How MJ Electric Has Implemented Virtual Reality Into Their Training Program
How MJ Electric Has Implemented Virtual Reality Into Their Training Program
Join us for Episode 1 of the PIXO Podcast. In this episode, we are joined by Matthew Grayum of MJ Electric. Matthew discusses MJ Electric’s journey to get started with virtual reality, and the many successes and struggles they have encountered so far.
We discussed Matt’s transition into his new role at MJ Electric and how he inherited the VR training program, and what it was like before he took over. Furthermore, we asked Matt about how the employee’s are reacting to this new style of training, and what types of ROI MJ Electric is experiencing because of this new training method.
There are always challenges when new programs are implemented, but Matt describes how they are overcoming those, in order to provide the most efficient training they possibly can.
Finally, we took a look at what he thinks the future of VR looks like for MJ Electric, and Matt provides tips to new companies looking to implement VR training and be success with it.
MJ Electric’s start with VR: 1:10-3:17
How they are using the VR training: 3:17-4:50
Challenges of implementing VR training and how to overcome those: 4:50-10:10
Off the shelf vs. custom content: 10:10-12:42
Looking into the future of VR and how employees are reacting to the new training style: 12:42-21:11
ROI of VR training: 21:11-23:39
Insight for companies looking to implement VR training: 23:39-29:07
About the Guest:
For over 60 years, M. J. Electric has built long-standing working relationships and an industry-wide reputation as the single source solution to our customer’s construction and maintenance needs.
Matt has been with the company for 13 years, where he started off in the warehouse helping with inventory for projects that were being built. Within the last year and a half, he has taken on a new role, Innovation Coordinator, at MJ Electric, where he is now the main person implementing VR training. The goal he is trying to accomplish with VR training is to be able to recreate incidents and be able to train in those situations, safely and efficiently.
Matt Grayum: MJ Electric, we’re an electrical utility contractor. We have our foot in our hand in a lot of different pots, everything from drilling to renewables to substation work to overhead work, electrical utility, we do a little bit of everything. I have been with the company about 13 years and I started out in a position counting nuts and bolts, to put it most simply, for projects that were getting built and I found myself now working in the corporate safety world for as a whole, which I have a new title. It’s called Innovation Coordinator. And so I’m sure that’s going to come up a little bit with the conversation we’re going to have today. I dabble a little bit in VR learning and a lot of different things that we’re trying to enhance in the world of where we’re coming from, electrical construction.
Christopher Cousineau: 100%. Thank you so much, Matt, for that intro. I’m very excited to sit down and talk with you today. Now in our pre-show, just kind of talking back and forth, you mentioned that you kind of took over this VR initiative for MJ Electric. How long ago did that start and did you have any experiences with VR before you took over this new project at MJ Electric?
Matt Grayum: Ooh, so did I, I’m going to go to the end question first. Did I have any experience of virtual reality? The answer is no, although very interested. Just my personality lends me to be interested in innovation, which is how I kind of am where I am today. Understanding new opportunities, how to use them, especially in the workforce, and that’s, that’s been a true opportunity here as well. Now I took my new role, innovation coordinator. I had some, you know, I would work alongside some of the management here to say, hey, I have a graphic design background a little bit. So 3D modeling, animation, a little bit of that, I’ve messed around with and I was able to say, hey, like we can kind of do what we call, and I’m from the safety department specifically, but ‘incident recreations’, being able to look at how incidents unfolded, model them, animate them and say, like here’s what it looked like when it happened, right? And then as we’re doing that, we’re like, man, like if we could actually create it so that people could put on a headset or be in an environment that they’ve never been before, but they can live it out or act it or learn from it. That would be a true win. And so one of my co-worker partners, he’s actually the director of safety here at MJ Electric, Steve Kopp, started the initiative of virtual reality. We initially bought, and this was prior to my new role, five Quest 2 headsets, five of them, and dabbled around opportunities there. We found PIXO, we found other opportunities for other virtual simulations, and that was the start. And then it went okay, purchased another five, so now we have ten headsets, and we’re interested in how to use them more, but that’s currently the… that’s where we’re at with it right now.
Christopher Cousineau: Perfect, that makes a ton of sense. And that kind of leads into one of my next questions, with purchasing the five more headsets, so now you are currently up to 10. How does the 10 headsets work for the amount of people you’re training?
