“You cannot learn empathy on powerpoint!” Wise words from today’s guest, Somewhere Else CEO Christophe Mallet, who comes by the show to discuss how soft skills training — basically, training for human behavior — is now a wide-open industry, thanks to XR technology.
Alan: My name is Alan Smithson, your host for the XR for Business Podcast. Today’s guest is Christophe Mallet, co-founder of Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else Solutions is a London based innovation agency specialized in immersive technologies. He’s now exploring how to leverage immersive technology and artificial intelligence to deliver soft skills training that actually delivers behavioral change. The end goal is to make the workplace a better place for everyone. Throughout his careers, he has strived to bring together brilliant minds, makers and businesses to deliver impactful projects and solutions. He’s worked with a variety of global clients, including Adidas, Samsung, Ernst and Young, Save the Children, Sony, IKEA, KPMG, Nokia, and the list goes on. To learn more about Somewhere Else Solutions, you can visit them at somewhereelse.co.
Welcome to the show, Christophe, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
Christophe: Thanks, Alan. Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.
Alan: You’ve been working in immersive technologies. Maybe kind of give listeners an understanding of what you’ve done at Somewhere Else, some of the projects you’ve done, and then we’ll dig into something really exciting after that.
Christophe: So I came from the world of mostly strategic consulting, digital and social, and the world of storytelling, kind of on my own time. And back in 2015, I met with a guy called Julien in a pub, and he showed me an experience: The Night Café, in which you enter a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t know if you’ve tried that one.
Alan: I have. So to paint a picture for people. They took Vincent Van Gogh’s painting and then made it fully spatial so you could walk around in the painting in VR. It was the night café and you could walk around and go and sit at the piano. And it was beautiful. Really, really beautiful.
Christophe: It was beautiful. It was very early. And my jaw dropped, because I saw a new way to tell stories. I was a bit bored of my previous job, so I decided to quit, and I started a studio with that guy — Julien — and another guy, Randy. And kind of alongside the market — the way the market has evolved since 2015 — is, the wow factor was big in the beginning, where a lot of things were done around entertainment and marketing. We worked on that with TV channels, we did an escape room in Paris, we did stuff for the climbing experience for Adidas. Champions seeking experiences for the UFR. And that’s honed our skills in what it means to tell a story in virtual reality, versus other mediums — such as cinema. And about two years ago, Accenture, BCG, McKinsey started publishing their reports about how immersive technologies should impact service design, visualization, training, and so on. And so suddenly, immersive tech started appearing in conversations at the boardroom level, which is what you need for any technology to be adopted. And so we started receiving inquiries in this area, and specifically in training. And so for the past, I would say 18 months to two years, we’ve been specializing on that and more specifically on the behavioral side of things and taking VR support what it really is, which is– you know, VR has been very focused on environments, and virtual realities are recreating the environment virtually. But your reality is also about the people who are part of that reality. And I think so far we’ve failed a little bit on creating virtually real humans. And the day we can interact with virtual humans in believable virtual environments, then you can start having simulations, social simulations where you can build experiences on demands and soft skills.
Alan: So to put things in perspective, what you’re saying is that everybody focused on making the environments look real or making the interactions, maybe it’s training, but you’d be training on a machine, or manufacturing, or a car, or a truck, or something like this. But what you’re saying is you’ve created training simulators to train on how to deal with people.
Christophe: Yes, the world of work is changing fast and automation, all of that, meaning that HR Department has a massive challenge now, which is to upskill/reskill massive portions of their workforces, who are already digital workforces. And to do that, the investment that they do is shifting away from knowledge — because the knowledge fits in your phone — into behavior. As a professional currency, your mindset is becoming more important than your skillset. Delivering soft skills training is super hard. You cannot learn empathy on a PowerPoint, right? But delivering face-to-face, role-play type training at scale is difficult. And so the question is, can we use virtual reality as a solution to have the best of both worlds? The experiential impact of face-to-face training, but on top of that, the scalability of digital learning formats.
