Tech startups are developing VR programs for diversity and harassment training to increase empathy and reduce intolerance.

What’s it like to be a worker with a disability? What do you think it feels like to be the sole woman in a room full of male executives or the only person of color in the office? How about the victim of workplace bullying or harassment?

The ability to empathize with those who are different from you can help address unconscious bias, holding stereotypes that are so deeply ingrained you may not be aware you have them or act on them. They can lead to unintentional discriminatory comments or behavior, harassment, a general lack of professionalism, and even hostile work environments.

Now, a growing number of startups are developing virtual reality programs for companies to train their employees to better recognize unconscious bias. Immersed in a realistic situation, a person experiences what it feels like to be on the receiving end of intolerance. That triggers the empathy necessary to change negative behavior.

“It’s the missing piece of walking in someone’s shoes,” says Rhonda Brighton-Hall, CEO of mwah, a human resources company headquartered in Sydney, Australia, that has championed the use of VR in employee training.

For instance, if you put on a VR headset and clasp the hand controllers, you can immediately experience the world from the perspective of someone sitting in a wheelchair. In that virtual environment, everyone is suddenly two feet taller, and your peers don’t always make eye contact during a conversation. They will look over your head. And you’ll see everyone else at waist level. For anyone who isn’t disabled, it’ll feel awkward — and that’s the point.

“Your brain perceives VR to be real. You recall 90 percent of what you engage in versus 50 percent of what you read,” says Morgan Mercer, CEO of Vantage Point, based in Los Angeles.

Mercer founded Vantage Point in September 2017 with the goal of creating an educational program conducted in virtual reality that helps people both to identify sexual assault, harassment, and sexual assault stigma and to improve bystander intervention. With each week bringing new stories about women accusing prominent men of sexual crimes in the workplace, it’s clear that companies need to do more to deal with issues of workplace harassment.

But even though the issue is receiving much needed attention lately, it’s certainly not a new problem. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled more than 11,300 sexual harassment charges in 2011(the most recent available year for data). Of those, 26 percent were decided in favor of complainants, requiring employers to pay out a total $52.3 million in victim settlements.

For businesses that give diversity and inclusion top priority, the payoffs can be big. Studies have shown that diversity training increases morale, reduces workplace harassment, and improves recruitment and retention. It also impacts a business’s bottom line. When more women are a part of a company, profits grow. A 2016 report from the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that advancing women’s equality around the world could add $12 trillion worth of growth to the global economy by 2025.

Mercer’s company is currently filming new scenarios specifically aimed at curtailing sexual harassment in the office. Various situations — played out with real actors — contain a range of actions representing subtle forms of harassment as well as more overt examples. The user will see the situations and then be coached to respond. Because it’s filmed in a 360-degree setting, the situations will have a lifelike appearance and the user will be able to look around the room, as if he or she were in a workspace.

Equal Reality, based in Brisbane, Australia, is using advances in technology to curb bad worker behavior. It was founded by Annie Harper, a 3-D artist and software engineer, who worked in both Silicon Valley’s and Colorado’s tech sectors, where she encountered unconscious bias on a regular basis. She and her team are working with mwah and other partners to create computer-generated situations that are customized to clients’ specific needs. Training modules will help companies train employees on sexual harassment and bullying, gender diversity, disability inclusion, and cultural inclusion.

In May 2017, Equal Reality launched a beta version of its VR interactive diversity and inclusion training module on HTC’s Viveport, an online marketplace for virtual reality software. The company is still in the early stages of developing its modules, says Harper, but she envisions virtual scenarios with narrative threads that branch in different directions based on how the user interacts with the content.

That would allow a person to go through the same scenario multiple times, exploring the situation from the point of view of the subject being harassed or excluded as well as from the perspective of a bystander witnessing a derogatory conversation and stopping it. “If you can give someone the experience of being the interrupter, you can make that person more inclined to do that in the future in real life,” says Harper.

VR allows developers to add a range of components, such as eye-tracking tech and body sensors capable of collecting data, including where a person looked or whether they felt stressed or relaxed during the scenario. Both Equal Reality and Vantage Point want to provide users with feedback about how they performed and how their responses compared to the group’s responses. Afterward, employees can discuss the experience with leaders or in a group.

The ability to collect real-time data is a major strength of virtual reality, says VR expert Todd Maddox, a neuroscientist and a contributing analyst with Amalgam Insights in Austin, Texas. Developers can quantify responses and immediately provide the constructive criticism that people need to improve. But it’s a challenge. Unless the situations are rooted in learning theory, the data interpretation could be meaningless, he says.

“Most people don’t understand the brain basis of learning. They don’t understand the principles of learning, and so they’re not incorporating that into VR. They’re relying on the wow factor,” says Maddox. Developers need to optimize the VR experiences so they include a broad set of scenarios, which allows them to generalize and transfer their learning to new contexts, he says.

Both Mercer and Harper say they are working with scientists and human resources experts to understand the problems and behavioral patterns around diversity and inclusion. Harper’s team wants to create templates with modular elements that will allow companies or consultants to customize the content. For instance, a virtual situation for a venture capital firm might focus on office power dynamics, she says, whereas the scenario for a military organization might deal more with issues of consent.

Mercer says the Vantage Point experience will contain branching narratives that focus on the subtler behaviors that may lead to a negative event. At varying points in the narrative, the program will interrupt the scene and ask the user what he or she would do next. The person’s answer will inform the next scenario and, ultimately, the result.

VR taps into the part of the brain that creates empathy, says Brighton-Hall, the HR executive. By participating in exercises, employees begin to understand the perspective of others, can then be coached to recognize their biases, potentially unlearn stereotypes, and better deal with similar situations in the real world, too. “The idea of having virtual reality in diversity training is one of those things where we’ve always said, ‘If we get that right, that changes everything.’ ”

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