Matt Grayum: So, I feel like we’re really unique and I’m sure others listening are going to say, yeah, we’re really unique like everybody, right? Like ‘I’m unique like everybody else’. That’s a funny saying, but we have approximately 2,000 employees. Now, that is incorporated all the way down to the guys turning the nuts and bolts all the way up to the management, but 2,000… 10 headsets. So you can already see that’s a major difference in workforce to how many we have. So how does that work? Right now it’s an I’ll say ‘on demand’. So if a work location says, hey, we’re gonna be doing X, Y, Z type of work here in the coming months or weeks, Matt, I know that you have provided or the opportunity for specific virtual reality training and we have a small catalog, again, offered through PIXO here. And we’re able to say, yeah, we can fly out, we’ll bring those 10 headsets. And at a work location, maybe we only have 20, 30, 40, 50 people on that work site and we’re able to do a cycle through. Hey, 10 people come into the room, we’ll walk you through the simulation and while the others are receiving other training and we’ll just kind of cycle it like that. So right now it’s working, it’s an on demand thing, it’s not a full workforce, hey, everybody sit down with 2,000 headsets, let’s do it together. So it’s not happening like that.
Christopher Cousineau: Exactly. Exactly, that makes sense. In addition to maybe limited headsets to the total number of people that you are trying to train at any given time or location, what are some of the other challenges of implementing virtual reality training that you have specifically came across?
Matt Grayum: Ooh, challenges of implementation. There’s definitely, there’s a couple different buckets for there. So the challenge is one coming up with what is your strategic purpose for virtual reality? If we discovered, if you don’t have a strategic reason for it, it’s the, hey, VR’s flashy, it’s cool, it sounds great, I’m bought in, but if you don’t have the strategic goal in mind, ‘why’, it’s hard to really, it’s hard to get it going because you’re just like, this is great, but we’re not really pushing it because we’re not sure, you know, we’re doing other things. So I think that’s one thing. You’ve got to have the goal in mind and that’s something we’re still currently working on. I mean, the big goal, big target is that we want people to be able to learn through, we have hazardous work environments. We want them to learn without that actual hazard being placed on them. The cost of doing some of these simulations in the real world would be astronomical, but inside of virtual reality, it’s totally cost efficient. So like we get the big picture, but sometimes getting it implemented with what is our actual goal in a more specific manner. And like I said, we’re still working on that too. Is this something we’re going to require? That’s another question, right? So that’s some of the hurdles we’ve come up against. Are we going to require this training? And if so, for what training and who? So it’s the questions of, this is a great product. It’s a great opportunity, but what are the actual must-haves to make this happen, and that’s what we’re still working through.
Christopher Cousineau: Definitely, that’s something we 100% hear a lot on the PIXO side and you would hit the nail on the head of VR is this cool new flashy technology that on paper sounds great in a work environment. And it really is because like you said, it can cut down costs and the main thing for those hazardous work environments, you don’t have employees specifically going through them in real life, but you still can create that virtual environment where they are getting the training that they need to be. So it is finding that balance of this is cool, this is flashy, but how do we implement it? And how are we going to make this the best that it can be? Have you implemented anything to kind of maybe get some buy-in from people who are a little skeptical on virtual reality or any other things that you’ve done to make virtual reality training successful thus far?
