Creating Virtual Scenarios to Train Soft Skills in XR, with Friends With Holograms’ Cortney Harding

Upskilling things like floor management or assembly time, that’s easy in XR. But soft skills, like understanding and empathy? A bit more challenging — but importantly, not impossible. Cortney Harding talks with Alan about how emerging tech, like VR and 360 video, can help us all be a little kinder to one another.

Alan: Hey, everyone, Alan Smithson here. Today, we’re speaking with Cortney Harding, founder and CEO of Friends with Holograms, about their full service VR and AR agency, that focuses on soft skills training and best practices for creating powerful content that delivers results. All that and more on the XR for Business Podcast.Welcome to the show, Cortney.

Cortney: Oh, thanks for having me.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’m so excited to have you on the show. You guys have done some incredible things and you’ve been a pioneer in this industry for quite some time. But I’ll let you talk to everybody about how you got into this and where you are now and where you’re going.

Cortney: Yeah, great. So I got into VR about almost five years ago now, which is crazy to think about. I have a background in the music business and specifically I was a journalist.I wrote for Billboard. I was an editor there for quite a while. I then went into the music tech space right around the time Spotify launched in the US. It was a great music and tech ecosystem.

Alan: You and I have a very similar background.

Cortney: Oh, funny.

Alan: I was a DJ for 20 years and then created the Emulator, the DJ touchscreen.

Cortney: Oh, cool.

Alan: Yeah. And then I got into VR. I was like, “What?” Go on. I didn’t mean to cut you off. I was like, “Wow, this is great.”

Cortney: No, it’s great. Yeah. So anyway, so I did music tech stuff for several years. I was– I lead business development, and strategy, and partnerships for a couple different startups. And then I saw this VR piece at an art museum about five years ago, and it really broke something open for me. And I was fascinated by it. So I spent about a year — I was still on contract with a music tech company — and I was still writing at the time. So I wrote about VR, I learned about VR, I met a lot of people. And in 2016, at South by Southwest, I did a panel on music and virtual reality. And one of my other panelists was this guy, Kevin Cornish, who’s starting a VR production company, he’s a VR director. And he and I had a really nice conversation, we hit it off. And I joined his VR production company, leading business development strategy. I worked there for about a year and a half. I learned a tremendous amount. It was a very, very intense experience and a very gratifying one.And then I split off to do my own thing. And so Friends With Holograms has been around for about two years now, sort of in its current incarnation. And in those couple of years, we’ve done a lot of different projects, which I’m really proud of.

Sort of our our best known project is the Accenture Avenues Project. So we worked on that with Accenture. And the backstory behind that is pretty fascinating. So Accenture came to us, I believe, right about two years ago now, right when we’re first starting and said “We have this idea, we want to do this really amazing social work training project. And would you like to bid for it?” And we, of course, said yes. So we bid for it and we were awarded it in the spring of last year. And then everything kind of went quiet for a while. And we were working on some other projects. And I just kind of in the back of my head thought, “OK, it got cancelled or it got changed around or somebody left.” As a bunch of a bummer as it is, that stuff happens. And then in June of last year, I got a call from my contact at Accenture who said, “Oh, yeah, the project’s back on. Want to– let’s chat about it. Do you still want to do it?” And I said yes. And so I got on a call with her and she outlines the project, which is very ambitious and really groundbreaking and has an incredible mission, and a two and a half month turnaround. [chuckles] And I thought, “OK, here we go.”

Alan: Hurry up and wait.

[chuckles]

Cortney: Yeah. And I think that is the experience working with any big company. I think at this point.

Alan: Yep.

Cortney: But that was a really amazing project. So we dove in headfirst. We produced a 20 minute long voice-activated VR training piece for social workers. It is a branching narrative, so the bulk of the piece you’re asking questions of different family members. The question that you ask determines the answer that you get. So there’s all these different paths you can go down and there’s all these different levels of learning, because not only are you learning to actually do family interviews, you are also learning about how to ask the right type of questions. And there’s a lot of sort of visual cues in there as well. It was an incredible opportunity. It took years off my life, but it was very worth it. And so that piece came out just over a year ago. That piece won Best VR/AR at Mobile World Congress, beating China Mobile and Huawei, which is kind of insane. It was a finalist for South by Southwest Innovation Award. We did a ton of demos at South by. The second chapter of that piece came out last month, and it’s now being used by a number of different social work departments across the US. And I just found out yesterday it was shown in Germany.

