Interplay Learning’s SkillMill Skilled Trades Course Catalog includes on-demand videos and virtual reality training solutions for HVAC techs and other skilled trades. As more HVAC operations look to cut costs associated with testing and training, Interplay is quickly proving that virtual reality can be a way to win.     

“No other similar product like it exists in the marketplace,” says Doug Donovan, CEO of Interplay Learning, headquartered in Austin, Texas. An endorsement of the company’s innovation, this year SkillMill won an AHR Expo Innovation Award for its use as an instructive tool in the software category.

“Traditional training methods alone aren’t scalable enough, can be very expensive as well as time-consuming, and they can’t contend with the growing skills gap,” says Donovan. “Our solution is exponentially more valuable. SkillMill is already having a profound impact on the market. It’s allowing HVAC and other skilled trades to quickly build a more highly skilled workforce.”

He adds, “SkillMill is the future of training for skilled trades.”

Via its proprietary software, VOLT, Interplay can create a variety of custom real-world HVAC scenarios and situations for programming within weeks. Seeing the tech’s potential as a training tool, big HVACR brands are buying-in with hopes to save money and time on prepping its next generation.

Last year, Interplay announced plans to create custom virtual reality training modules for Carrier, featuring product-specific content exclusive to Carrier and its network of dealers and distributors. Similarly, Johnson Controls uses Interplay’s VR training solutions to test potentially dangerous situations in a more controlled environment.

“For example, when teaching HVAC electrical aspects, we can use VR as an intermediate step. The student can move from the classroom to VR before moving to energized equipment,” explains Raymond Granderson, lead instructor at Johnson Controls. “This intermediate step allows a student to gain experience in a safe environment.”

Interplay’s simulation technology also allows the company to train its HVAC techs on heat pumps with heating mode issues that are nearly impossible to replicate in a normal lab.

“For example, frosting an outdoor coil can be easily accomplished in VR. This allows the student to develop familiarity and proficiency,” Granderson says. “Currently, we are using VR to enhance the technician/student experience. VR allows us to do things that can’t otherwise be accomplished, and we are beginning to offer ‘challenge’ situations for the student.”

As much as the virtual world is becoming an integral part of HVAC tech training, there is still a need for real, live instructors to inform the curriculum.

“Instructor lead training is always the best,” says Granderson. “Instructors provide basic theory either in person or through an online session. The student then moves to VR or a lab. In a VR setting the software will guide the student and provide feedback.” Then the real world awaits.       

This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.