Matt Grayum: What you may find interesting is there’s not that many skeptics, and maybe it’s partially Steve Kopp and myself here at MJ that, we’re able to communicate the benefits of it pretty strongly. And I think most of the buy-in is there again of ‘yes, this sounds fantastic’ and great support from the top down. Our Vice President of Safety, David Houlel here at MJ Electric, very supportive of this. In fact, we have a lot of partner companies. We’re in an umbrella underneath a company called Quanta Services. My understanding is they’re the largest utility contractor provider in the United States. We are one of them. So we have a lot of partner companies who are interested in what MJ is doing. And so we’re looking at it. But so the buy-in wasn’t a hard thing for us, but the implementation, I’ll go back to that again. So, everything from how does this actually look? Again, I’ll say it, at the workplace, we bring it in the 10 headsets, is the river getting pinched down too tight where people are getting frustrated with the accessibility? And what I mean by that is, the very simple, people do this all the time, whether it’s an app or a website or just getting a sale, you want that to be as wide open as possible. And I think some of the struggle we’re having right now is with our unique situation, 2,000 employees, 10 headsets. And often we’re using employees who are not even fully on board yet. They’re new hires. And so they don’t have logins and usernames and all these things. And so what we would like to see is a little bit easier access for those employees. So meaning, we’re not here necessarily to track through a website their training database, right? Learning management. We want them to get the training and we’ll track it in our own process of tracking training. But what we’re discovering right now, a little bit of our struggle, and this could be very practical to just us and maybe everyone else isn’t in the same boat. So, I’m just going to make it real simple. We have this guy standing in front of me and now I need to get him into the virtual reality training. But what username do we use? What password? And now with these 10 headsets, we do that for 10 of them and they leave the room. We have 10 new people walk in the room. We got to re-log everybody back in, get everybody through that process. It’s, as I said, the river’s getting pinched down and it creates frustration. So I’m just thinking: ease, access, right? So for us, it’d be nice if it was as simple as just tapping an app on a screen and away we go, but that’s, that’s one of our struggles.
Christopher Cousineau: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Um, from a content standpoint, are you guys using just the off the shelf PIXO modules that we have? Or if you guys created any custom content for your specific trainings or any of these specific hazards that you guys would come about in the field?
Matt Grayum: That’s a good question. So obviously we get excited when we think about all the opportunities with virtual reality, one of the opportunities being we could look into custom content. A few things to consider there are obviously price and the ability to spend the time working with developers to create the content. So it’s both time and money. We have reached out, we have talked, we’ve had meetings, we’ve had some start working with us to develop. We do have great custom ideas in mind. Very specific applications for our industry that are not cookie cutter off the shelf. PIXOl does a great job. A lot of their content is very diverse, but sometimes it gets down to, hey, we’re not working in an electrical panel on the wall in a house. We’re working on, you know, transformers on the top of a transmission line or distribution pole, and it’s very specific to the way that they do that task. And so some of the crossover is there, but we’re finding that, yes, looking into the option of creating custom content is fantastic. We have not completed one yet, so we aren’t there, but we are very excited about being able to do that going forward. But in the meantime, we’re using off the shelf from PIXO, and we found quite a few that actually work for us.
Christopher Cousineau: Great, I agree with everything you said. Off the shelf can be a great starting point. And it doesn’t seem like it is in your instance really, but in other instances, it could be where you do have skeptics of virtual reality. Maybe in some of the warehouses where some people are old school and they don’t wanna try new technology. Starting with off the shelf can be a very easy thing to do to get people excited about virtual reality and get the basics down. But then once you do have specific use cases for it, creating custom content is great. But then it does all come back down to that ROI. You want to make sure your ROI of what you’re doing is obviously going to outweigh traditional training and with VR that can happen and I believe that it will happen.
Matt Grayum: Yeah, absolutely. And I just say like everything from who can’t, who doesn’t benefit from using, you know, first aid virtual training, how to be first aid trained and it doesn’t certify you, but it gives you this real life. Hey, if this happened, I feel like I’ve gone through this process before. Things of that nature. I mean, it’s fantastic. Absolutely.
Christopher Cousineau: I agree. Looking into the future a little bit, and you being in this role for a little bit now, where do you see the future of VR going for MJ Electric? Or where do you hope it’s gonna go?
Matt Grayum: Man, yeah, I mean, the future of technology is going somewhere that we’re not aware of yet. I was in a car yesterday, a rental vehicle that pretty much drove itself, right? I mean, it tells you, it yells at you to keep your hands on the steering wheel as we should, but it’ll keep you on the path and driving. Technology is advancing faster than we’re going to be ready for. So virtual reality as we know it now is going to be different. And so if I’m thinking big picture. One day, you got to work with me. I’m a visionary. We have our guys walk into a large warehouse room that’s empty, and now they feel like they’re out in the workforce, and they can see the transmission lines, and they just, your brain learns from that way. That I could see being very big benefit. The headsets right now limit a little bit, but I know we’re not far from where I’m talking about. But the headsets right now, the way I see it, I don’t think we’re going to ramp up. I don’t think we’re going to purchase, you know, a hundred of these. I don’t think we’re going to do that. I see it being case-by-case. In the future here, it may be just around the corner for us, where we do require specific virtual reality learning modules / simulations for specific trainings. I think we’re pretty close to that, where if we have an all day training, where a specific group out of these 2,000, right, we have 50 people who have to go through this specific training. We will use one, two, or three of these virtual reality simulations as supplement to the training that they’re receiving. So if we’re talking about, again, in our case scenario, confined space, working in confined spaces, the hazards associated with that, and then we’re able to say, now let’s step over and let’s actually let you get some experience, you know, virtual reality experience with this. It creates that spatial awareness, that memory of maybe they’ve done it before, which is beneficial going forward. So I see it being used in that case. Currently, like I said, it’s on demand. So it’s, hey, we’re doing this specific, can you come out and provide this supplement? And we say yes. But we would like to see in the future here right around the corner, whoever does this XYZ training will be required to do the virtual reality supplement. So I think that’s where we’re going with it right now.