Alan: Amazing.

Cortney: So it’s an amazing project. We’re incredibly proud of it. We’re incredibly proud of the work that we did. So that’s been sort of two of our larger projects. Another big project we did was for a company called DDI, which is a learning and training company. They came to us with an interesting problem to solve, which is they do a lot around workplace inclusion and workplace exclusion and training around that. And their challenge was that a lot of sort of older corporate executives hadn’t really felt excluded in the workplace, so they had no really incentive to do this type of training, like it wasn’t real to them. The feeling of workplace exclusion wasn’t real to them. So we created this piece called Can’t Win and you’re in a meeting and it is– again, it’s voice-activated. And this sense is one of frustration. You are getting talked over, and you’re going to ignored, and you’re getting talked down to. It’s very, very subtle, though. So by the end of the experience, we demoed it for a lot of people, and they’re just like angry. But they get it. They get that feeling. So that piece was a top HR product, named that by HR executives. So that’s been really rewarding and that’s been a lot of fun to work on. We work with amazing directors. Kevin Cornish directed the center pieces. Gabo Arora — who’s directed stuff for UN and The New York Times — directed the DDI piece. So that’s a big sort of core part of who we are as making stuff that’s really high quality and cinematic. In terms of consulting work, we’ve consulted for Verizon, we’ve consulted for Coca-Cola, mostly in the augmented reality side of things. We have done some work with the Air Force on voice-activated pilot training. We just worked with Unity, building augmented reality projects. And we are in the process of signing an agreement with a very big retailer. And I can’t say which one yet, TBD. But it’s something we’re incredibly excited about. So things are pretty good.

Alan: That’s fantastic.

Cortney: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

Alan: So, now these– are these 360 branching narratives, is that what this is? Or CGI or…?

Cortney: Not CGI. So that actually dovetails perfectly with the second thing I wanted to chat about, which is best practices. So these are 360. They’re shot in different ways. So in some cases, the actors are shot against a green screen and composited into a 360 background. In some cases, it’s a full 360 shoot with — again — the voice interactivity built in. So we have, as a company, several core principles for our soft skills work in particular.

Alan: All right. Let’s get into it.

Cortney: So the first one is–

Alan: This is the good stuff right here. We now know what they do. But now, how did they do it?

Cortney: Yes, we’re– well, this is all stuff you would see this just by watching our stuff. So it’s not like I’m revealing too much, but– so the first one is, it has to be realistic and you have to use real people, because CGI characters — no matter how good they are, and I’ve seen some pretty good ones — you still know that they’re not real. And there’s something called the uncanny valley, where it’s a little bit of your brain sort of knowing that a CGI character is not a real person. So you lose a lot of the intimacy and the realism when you’re talking to what is essentially a cartoon character.

Alan: You mean Firing Barry is not going to be as real?

Cortney: No. I mean, it’s not. I think it’s a high quality game engine character, but it’s not like talking to an actual person. So that’s the first thing. And that’s our sort of core principle as a company. And that’s for soft skills. Obviously, for hard skills and for fun and games and commercial stuff, that’s a very different story. But for soft skills training, it has to be very, very realistic. We cast mostly actors and actresses from the theater world, because we find their level of sort of emotion and delivery is the best for VR. And they’re also really good at not needing multiple takes, because shooting multiple takes in VR is very different than shooting multiple takes in 2D, just because of how it gets cut together. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is the interactions have to be as realistic as possible. So I have a lot of headsets. I’m sitting in my office right now looking at all of them. And I cannot wait until the day that I can take all my controllers and like run over them with my car, because–

Alan: [laughs] We’re actually going through this.How can we get the hand tracking in Oculus Quest?

