Over the years, virtual reality technology has improved so much that insurance companies are starting to experiment with VR headsets like Facebook's Oculus Rift.
Farmers Insurance, which is affiliated with Swiss giant Zurich Insurance Group, has started a major initiative to train its army of claims adjusters with the help of Oculus Rift headsets.
By the end of this year, about 50 employees will have donned the Oculus Rift headsets and participated in the VR training program, said Farmers Insurance chief claims officer Keith Daly. The company plans for hundreds more to be trained using the next year, and, eventually, get all of its thousands of claims adjusters through the program, Daly said.
The goal is to build on the company's existing two-to-three week training that workers attend before going into real world to inspect homes damaged in earthquakes, floods, and other major catastrophes.
As part of the VR training, prospective claims adjusters visit the company's facilities near Los Angeles to inspect a model home that is damaged by water leaks or fire.
However, it’s impractical to create a real-life house riddled with every possible problem. That’s where VR comes in. Farmers hopes to create different VR scenarios so that its claims adjusters know how to deal with them all.
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"In virtual reality, we can do that stuff almost instantaneously," said Daly. "We believe that virtual reality is going to be able to shorten the learning curve [for workers] because we will be able to provide so many more experiences."
For the initiative, Farmers hired the VR production company Talespin to build a digital two-story home that's suffered water damage. For example, a water spot on the first floor's ceiling indicates a potential overflowed toilet upstairs, while a puddle in the kitchen could mean that a dishwasher has gone haywire, explained Jessica Decanio, who leads the training program.
Trainees are armed with a digital tool kit that lets them tag problem toilets or water heaters, and indicate how dirty the water is on the floor. They even use a pseudo iPad to ping a plumber when they think they know what's wrong, or to contact the insurance agent after they believe they spotted all of the problems.
During the VR lesson, which takes roughly 15 minutes, the claims adjusters are scored by how well they discover problems and whether they appropriately follow up like notifying a plumber. Each scenario is random, so that the water leaks appear in different places and that the furniture is rearranged for each trainee.
The VR experience resembles common first-person video games, partly because it's powered by the Unity game engine, which is increasingly used by developers to build smartphone, PC, and VR games. But instead of blasting evil aliens, Farmers’ workers tag toilets.
Eventually, Farmers wants to create more simulated homes with different kinds of damage like from hailstorms.
Daly concedes that the VR initiative "could prove wrong" and that workers don't actually learn to do their jobs better. But, so far, workers who have gone through the VR training seem more confident in their abilities, Daly said.
Additionally, because their virtual experience can be broadcasted to a big TV screen, other prospective claims adjusters can watch fellow students live in a classroom. These VR sessions can also be recorded, and uploaded to the company's Facebook for Work business account, where employees can re-watch each session, similar to how people watch training videos on YouTube.
Indeed, Josh Bersin, an analyst at Bersin by Deloitte who tracks workplace technology, believes that the rise of VR as a training tool mimics the early stages of how companies first used YouTube to show training videos.
"We are going to go down a similar growth [as YouTube] when VR technology becomes more ubiquitous for training," Bersin said.
The portability of VR (you just need a headset and computer) also means that Farmers can set up employee training stations across the country, not just in its headquarters. In addition to its Los Angeles area testing, the company is currently using VR in a Kansas office and Chicago.
Ultimately, Daly wants VR to help the company "deliver a more seasoned adjuster faster than our traditional method."
"Our early indication is that it’s absolutely going to be the case."
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