Christopher Cousineau: Yeah, what has been the kind of response from the trainees so far going through virtual reality training? Have they enjoyed it?
Matt Grayum: Okay, the short answer is 95% of them, yes. Our workforce is diverse, right? So we have everyone from just out of even high school or college, 18 year olds, all the way up to 60 plus year olds, right? And they’re like, man, I’m not good with, you know, video games. That’s sometimes what you’ll hear. I go, I know the sentiment. I say this isn’t a video game, but I understand where you’re coming from. And so sometimes it makes them nervous or overwhelmed. But what I’ve discovered is that’s usually the first use case I hate to say it but even my parents after one or two times now they feel like it’s old hat. They can accomplish it without any difficulty. And quite frankly It was like learning the computer the first time moving the keyboard and the mouse, the cursor and the keyboard And then adding like the scroll wheel on the mouse. I mean new things it takes a little bit of time, but really quick. You’re on board of this. So sometimes it’s because it’s so new That we get that response but generally, their response is, wow, I can see how this would be beneficial beyond what we just experienced today. I have people come up to me and say, hey, what if I was operating a skid steer, right? It was a new model to me, and I wasn’t familiar with it. Is there an opportunity to be able to put on a virtual reality headset and actually experience that new model in VR? The answer is yes. Those types of things where it’s not regular work practice for them, but they can experience it in a practice scenario before getting out into the real world, the benefits are so many that we see that it’s worth continuing down this road. Like I said, 95% are like, this is fantastic. That small percent is the generation that just isn’t fully bought in. They like the idea, but they’re not comfortable with it.
Christopher Cousineau: Yeah, I agree with that. What’s the saying that uh, technology doubles every five years? I think it is something like that. Doubling could even be an understatement where we’re being honest.
Matt Grayum: Yeah, I don’t feel like we can fathom doubling to be honest. I mean, people have probably heard recently about this whole chat GPT and then they roll out this next version, which is like, and now we’re getting off track, but the next version, which they said is like a million times more powerful. And you’re like, can we even fathom that? So virtual reality, I really believe it’s in its infancy and the people who are experiencing it right now say this is better than they remembered it from five years ago and astronomical advances. So you can just believe that it’s going to be. That river I talked about that’s getting pinched down, I believe that’s going to be opening up. It’s just going to be way more easy to access, and the frustrations of different things that are required right now will be removed. And so I do see that this journey towards VR is something that MJ is going to continue on for a long time.
Christopher Cousineau: And it’s just that part of becoming early adopters. And I’m only 24, so I haven’t early adopted a ton of things in my life. But it’s like when a new iPhone comes out or a new gaming system, the first people who buy it, it’s a struggle, especially if you haven’t had one before. So you have to learn about it. But it is that being an early adopter and certain companies and certain people really enjoy that.
Matt Grayum: How about before the internet? Do you remember before there was internet, Christopher? Okay, and I heard once that techno, yeah, go ahead.
Christopher Cousineau: I do not. I was gonna say the only thing that was like caveman, quote unquote, to me was printing off MapQuest for my father. Cause now I’m just like, oh, we’ll just type it in Google Maps and it’ll tell me where to go. But when my dad was like, we need to go here, go print out the MapQuest.