Cortney: Well, yeah, the hand tracking Quest is going to be amazing. I’m really excited for that. But more to the point, when you’re doing soft skills work, the controller is useless, Because again, when I talk to you, I don’t point a controller at you and click. That’s absurd. I talk to you about using my voice. And so everything that we designed for is with voice prompts. So you need to use the controller to start the experience, because that’s a function of Oculus, not anything we have control over. But then you put the controller down. And what we’ve seen is that opens it up to a much wider audience, because there is no worse experience than feeling incompetent in VR. You’re already a headset. It’s already kind of weird. You feel a little self-conscious already, just given the nature of the technology strapped your face. So the worst thing you can do is make someone feel even more scared and confused. And a lot of people — including myself — are not video gamers. They’ve never used these controllers before. So the single worst experiences I’ve ever had in VR have been the experiences where someone has stood over me and barked orders me, “Click here, click here. Now you’re teleporting. Now click this, click that.” And I just– I’m like, no. And I just walk away. Because if you want your experience to have any sort of scale or wide adoption or usability, you can’t be hanging over someone telling them a million times to click a thing. That’s– your product is rendered useless because of that. So we use voice, we use gaze, these are natural human interactions. And also we keep people immersed as much as possible. So another very common trope in VR training stuff is these quizzes, which are so bad. They remind me of a bad 80s teen TV show, where the character would freeze-frame, break the fourth wall, take a little quiz about should he ask Susan to the prom or not? I mean, it’s ludicrous design. It’s not real. I would love to have like a break to quiz every time I try to make a life decision. Guess what? I don’t have that opportunity, as cool as it would be. So the idea is, you don’t break the immersion. You use voice or gaze or other natural ways to move the story forward, move the narrative forward, move the training forward, so that you’re not jerking people in and out of the immersion all the time.

And so — again — those are just our three main core design principles. Obviously, we design custom for each client. As an agency, we don’t have a pre-built product. We have vendors that we like, vendors that we enjoy working with. But none of them are exclusive partnerships or relationships. We have no financial interest in any of them. So we are able to come into our clients and say, “What is your problem and how can we solve it?” So that’s very different than a lot of products companies, which are selling sort of off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all solutions, which certainly have their place. They really have their place for certain companies in certain markets. But what we can do is really come in with — again — these core design principles. But from there, we’re wide open. So if somebody says our problem is XYZ, we start with that problem. We’re not trying to shoehorn our solution into it. We’re starting with what is the holistic view of the problem, and then how can we use this technology to best solve it?

Alan: I love it. And it’s an interesting way to approach it, because everybody else is saying, “Hey, we’ve built this product and we’ll sell this product. But even if it doesn’t fit your exact needs or the problem that you’re trying to solve, we’re going to sell it to you anyway.”

Cortney: Well, they’re not, though, is the thing. Because if it doesn’t fit their needs the company probably won’t buy it. [laughs]

Alan: Well, I mean– or they’ll buy it, and then it doesn’t fit their needs and then they go, “Well, VR sucks.” And that’s the end of that.

Cortney: Yeah. I mean, that’s been the hugest barrier for us. Bad VR, right?

Alan: [laughs] Yep. And we’re not talking about Suzanne Borders’ company.

Cortney: No. [laughs] No, we’re not. We’re talking about– I think a lot of companies underestimate what it takes to make VR, both from a financial perspective and a technical perspective and a creativity perspective. And they you try to do it in-house, and that fails, or they they don’t know what they’re doing. And so one value that we really provide is we know what we’re doing. We’re subject area experts in virtual reality. We’re not subject area experts in what company X, Y or Z is working on. So we collaborate very closely with our clients on their subject matter, but we know how to build VR and we know — again — what works and what doesn’t in VR. And I think a lot of companies tried to make VR, maybe on their own or they worked with people who weren’t experts in the space, and they got burned. And I think that’s been a really big challenge for us to overcome. When you talk to people and they say, “Oh, I did VR once and it made me sick.” and it’s kind of explained to them “Well, that’s not VR. That’s VR that’s not done well.” We’re explaining to them that, “Look, this stuff is not going to cost you the same as it cost you to make a training video.” It’s a completely different level of production and interactivity and design. The flip side is — and there are so many statistics, and I don’t know if we have time to go into all of them — but VR *works*, far more than any other type of training out there. And we’ve seen that time and time and time again. It scales better than any other form of training out there.

