We work in XR because we believe it has the capacity to change the world. Frankly, it’s already gotten started. Join us for another Reality Check, where we take a moment to consolidate the most recent and important stories in the world of XR.
Earlier this month, 22 lives were claimed in a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, TX. The shooting is the 7th deadliest American mass shooting since 1949 and was categorized as an act of domestic terrorism (and possibly a hate crime) by the FBI. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon says that VR training was crucial in saving lives during the shooting.
About a year ago, Walmart distributed over 17,000 headsets to locations across the country as a part of the Walmart Academy experience, which covers topics such as customer service, store technology, and safety. It has been largely well received — employees report boosted confidence and test scores have been boosted by 10-15% — because of its ability to let them gain practice for scenarios that would be difficult-to-impossible to simulate in real life.
“I’ve done [the training] myself,” said McMillon. “And there’s something about doing that through VR that helps you, in some ways, live the experience and understand the steps that you need to take in an active shooter situation.” Discussing how to navigate an emergency situation can’t come close to the experience of doing so in a virtual environment that mimics the store’s layout, lighting, and color scheme. It was this training experience, according to McMillan, that allowed the Walmart management team to engage associates into the safety procedures, saving critical seconds during the active shooting and ultimately saving lives.
In late July, a congressional bill was submitted in hopes of establishing a committee to oversee the implementation of immersive technologies in federal training. The bill, entitled “The 2019 Virtual Reality Technologies Enabling Coaching and Honing Skills (VR TECHS) in Government Act,” is championed by introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., recognizes the inevitability and undeniable power of XR training.
“Our federal workforce is helping people across the US in various facets,” said Sarah Sinovic, a spokesperson for Representative Clarke. She added that employees should “have the best skills and training. Virtual reality is a great way to allow our federal workforce to have that.”
The advisory committee would be made up of members from Congress, other federal agencies, and experts from the private sector to establish budgets, legislation, and best practices regarding effective training for federal employees. The initial idea for the committee was apparently in response to a firefighter who was undertrained and died on the job. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if VR’s ability to train employees about safety procedures in realistic, impactful ways would be highlighted as a major benefit of implementing federal VR training.
A former Google employee made waves when, upon leaving the company, he released an open letter describing his 5-year experience as a black employee at the company, called “The Burden of Being Black at Google.” The letter is direct, specific, and uncompromising. It centers around national moments of police brutality, Google’s potentially hollow commitment to D&I, and 3 ways the author believes Google could demonstrate its commitment to D&I and improve its office culture and the experience of its employees.
The letter is powerful (and relatively short), so we recommend reading it yourself. We’d like to take some time to highlight one of his recommendations, however: using VR to upgrade their D&I training efforts. “If Google wants to expand its 10X thinking to its diversity and inclusion efforts, it should find innovative ways to help employees understand the diverse experiences of their co-workers,” he writes. “Companies like Praxis Labs are using virtual reality to help employees take the perspectives of people different than themselves, build empathy and bust their biases. As a leader in virtual reality, Google should be the first to understand the power of using VR to transform diversity training — and be amongst the first companies to bring it to their workforce.”
National dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion is at an all-time high, and as it bleeds into the workforce, intervention is necessary. While an inequitable, potentially damaging work environment is far from good news, it’s affirming to hear VR brought up in the conversation of how we can overhaul — or at least complement — existing approaches to D&I, because of its unique ability to provide perspective and generate empathy. We have our ears out for if and how Google responds to the open letter, and continue to encourage organizations to investigate VR as a solution to workplace D&I.
We’re in the early years of VR, which means that hard data regarding the technology is always exciting, especially when it confirms our experiences in the medium. That’s why we found it particularly exciting when, last month, a study used VR in an experiment regarding learning, behavior change, and empathy.
In July, researchers at the University of Barcelona published a study about whether VR could be a tool to overcome “Solomon’s Paradox,” which is a reference to King Solomon, who was celebrated for his wise advice for others but often foolish when it came to his own life. “We are usually much better in giving advice to a friend in trouble than we are to ourselves,” the study begins, and researchers identified VR as an effective way to demonstrate whether virtual body swapping — giving advice to a virtual version of oneself — could be a way to overcome this paradox.
The experiment: After signing waivers and granting consent, all participants worked with a clinical psychologist to identify a problem in their life causing mid-level stress and distilling it down to one sentence and taking an assessment to measure their psychological state and body ownership. The researchers separated participants into two groups, both of which experienced a VR counseling session with an avatar of Sigmund Freud based on that single sentence. The first group’s VR counseling was scripted: they stated their sentence to the Freud avatar, which responded based on scripted responses written by the researchers, and the user responded (totaling 5 exchanges back and forth). The second group tested self-counseling: users enter an identical room and state their concern, but rather than receiving scripted feedback, they press a button on the VR remote and switch perspectives, occupying the position of the Freud character and watching a virtual version of themselves stating that very same sentence. Without any outside assistance, they respond to their avatar’s sentence with earnest advice before body-swapping again and hearing their own advice in a distorted voice to maintain a self-dialogue (between two different people) for 5 exchanges. Researchers administered a psychological assessment immediately after the VR experience and 1 week after the experience in order to measure the difference virtual counseling and virtual self-counseling have on the psyche.
In broad strokes, the research proved that self-counseling had a significant positive effect on users. Out of the 29 participants who engaged in the scripted experience, 48% of users saw a noticeable positive change in their assessment after the VR program compared to a whopping 86% improvement rate for the 29 users who engaged in self-counseling. Since VR is a relatively nascent technology, firm data from well designed studies is a critical tool to support the hype surrounding VR. This study is particularly special because it highlights the unique, empathy-driven capabilities of VR: where else could users instantaneously swap bodies to engage in a two-way dialogue without any other participants to investigate Solomon’s Paradox in a scientifically sound way?