Matt Grayum: Yeah, and the saying that I heard was technology is only new if you don’t remember what it was like before it. And so for so many, like even my children, FaceTime on an iPhone, right, they do not remember anything before that, whereas to me I’m like, isn’t this great? Like we can talk to people in video and they’re like, that’s how it’s always been. So technology, virtual reality, people can kind of get, I don’t want to say scared or overwhelmed by the thought of it. But it’s worth, it’s worth stepping in. Getting your toe in the water at the very least because you’re going to advance to a place where you’re going to be in a better spot in the long run.
Christopher Cousineau: Yeah, and like you’ve said, just the technology is gonna be getting so much better and it’s going to get to that end goal of just a seamless user experience. It’s gonna be like playing a video game, just a seamless experience for the end user. And when I first used a virtual reality, it was like 2016, freshman year of college, just playing your typical Beat Saber. And that was, you were connected to a gaming PC and all this jazz with the VR. And I was like, this is crazy then. But then when I started at PIXO, a year ago, I really didn’t even know that virtual reality could be used in an enterprise standpoint. But after learning that virtual reality can be used for enterprise and for workforce training, that blew my mind. And I was like, wow, this makes so much sense. And it just creates all these solutions for traditional training problems.
Matt Grayum: Absolutely. Yeah. And to your point, yeah, you used to have to be hooked up with wires and headsets dangling all over the place. And now it’s all self-contained. Some people aren’t even aware of that. And being able to self-contain a headset right on top of your head and being able to free motion. In fact, if you have the space for it, I mean, we’ve experienced this with PIXO. Some of the trainings are fantastic like this. If you have the space for it, even a 10 foot by 10 foot area, you can free roam around. You can walk around in these simulations and interact freely in that way. Some are more like a video game or use a joystick and move around, but the ones where you’re actually walking, your brain, and some are weirded out by this, but your brain starts to make you believe that you’ve experienced this in a lot of ways, especially in the safety industry that I am, that is extremely beneficial. Not that we’re tricking people, but that we can give them that experience again to use going forward.
Christopher Cousineau: Speaking of the benefits, have you seen any specific ROI or use cases where VR is a better solution to train than traditional classroom training?
Matt Grayum: I will just simply say we couldn’t have done some of this training without spending astronomical amounts of money. I don’t even know the dollar amount for sure off the top of my head, but again, if we go to confined space entry training, I’ll bring that up again, to have 40 guys go through one at a time climbing down in a manhole and attempting to do all the proper procedures related to that, times 40 guys. What we accomplished in an hour or two. We did that in an hour or two, that would have taken us well into a full day or longer. And so the cost even just of the man hours and then the facility to set it up and to run through it, I mean just the costs alone of these simulations, even one time in my opinion is a return on investment. So it’s on the front end, it’s worth it. I think we could track it better and we could probably determine, hey, are we having less incidents because of this training? We’re not there yet. We’re still pretty new into it. But just the cost alone of the man hours to accomplish these is worth it.
Christopher Cousineau: Yeah, and that’s that’s great. Getting to that scalability and really nailing down in that ROI of cost, and then time to train is also the biggest one. And then just affect effectiveness of the training. So like you said, with the confined spaces all the time to actually send the people down there, but then also in VR, you can then have the scenario randomization where stuff does does go wrong and you may not want stuff to actually go wrong in real life and put your trainees in danger. Or if you are able to do that, it just costs a ton of money.
Matt Grayum: Exactly. I am aware of our parent company, Quanta. They designed and built a huge (and I don’t know the price, if I had to guess, millions) facility so that workers could work in a controlled, energized environment where they can create all different scenarios. That’s real world. If virtual reality was where it’s at, maybe back then they wouldn’t have done that. They might have invested more in the virtual reality. And I think that we’re going to get to that place. The ability to change things and as you said randomize and create very custom unique scenarios is going to be what it’s all about.
Christopher Cousineau: I agree. I appreciate all your insight thus far. This has been an amazing conversation. Is there any advice you can give to people just starting out with VR or companies that are looking to implement VR into their training programs?
