Virtual reality saves wannabe prison officers from actually, you know, having to visit

All the sights, all the sounds, none of the smells

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Virtual reality, the technology that is forever an answer seeking a question, has found a new use in the UK: recruiting prison officers.

Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL), a joint venture between the UK Cabinet Office and French IT consultants Sopra Steria, carried away the 2018 prize for best HR and Learning and Development (L&D) supplier from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) awards this week after throwing VR at a thorny staff recruitment and retention problem.

Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke planned to lob 2,500 additional frontline staff at the UK prison system by 2018, having splurged £100m per year at the problem back in 2016.

One of the issues was that freshly minted officers were simply unprepared for working life within prison walls and would rapidly quit after a "short, sharp, shock" of reality, as CPID puts it.

Enter the HTC Vive and its immersive VR goggles. Developers created 360˚ VR tours of the prison being applied for, to give applicants a feel for the sights and sounds – but presumably not the smells – of the prison interiors.

The VR experience created by SSCL avoided the hassle of actually shipping bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants through the security hoops in order to get first-hand experience of their workplace. Instead, the "genuinely engaged and enthused jobseekers" could take a look around the prison and conduct simulated searches without leaving the recruitment office or, er, getting their hands dirty.

VR has found itself being used in the past as part of prisoner rehabilitation. But making it part of the recruitment process as a substitute for actually taking a trip around the building to avoid an unpleasant surprise is an unusual approach.

With VR games being noted for the odd jump scare, it will be interesting to see how much more authentic the experience could get without going full Shawshank. ®

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