience in a naturalistic way.

The learner sees the boxes behind her that must be loaded into the truck. She is prompted to move them and finds she can. She now has agency and her actions have measurable impact on the immersive world. Designing to give the learner a sense of self presence is about strategically affording her those moments where she can impact and interact with the virtual world.

3. Social Presence

In VR training, the learner doesn’t always go it alone. She shares the space with real people (actors) who act and speak like people she will meet on the job. The goal is to elicit performances from actors that feel real.

For example, she may have a partner (i.e. virtual coach) standing on the truck dictating instructions on which boxes to pack first, second, and third in order to maximize the space in the truck. This virtual coach needs to speak, move, and act like a colleague the learner might see on day one of the job.

The science behind VR’s transformative impact

These three types of presence improve the learning experience because they serve to give the learner a rich, realistic experience that can be retained and recalled.

“We’re always looking to maintain ‘the illusion of presence’ – unmediated and real – within those three categories.”

Kris Pitzek, immersive content specialist, Strivr


Designing a realistic soundscape

The sound in VR is paramount for presence. In the virtual world, sound is used to elicit emotions and make learners feel and believe they are in the scene. Elements of the soundscape include:


Most experiences require interacting with another person, like a colleague, customer, or supervisor, who serves as a virtual coach. This person is speaking directly to the learner and giving her direct feedback based on her chosen actions. Whether the person is happy or unhappy with the choice of action, this element allows the learner to internalize that feedback and the feelings of satisfaction or discontent.

Well-written dialogue is essential to presence.


Many experiences also use voiceover, which is typically used to help provide a learner general guidance as to what needs to be accomplished in the experience. This becomes more integral particularly if an actor is not present as a virtual coach.

An example of this is a compliance exercise for maintaining a safe workspace. The voiceover might tell the learner to look to her left, right, up, down, and behind to find objects out of place or identify potential hazards.

Background noise

When a learner puts on the VR headset, she is leaving the world around her. The classroom or office they might be standing in has transformed into a store, construction site, or production plant. She is able to hear what the workspace sounds like.

Echoes and machinery in a warehouse, light footsteps of customers milling around a store, and vehicle noise is captured to introduce and assimilate the learner into the virtual world.

Sonic cues

These are the various sound effects that help move a learner through the learning experience, such as cues to indicate a scene changing, a right/wrong answer, time running out on a scene hunt, and more.

“It’s not just visual,” says Kris. “We’re ultimately designing a soundscape to make that experience feel real and to serve the learning objectives of that module.” 

The soundscape is important in the visual hierarchy of VR training experiences. It not only orients learners to where they are but it can also serve as a valuable cue for learners as they move through the training.

A tall orange pickup point in a Walmart store
Play Icon
Watch this 2D demo of an in-headset experience and listen for the soundscape of Walmart pickup tower training.


Planning how the learner will move through the scene

Lastly, it’s time to map the learner’s path through the experience. The path can be defined as the sequence of actions that need to happen in order for the learner to move with control and purpose through the module. 

This is a vast departure from 2D training videos and PowerPoint, where learners are passive observers. 2D videos leverage traditional montage editing to move through a training.

But in VR, lots of cuts ultimately disrupt learners’ sense of agency and presence in the experience, and limit their ability to physically explore the space around them.

PowerPoint offers a bit more agency to click through slides at their own pace and is used to tell learners what to do, but ultimately doesn’t immerse them in the task. 

A glimpse inside the role of VR instructional design

Instead, think of the learner as a cast member in a theater production. She is cued by other elements (sounds, voices, and the physical appearance of other people) in the scene to direct her eyes and move her body to another part of the stage. Per Kris, “Learners are not just taking away words on the screen, they are embodying a task.”

Learners move through Immersive Learning experiences in two different ways:

  • Actors cue the learner. Imagine the learner is a store associate looking at a shelf of goods to her left. The learner hears a voice, prompting her to turn her head and body away from the shelf. There stands an inquisitive customer who has a question about an item. To test the learner’s ability to resolve the question, four prompts are given to the learner to answer.
  • Audio prompt describes what the learner needs to identify in a module. Imagine the learner is being asked to identify items out of place in a manufacturing plant. The voiceover reminds the learner to look up, down, left, and right in the plant to identify anything that looks out of place. This prompt affords the learner freedom to explore the space around her but also provides agency in what to look for in the space to accomplish the learning objective.

Importantly, because there are fewer cuts to the video, camera placement and actor direction are critical. This way, the locations and learning experiences feel more fluid and natural.

Thoughtful immersive design makes VR

VR is simply a tool. 

It is the elements of Immersive Learning, particularly spatial immersive content design, that make VR an effective tool to promote health and safety, create operational efficiencies, develop customer service skills, and both improve and upskill employee soft skills.

The ability to provide an employee with a realistic and forgiving environment to explore and learn is powerful, and is already being done by some of the biggest companies in the world.

Next steps: Strategy, production, and deployment

Related Content