This is something I have been talking a lot about recently, because I gave a talk on this at the Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit.VR is the best thing that has happened to workers, because they are now able to use VR to train to do their jobs better. And it is empowering to workers to be able to do their jobs better. It’s great for bosses, because bosses have better trained workers. And when you look at what is the cost of VR, which is fine, people have to think about their bottom lines. But what is the cost of a poorly trained worker? Best case scenario, poorly trained worker, just kind of messes up some stuff up, and there’s productivity issues, and maybe they are unhappy and they leave, and then you have to hire someone else. And these are all costs that are associated with not training your workers well. Then you get into the soft skills training, and we work a lot on sexual harassment. And that’s a black eye on the company. First of all, because you’re gonna get sued. Second of all, I wouldn’t work in a company where women were mistreated, and I think that’s many women who feel that way. So you’re losing a tremendous amount of talent. And then you go all the way up to situations where workers can be maimed or killed. And then, of course, that’s hugely negative. So it’s really looking at when you balance out the costs and the benefits, you have to look at the numbers about how much better of VR training actually works and then ask yourself, “Well, what is the real cost of people not being trained well?”

Alan: Well, let’s talk about the actual cost, and then we’ll work backwards. What does something like this cost?

Cortney: That is a question that’s basically impossible to answer without any sort of a–

Alan: How long is a piece of string?

Cortney: Yeah, exactly. It’s– how much does a movie cost, right? I mean, I can make a movie on my iPhone for nothing. The cost of an iPhone. You can make a Marvel movie that costs millions and millions and millions of dollars

Alan: All right. So let me rephrase that. When you meet with a customer and they want to do soft skills training, what is the range by which you quote them? Because at the end of the day, somebody has to make a decision on how much it costs.

Cortney: So that’s dependent on a number of factors. And I’m not trying to be swishy here–

Alan: Well, no, what are some of the factors, so people can–?

Cortney: What is the creative? So is it a sort of linear narrative? Is it a branching narrative? What is the–

Alan: That make a big difference, I would assume.

Cortney: Huge, huge difference. What is the level of interactivity? Is it a couple different voice prompts? Is it a conversation? Is there gaze activation? Is there something tactile. What is the interaction? How many actors do we need? How many locations do we need? Where are we shooting? Who are we shooting with? How long is the piece? Because that impacts production time. How many video files are associated with the production? Because that’s production cost. How long is the script and how intense is the script? Because we hire writers and we work on a lot of the scripts ourselves. That costs money. And scripts need to be designed for interaction and VR. So the different voice platforms we work with need different things to be in place. So it needs to be scripted a different way. If we’re using a different voice platform so that the voice platform will work. Obviously you can’t have people reading incredibly long questions, because that’s a readability issue. And on and on and on. So it’s really this kind of holistic package that people need to consider before they–

Alan: So how do you scope this with the customer? Do you sit down and you figure what the problem is? What does that look like?

Cortney: So we actually have a separate product that deals with that. The way our flow works is we get introduced to someone. We do a capabilities call — a capabilities meaning a demo session, that’s all sort of just our business development — and once there is a pretty firm interest, we have something called a VR/AR jumpstart. And that’s a one week program, it’s five days. We embed– ideally, we embed in the office of the client. If that’s not feasible, we have done some over Skype or video chat. Generally, we like to be with the clients. In the VR/AR jumpstart is a flat fee for one week, and it’s two people and we come to you. Day one is–

Alan: What does something like that cost?

Cortney: So the VR/AR jumpstart is $20,000.

Alan: Yeah. OK. So a $20,000, it gets you going.

Cortney: Yes. So the $20,000 is basically– here’s what it gets you: day one is, what is the problem you’re trying to solve? Because a lot of people still don’t really have a clear sense of what VR is best for. So they’ll say “Oh, we want to do this, because someone else did it in VR” or “We want to solve this problem that is very broad.” And so we’re defining the problem. We are like, what exactly do you want to get out of this? What are your KPIs? What are your measurements? What’s your budget? Everything, so that defines it all. Day two, we work on the creative and we work on the script. So what does this concept look like? How many people are involved in this? Where are the interaction points? And then we start writing not the final script, but a skeleton of the script. Day three, we get a bunch of people from your office who did high school theater, and we put them in a room with a 360 camera and we shoot a basic prototype. It’s a way for us to sort of work out the blocking and the scripts and the interactions. And obviously we’re not building something that’s fully interactive in a couple of days, but it at least gives us the opportunity to check our own work. Day four, we go off and do a little side office and we auto-stitch the footage. We obviously can’t build something fully interactive, we dummy in whatever interactions there are so it seems kind of natural. And then day five, we use our test. So the client brings in four or five different people who are users, a representative of the users. And they go through and they test it, and they give us their feedback. What the client is left with at the end of the week is an MVP that is by no means ready for prime time, but is something that they can show to their boss and they can say, here’s user feedback. Here’s sort of the first draft of this. And then that’s kind of the end of that initial engagement. And then the second part of the engagement — once it’s fully funded — is that we do the whole big thing. So we revise the script, get it to the final points. We hire the director, hire the cast, do the shoot, do all the production, do all the post, do all of the design for whatever interactions there are, and then we deliver a fully finished product to the client.