Alan: I think now would be a great time to talk about a new program that you guys have developed, called Bodyswaps. What this program allows you to do is as, an HR professional, let’s say you have to deal with 100 employees. Every employee is different. Every person is different. And you’re gonna deal with different challenges that may– it’s really impossible to train for it. Maybe it’s an irate employee. Maybe it’s somebody who’s lethargic. You’re gonna have all these different scenarios, which– it’s very, very difficult to train somebody for these different scenarios in using current technologies. But what you’re saying is VR can then put you in a room with a lethargic employee. You can work through that. And then the Bodyswaps idea is that now you can sit in the position of that person that you just spoke to, and analyze your responses back to them and see what it feels like to be on the other side. And that is incredible. Maybe speak to that, and what you’re doing with Bodyswaps.
Christophe: Sure. Have you ever heard of a guy called Mel Slater?
Alan: Sorry, who is it?
Christophe: Mel Slater, does that ring a bell?
Christophe: It’s kind of the European counterpart of Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford, when it comes to having done behavioral research in VR. So the Bodyswaps format is not something that we invented by any means. We looked at the research and [personal name] from the University of Barcelona is the first one who had this idea of, “What if I could swap body? What if I could be in someone else’s shoes, getting a new perspective on how I behave?” And the first experience that he created was about feeling empathy towards yourself, which is one of the main causes for depression, is your inability to feel empathy towards yourself. Until in his original experience, you were a woman. There was always a mirror to take ownership of the virtual body, and your task was to be nice, to console a young kid that was crying in front of you. You just have to talk to that kid. Now, because we knew you were going to try to be nice, whatever you said, the kid would progressively stop crying. That’s the first step. The second step was the experience. You would swap bodies, so you’d find yourself in the kid’s shoes, listen back to what you said to that kid. And basically the whole idea is, you would reflect on the fact that, “Wow, I showed empathy towards that kid. I said things that are really nice. And actually, I should have empathy for myself.” So you’re using self-reflection and self-awareness as a way to subconsciously impact behavior. We saw that their research — which is absolutely fascinating — and we scratched our head wondering, “Can we apply that for the world of work?” Will it make sense to listen back to yourself, when you are having a review, under-performing employee, when you’re pitching. when you’re dealing with someone who’s vulnerable or shut off, when trying to understand unconscious biases in the workplace, and so on. So that’s the scientific backbone to the format. Would you have it if I gave an example of how we’d use it?
Christophe: So the very first one we built was actually not in corporate LND, it was in a higher education and we were contacted by a company called Sage. It’s a US company, actually. And Sage, they are a publishing company, so modern accounting software. Their publishing company, they’ve been basically selling libraries of books to universities for decades, they’ve started to sell videos as well. And they’re wondering whether VR is the next format for higher education. And so they contacted us, and asked us to find a value proposition where VR would make sense. And what we found is that if you’re studying to become a nurse in psychiatry, like in many types of studies, you’re going to spend a year in the classroom, learning all kinds of theoretical knowledge. And then after a year or so, you’re going to start being placed in hospitals. Problem is, in hospitals, there’s one supervisor for 20 or 30 students. The supervisor is already busy with patients. It might not be the same guy we can count. And so as a result, you have absolutely terrified and inexperienced 20 somethings running around the corridors of psychiatric hospitals, having conversations with schizophrenics and suicidal patients and so on. Those are not the kind of conversations that you want to mess up. There’s too much at stake.
And so the idea was, there’s this gap between the wall of the classroom and the real world. And we want you to practice to get that real-world experience in a safe way, without the danger or the real world. And so that’s why we built The Bodyswaps. It never replaces being in front of real patients, because for starters, AI is not there to have those conversations. But you can — hours after hours — see what it feels like to be talked at by yourself, to be reassured by yourself. And through self-reflection, you build the confidence so that when you arrive in the real world, you have 80 percent or 90 percent of what you should know. And obviously you can translate that for your leadership sales, and so on and so forth.
