Virtual reality is often associated with video games. But well-known companies are now using it as a tool to train for potentially dangerous situations. Major companies like Walmart, Chipotle and Verizon are using VR to prepare employees for what they could see on the job.
Verizon has more than 1,600 stores across the country where front-line employees help people get connected and buy the latest gadgets to do so. But the harsh reality is that those hot-ticket items make them a target for armed robberies, a dangerous scenario that could be difficult to imagine – until now.
In one digital scenario, two gunmen strike as the store opens, taking one employee hostage and going straight for the safe. It was only a simulation, but as CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil learned firsthand at a Verizon training site outside Washington, D.C., the fear was all too real.
"VR takes your brain elsewhere, so I am standing here in a classroom and my brain thinks I'm on a factory floor, on an airplane tarmac, in a Verizon store. So it's basically like visualization on steroids," said Derek Belch, the founder of Strivr, which builds virtual experiences as a training tool first for football teams and now for a growing number of major companies.
Walmart's program lets sales associates "feel" the holiday rush. JetBlue technicians can "inspect an airplane" before takeoff. This year, Verizon plans to send 15,000 front-line workers through a program aimed to put everyone at the wrong end of a gun.
Michael Mason, chief security officer at Verizon, said that while Verizon sees fewer than 50 armed robberies a year, one in Springfield, Ohio, caught on surveillance tape, is enough to make the training worth it.
"I would not call it a minor problem. Any time you get a gun stuck in your face, or a knife stuck in your face that is a serious problem," said Mason. "If nothing else, then an employee understands what he or she should be looking at in the bad guy when they're in and if that helps identify a bad guy and take him off the street, then that means they can't repeat that activity."
The training features three virtual reality experiences: an armed robbery at store opening, an armed robbery at closing, and a smash-and-grab job during store hours. Throughout the ordeal, employees answer questions about what to do in real-time then discuss as a group.
"It was emotional. It was traumatic in a lot of ways. It was raw. It was an awakening of what more I can be doing in my role to take that education piece and what happens day-to-day back to my team," said Urooj Khalid, who manages a Verizon store in Reston, Virginia.
Verizon's security chief said the goal isn't to protect the inventory, but to protect the employees. They have a reason for telling this story publicly: it's to send a message to any would-be thieves that these employees are prepared.