Alan: That’s awesome.

Cortney: Yeah.

Alan: What a great process. It saves a lot of time. We’ve been kind of down this road a few times, and this seems to be a great way to save a lot of time for a customer. and give them something that they can go and get buy-in from the higher ups.

Cortney: Yet, because for most people, VR is still very theoretical at this point, and they haven’t seen a lot of good examples. And maybe they’ve only seen VR video games, which are fun, but I’m the CFO or CIO or something of a company, I am not going to immediately link my kid’s zombie shooter game to what can we do in training. So a lot of what we do still to this day is just demoing for people. We spend a lot of time putting people in headsets, and that’s great. I do think that’s going to change as the headsets are more widely adopted. I also think that’s a huge barrier for us. So we were on the call with a big telecom company — I won’t say which one — and they brought us in to chat with them. Did this big group call, because they really wanted to do VR. They’d heard their competitors were doing it. They were like, “Oh my gosh, we have to do VR now.” .

Alan: We get that a lot. “We went to my CEO and CES, and he needs VR, ASAP!” [laughs]

Cortney: Oh god, I know. So anyway, we were on this call with them, and even leading up to the call, I said, “I’m happy to share some work with you. We can share our work to your Oculus Go headsets, if you just let me know the address. I’m happy to share and send some examples to you.” And the person I’ve talked to said, “Oh, we don’t have an Oculus Go.” And I thought “I’m kind of tempted to cancel this call.” because an Oculus Go costs $200. You can buy it on Amazon, you can buy it at Best Buy. You can find it a lot of places. If you are serious about investing in VR as a company, and you’re going to put down a reasonable amount of money, you should at lest spend $200 to buy a headset. And that, to me, is kind of the mark of people who are serious about this stuff, as opposed to just like, “Oh yeah, somebody decided to yes. Wouldn’t it be neat?” So that’s been kind of my marker at this point as to who I’ll sort of seriously take meetings with is if you’re not willing–

Alan: What a great way. What a great barrier. Here, go buy a VR headset. We’ll send you some content to take a look at. Then we’ll have a meeting.

Cortney: Yeah. I really should have a referral deal with Oculus. [laughs] I’m not asking people to buy a Vive and a gaming computer and a this and a that. I fully understand that people don’t have those. Those are very expensive. They’re great, but they’re expensive. And they’re– But this is the type of thing where, to me, it kind of separates out who’s serious and who isn’t. And it’s not a hard and fast rule, certainly. For me, I have to look at other factors of are you serious or not? But it’s a little bit more of constantly reminding myself that a lot of us are much further out ahead than most companies. And what’s interesting to me is that a lot of companies are just kind of letting it pass them by, when their competitors are really crushing it. Walmart’s a great example. Walmart have invested a lot into training in VR and they’ve had a tremendous amount of success, and Target, Costco–

Alan: But here’s the thing: with any new technology that disrupts– I mean, how many companies didn’t have a website for years and years and years?

Cortney: Oh, yeah!

Alan: And then all of a sudden, if you didn’t have a website, you weren’t on the map. And I think the same is going to happen with VR and AR training, because it is such a big difference between your regular training, whether it be paper, manual or e-learning, whatever their current learning is. When you put it in spatial computing, when you put somebody in a headset and hijack their entire senses, it is exponentially better.

Cortney: Oh, yeah.

Alan: And so companies like Walmart, they get it, because they are way ahead of it. And it will come to a point in the next three years — I think — where every company, if you don’t do it, you’re gonna be left behind.