Alan: It’s incredible. For people listening, what is the next step for them to get engaged with you? Are you making this so that it’s scalable? So you have a certain number of scenarios, is this custom for each company? If a business says “I really want to start using VR for our HR to train these soft skills,” what is the process look like from your art?
Christophe: Well, the first thing I would say, Alan, is what is seen a little bit too much in immersive learning industry is VR studios thinking that they are also learning designers and also subject matter experts.
Alan: It’s like, “Just because you can make the VR doesn’t mean you can actually make it effective.”
Christophe: Exactly. It’s exactly that. And so you really need some kind of a dialogue at the same table as early as possible. You want subject matter experts. They only will know the area. You want a learning designer, his job is not to know VR, is not to know the subject, his job is like, “does that teach?” And that’s it. And obviously you need a client champion. It’s very rare that your entire client’s stakeholders are going to buy into VR. You’re always going to have someone who’s going to be your champion in their company. And you need that person to be at the table with you, because you need to educate that person. If you don’t have that dialogue, you either create beautiful VR that doesn’t teach, or you create an experience that teaches very well but actually doesn’t engage. Or even worse, you create something that does both, engages and teaches, but you don’t have any buy-in, because you didn’t manage your champion, so to speak. So to answer your question, at the moment, we don’t have a standardized library of scenarios. We would build scenarios together with our clients and there are different ways to do that. Either work in a standard way, which is at stake what we already have, the features we already have, the kind of graphics quality that we already have, and simply writes a scenario that fits into that learning format. That’s kind of the standard approach. So low involvement from the perspective of the client. The second one is completely bespoke. Let’s just have a chat, talk about what you want. You might want to bring in some new features, new analytics, the possibility to ask questions, to flag. There’s a lot of things that we can do, and I’ve seen the format shoot at both, together with what the client we work with wants. And the last level is partnership. You might have an IP. You might, for example, be a company that’s been doing face-to-face leadership training with actors for 20 years. And you’re looking at scaling up your business model through VR, in which case it’s more of a partnership. Let’s sit together and see if we can create a product you bringing to the table your learning design and your subject matter expertise, and us bringing to the table the VR expertise.
Alan: Love it. It’s really great. So let’s talk more about details, because it’s one thing just to be in VR and play a video game, and it’s another thing to be in VR for work. How are you seeing the companies address things like buying the gear? Because we work in a lot of companies. And one thing, they come to us and they’ll say, “Oh, you know, our CEO was at a tech conference and he said, ‘We need to get into VR.’ And so we’re calling you because we need to get in VR.” There’s no strategy. There’s no forethought. What do you say to companies that are just coming and saying we need to do something in VR? How do you end up getting to the right decision-makers, or how does somebody from a business standpoint find you?
Christophe: I mean, how to find this is reality of marketing strategy. But to your point, the most difficult aspects of implementing VR right now is moving from the POC to the deployments. I think what’s StrVR did with Walmart, and the scale of it — kind of like, you know, 17,000 headsets in 5,000 locations, the scale is what makes it really impressive. And our approach for that is– and indeed, you’re right. Some clients don’t necessarily see further than “Let’s do VR because we have a bit of a budget and it’s fun.” And so the answer we always have for that is having an agile mindset to this. So we always start with consultancy, which is, we take a short amount of time, a short amount of money as well, a small amount of money. So we don’t take too much risk and let’s make sure to discuss what it is you want and why you want it. You know, you’re going to interview end-users, you’re going to bring in subject matter experts, you’re going to do a UX design workshop, you’re going to do discovery/education workshop with some of their team, if need be. And at the end of that process, we know that you want what you want for the right reasons. We know how are you going to measure the success of your POC or pilot. And you know how much it costs. And what we do with clients is if you want to stop there — because you don’t have the money, or because it’s not the right time, or you don’t have the buy-in — you’re better off stopping there. If you want to work with someone else, you can work with someone else. Otherwise we’ll move forward. And then once you have created your prototype or your pilots, it’s very important to set aside a significant part of your budget for testing it out. The discussion about costs is an easy one to have. You know what your cost-benefit analysis of implementing something, the discussion about are you saving on logistical costs or downtime costs is an easy one to have. The difficult one is what Bertrand wrote [garbled], the “return on impossible.” It shouldn’t be only about costs. It should be about, you know, in a workplace poor soft skills create depression, anxiety, discrimination. And now we have a possibility — by changing perspective — to deliver behavioral change. So we have to measure what it means for your bottom line to go from someone who is depressed, or a manager who just is incapable of managing conflicts, to an able manager. It’s very, very hard to measure. And if you can measure that, then you look at buy-in for implementation. So there is a responsibility that often lands on the client-side to bring the resources to make sure that that is measured.
