Virtual reality simulation made for better baristas in a recent experiment

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 13, 2018
VR barista training
Credit: photo by RyanJLane via getty images

For most of us, acquiring an espresso requires little more than paying a barista or pushing a button. But using a real-deal espresso maker is no easy feat. To the engineers at Google, that makes it an ideal task for testing the efficacy of virtual reality when it comes to learning new skills.

In a recent experiment, Google’s Daydream Labs team built an interactive 3D model of an espresso maker in VR complete with coffee beans, buttons, hot steam, and everything else one would encounter when pulling a shot. The participants were tasked with properly pouring a real-world espresso based on their trial run in virtual reality, and their performance was compared to a separate group whose training consisted of YouTube tutorials.

As you might expect, the “hands-on” training proved helpful: people with access to the VR headset-based training program felt confident enough in their espresso expertise after just two trial runs, whereas the average YouTuber needed three views before giving the real thing a go. In the live testing environment, the VR group also made their espresso with fewer mistakes and in a shorter amount of time.

The process was not without its flaws, however. On-screen warnings weren’t stern enough to condition some users to avoid the hot steam nozzles while performing the real task, requiring occasional chaperone intervention to avoid burns. And according to taste testers, the work of both group left much to be desired.

Overall, though, Google software engineer Ian MacGillivray was impressed with the results. “People learned something new in VR and enjoyed the process,” he said, adding that “some of them even came back to use the espresso trainer again.” Though there’s still a ways to go with this kind of technology, it’s encouraging to know that some of Google’s best minds are hard at work leading us into a brighter, more caffeinated future.