Cortney: Yeah. I mean, your example is spot on. And it’s funny. I remember right when we were first starting out, I had a meeting with this big agency that we’re now probably going to do some work with. And my contact there led me out to the elevator after our meeting. And he said, “Look, I worked in agency.com in the 90s for years, and I was pitching companies about building websites.” And everyone would say stuff like, “Oh, the Internet’s a fad!” or “Oh, we’re in the Yellow Pages. What do we need a website for?” And like every excuse, and he does couple of years of pitching, pitching, pitching. And then he said basically one day you walked into the office and he had 20 voicemails and everyone’s like, “We need a website tomorrow!” And I do think– I mean, listen, I can’t tell you the number of people who didn’t take my calls for months and all of a sudden they’re calling me in a frenzy. Like I’ve had a couple of people–

Alan: That weird turning point, where the your outbound suddenly becomes inbound.

Cortney: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a couple of people sort of say, “Oh, we’ll never do this. This will never happen.” And then a year later, they get back to me and they’re they’re begging us to do this. So–

Alan: You’re like, “Well, the price is now 50 percent more.”

Cortney: I mean, some– yeah, look, I’m– sometimes– well, I don’t actually do that. I price very honestly. But it’s more the type of thing where I’ll fully call myself out on this. I was a magazine editor in 2008, 2009 when Twitter was really starting to take off. And I just remember looking at Twitter and being like, “What is this? This is stupid.” And I was like, “Let’s make the interns do it.” And now it’s a much bigger thing. People learn, people change, and people get into this stuff. And I definitely do think it is moving forward. I think that people just have to be very clear on — again — defining the problem, doing really good creative, because that’s the thing. So much– I’ve looked at the training videos, and they’re so bad and they’re so pointless.

Alan: They’re so bad. The bar is so low. [laughs]

Cortney: Yeah, I know! And I wrote this thing recently — and I know we like to joke about it, and I certainly do — but if you look at sexual harassment training, I teach at NYU and I had to do the NYU sexual harassment training recently. And it’s laughably bad. It was made for $20. And it’s fine to laugh at it, but it’s also not because it’s a huge problem. And you’re basically–

Alan: Why bother doing it?

Cortney: Yeah. Well, no, I know why you do it. Because in New York, legally you have to. But it’s so lawyers can tick a box and say, “Okay, we did this.” It’s not about like, oh–

Alan: But it doesn’t actually move the needle. It doesn’t actually make an impact.

Cortney: And the thing is like it’s minimizing women’s pain. Like this is minimizing the pain and the trauma that women feel when they have to deal with this. Because training about this is a joke, right? Training about diversity and inclusion, people still joke about. And it’s like it’s minimizing the feelings — the real feelings and the real trauma — of women, and people of color, and disabled people, and LGBTQ people. And it’s a really massive issue that goes beyond just, “Oh, let’s just do this dumb little training for an hour, that no one pays attention to.” So I think that’s the real key with VR is again, it brings it back to the point of this is a good thing for workers.

Alan: Cortney, let me ask a question.

Cortney: “Are you now, or have you ever been a communist?” [laughs]

Alan: [laughs] Are you? No, what my question was, knowing what you know and all the projects that you’ve done, could you build a generic system that could be sold to multiple companies? So that a company didn’t have to go through all the custom, but it would just be a “Here’s an inclusion scenario.” It’s really well produced, and it touches on everything, but not specific to one company, for example.

Cortney: Sure. And that’s what we– I mean, our Accenture — Accenture was a client on our social work project — and that is currently being used by several different social work departments all across the US. So you don’t have to build something that’s custom for like California, or Georgia, or Illinois, or New York. It can just be training for social workers. We can also do — and we’ve talked about doing — white label products specific to different state regulations or different– some states have huge problems like opioid addiction. And so there is that. So, yeah, I mean, a lot of our partners are doing things where basically they are then selling them on to a number of different consumers. It depends, you definitely can do something that’s generic and off-the-shelf, for certain companies or for certain scenarios. And then you need something that is more specific in other scenarios. So if you’re dealing with really specific regulations, that’s one thing. If you’re dealing with just sort of like “Here’s what you do in a situation where you’re dealing with sort of discrimination,” that can be more broad. So, yeah, I mean, when I talk about the work that we do, nothing that we do is so incredibly specific, it can only be used by like one tiny company.

Alan: What I was thinking — when you mentioned you Can’t Win platform or project that you worked on — for senior managers of every company, that should be mandatory.

Cortney: Oh, totally.

Alan: Put yourself in the eyes of a black woman in your company in a management meeting, and see how that works out for you.