Matt Grayum: Well, I am not the expert, but I will say that I kind of went to this early on. Think about what your goals are. Think about how you can achieve that goal using virtual reality. If you’re so new to it, I think it just means, I would say, honestly, reach out to PIXO. And I’m not getting paid to say that. This is not an advertisement, but it’s been very helpful to us. Reach out, say, hey, you’re the expert. What headset should I use? Is Quest the best for us? That’s what we started with, right? That was best for us, but as we’re going, we’re going, man, there’s better. Maybe we should have invested in other ways. So reach out to somebody who’s professional in this and a PIXO would be a great start. Um, what headsets, maybe they’ll even let you try something. Hey, reach out. You might be able to try some headsets out. And then, um, from there, just I would say again, talk it out and see what opportunities are there for you. Try out some of these simulations. I would say experience it yourself. Put yourself through some of these simulations and if you do not experience the benefit for yourself then you probably don’t want to move forward for the company. But if you do, and I would imagine that you would, that’s something that you’re going to be able to use as a real life scenario to promote it to those who need to be influenced.
Christopher Cousineau: And like I said before, and I’ve thought about this a lot, and this is kind of a weird saying to say, because I don’t have kids, but it just kind of hits home. It’s like, the virtual reality that you would use for enterprise isn’t the virtual reality that your kid got for Christmas. It’s totally different, and like you said, put yourself through it, and hopefully you will see the value of it. And everything that we’ve talked about in this podcast, you will see the value of how VR can help your training. And we’ve also said that technology is just going so far. Virtual reality headsets are gonna get more streamlined, smaller, easier. So if you don’t become an early adopter, you risk falling behind the competition.
Matt Grayum: Yeah, and I think to your point (and I do have kids in the VR that my kids play with is quite bit different than what we’re doing, as you mentioned at the enterprise learning training level), but I just imagine if we, you know, I’m not going to ask people to close their eyes here, but like if we’re sitting at a desk and you can look down at your desk in our world of construction, the utility construction, especially I’m thinking the overhead utility, I can imagine having on a headset, looking at my desk and Chris, you’re sitting on the other side of the desk from me. And I actually see you, Chris. Like not a character made up, you’re there. But then we can look at the transmission line, an electrical utility transmission line that’s sitting on the desk in front of me in a scaled down model. And before I perform the work on this, I can actually take a look at it. I can actually move my head in. I can look at it from different angles. I can draw a circle on this transmission line in a 3D world. And Chris, you can look at it from your perspective and say, ooh, I think over here. And we can make notes about the work. We can create the simulation then with that to say, hey, now we want our workers to actually do this work in a virtual reality simulation that we just looked at in a scaled down model, but we want them to actually have the simulation in a full scale. So now they’re gonna interact with it as if they were doing the work. And I think anybody who’s listening to this, either they’re saying, Matt, you’re so far gone. You’re too futurist for me, which some of, I know you’re nodding your heads right now, everybody. But at the same time, I think there’s others that are going, that sounds extremely cool, but how do I do that here? And all I would say is this is to Chris’s point, it’s going to get to that. Actually, it’s there. It’s just not fully accessible yet to everybody at an easy level. But so if you get in now, as he’s saying, an early adopter, I feel like that’s going to be a benefit to everybody. It’s going to push it all along further. And it’s not a large cost to even get in at this entry level.
Christopher Cousineau: I love the point you made about, I’m sitting here, or I’m in the field in wherever, and you are there, and we wanna look at this transmitter together. You think of the ROI, the cost of one headset that would be needed for me to see what you’re seeing is canceled out by potentially one plane ticket for me actually coming there. And that is a one to one ratio right there of why that one virtual reality headset would then pay for itself.
Matt Grayum: You will never replace the in-person physical proximity to a real person. However, not everything needs that. Not everything requires that to accomplish what you need to accomplish. So, you’ll still play that, I don’t wanna say game, but that, like we keep talking about ROI. You’ll say, is this one of those times where we could accomplish the same thing through virtual reality and not need that actual physical proximity? Or do we need to be in person? But either way, the benefits are there, and I agree with you fully. It’s an opportunity for sure. To save money and to have fun.
Christopher Cousineau: Exactly. Well, I appreciate all your time today, Matt, and I really appreciate you being a guest on the PIXO podcast. And I hope everybody listening enjoyed our episode. If you guys did, please feel free to give us a five-star review on whatever platform you are listening. And if you, or if you think a colleague or a friend or a family member would enjoy this podcast, please feel free to pass along to them. We hope you guys have a great rest of your day, and thank you again, Matt, for sitting down with us.
Matt Grayum: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.