Cortney: Well–

Alan: I mean, it’s very difficult to understand what that’s like, if you are — I’m just going to throw it out — if you’re a white male executive, you can’t fathom what it’s like to be ignored and not included in the conversation.

Cortney: Here’s the thing. I don’t think VR can make you understand someone else’s perspective. I have done a lot of your experiences where it’s like, “Now you’re a such and such. Now you’re a such and such.” And I’m not, I’m me. Putting on a VR headset is not going to race almost 40 years of me being me. So what VR can do really well is not like, “Oh, now you’re a young black man, and you’re looking at this weird melted cartoon version of yourself.” And that’s supposed to have empathy. Like, no. The second I take the headset off, I’m gonna kind of forget it. What it can do, is put me in a scenario where I am having those same feelings. So it’s not about, “Oh, now you’re this totally other person.” It’s about “Now you’re having this new feeling.” But again, the more we ask people to suspend a ton of disbelief in VR, the harder it’s going to get. So we’ve actually– I’ve seen this in doing some testing about the Can’t Win experience. The first draft of the Can’t Win experience that someone else did — not us — was — and that’s why we got brought in — so let’s say you’re a woman and you’re in a meeting, and men are sitting here talking about basketball and ignoring you. They put that on men and the guys were like, “Yeah, so? I go to a sports bar with my buddies. They’re following a team I’m not following. I don’t care.” So you can’t just be like “Now you’re a lady. Now you’re a person of color. Now you’re an old person. Now you’re a this.” That does not work. What works is–

Alan: That’s intriguing.

Cortney: –you’re you, but you’re in a new situation. That’s another really core belief of ours is the social worker training we built has been seen by a lot of people, which is amazing. But it’s for social workers. If we’re building training for police officers — let’s say — the perspective is of a police officer. I’ve seen police officer training, where it’s constantly shifting perspectives. And I don’t like that. I don’t think that works. I think it is very confusing. Like there was a Verizon piece that came out — we didn’t work on this, obviously — so there’s a Verizon peace that came out recently, and it’s been posted all over. It’s public. It’s like perspective shift. So the first perspective is you’re a Verizon store employee, and some guy comes in and he’s mad because his phone doesn’t work. And then you sort of see him and he’s like, “Oh, my daughter’s trying to call me on her birthday, and I can’t get it to work.” And I mean, sure. But then there’s no learning. The learning in that piece should have been “OK, this guy comes in, he’s clearly upset. How do I ask him the right question, to help him explain why his phone doesn’t work?” That’s the stuff that you really need to do. It’s not like, “Oh, understand that people are upset or everyone has a story.” We kind of already know that, you shouldn’t have to teach people that. That’s kind of an obvious thing. So the real thing is, yeah, perspective shifting, it doesn’t work. It’s too clunky, it’s too fragmented, it’s you herky-jerky. And this is our sort of core design principle, is meet people where they are. Don’t ask them to sort of suspend their disbelief once they put on a headset.

Alan: Amazing. I have one last question for you, Cortney.

Cortney: Yeah, totally.

Alan: All right. What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Cortney: Oh god. So the biggest one — I mean, there’s a lot, obviously — the biggest one for us is sexual harassment. And that’s something we’re working on right now. And I think a key thing that you can do in VR — that you can’t do in any other medium — is really notice the nuances of someone’s body language. So the VR piece that we’re going to do on sexual harassment — and I can’t unfortunately say who the client on this is, but all will be revealed in time — the idea is people can say the same words to you, but their tone and their facial expression and their body language convey very different things. So the idea is basically you’re having a conversation with someone. You say something that’s kind of borderline and they’ll either lean forward, they’ll laugh, they’ll genuinely say, “Oh my God, that’s so funny, hahaha.” They’re into it, it’s cool. Or you say something, and they look down, and they kind of look away, and they shrink back, and they say, “Heh heh, that’s so funny.” They’re saying the same words, but every other signal is telling you different things. So, again, it’s really about how do you read body language and sort of handle that in social situations? And then it gives you the opportunity to course correct if you need to, because it’s not punitive. Everyone’s sort of said something that lands flat. So it’s really about like, how do you read the room? How do you read people’s expressions and read their body language? And I think that would be great for sexual harassment, it can be great for consent, deploying that on college campuses where there’s a lot of issues around like affirmative consent. That stuff is really, really important. And that’s stuff, to me, that I would love to dive even more deeply into than we already are.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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