Alan: A lot of early days, virtual and augmented reality was — like you said at the very beginning — let’s just make something really cool and shiny, and we fell into that trap as well. We built VR photobooths and we built VR applications for fun. And I think we’ve kind of finally — at least we have — come out of this illusion of “Awesome, VR is great, we’re gonna use it for everything.” to “It *is* great, and it can be used for a lot of things. But let’s take a pragmatic approach and measure what it is we want to accomplish, and really measure that.” And that’s where the consulting comes in. And we do a lot of consulting, marketing, eCom, education, training. So I feel you when you say you can’t just dive into this thing. You have to really understand it. What are some of the metrics, I guess, that a business could measure? Because you mentioned what is it like to have employees that are depressed? And what are some of the metrics that you guys speak to when you’re presenting this to clients? What are some of the statistics that you’re using?
Christophe: One way to answer would be to ask how they’re measuring it right now, the way they’re doing it today. And when it comes to coaching or face-to-face training, a lot of time it’s what is being called a happy sheet. Do you know what that means, happy sheet?
Alan: No idea. But it sounds fun.
Christophe: Well, it is fun in a way. It is like, let’s say you going to do one-day leadership training, OK? Your tiny apartments or your boss are going to spend two grand for you to go on the run day course. And even the day you’re going to receive a happy sheet, which is literally you saying how happy you were with today.
Christophe: And that is about it. And in many, many cases, you have met many massive organizations where the tracking of training is minimal. And the number one KPI for whether training was successful is not whether they were successful, but whether it was pleasant.
Alan: Ah, yeah, and pleasant versus success is not the same.
Christophe: It’s not the same. Exactly. In our case, what we want to measure is behavioral change, which is de facto quite difficult to map against hard financial KPIs. But to give you an idea, we had a student at UCL and she took the experience that I mentioned before — the psychiatric nurse one — and she ran its full sample of students at UCL here in London, so the MET Tech Society students. She had a qualitative interview right after the experience and a survey, and two weeks after she had another survey. So the timeline is a little bit short, of course, it should be like six weeks after. But the evolution of the self-reported engagement, self-reported memory of that experience is already a good indicator of the performance. And for you are two numbers that came out of this research that were quite interesting. Your first one is 90 percent of the participants thought that seeing themselves from a new perspective would help them reflect on their performance, which is already a plus. And the second one is 93 percent of participants said that they only tried the experience once. So that’s seven minutes. 92 percent said that they would like to try the expense again to improve their performance. So they were able to reflect. And so that’s the thing is that we are quite good judges of our own defaults, if we can get the perspective of someone else. For them to be able to say, “Hey, this is how I sound, and it is not okay for whatever reason, and I want to improve,” that’s levels of engagement that are unheard of. And there’s a couple of anecdotes from the general post interviews. This is one guy, for example, who said, “Well, I had to take care of my flatmate, who is really depressed. And the second I started talking, I heard myself falling into the trap of talking way too slowly and way too low, and having too many filler words.”
Alan: Oh, wow.
Christophe: So it builds that kind of filter of self-awareness that he applied to the real world. And that’s anecdotal evidence. If we could prove that at scale, I think we would have something very powerful.
Alan: So let me ask you a question then. How far away do you think, and how many more trials do you think will be required to kind of prove that? Are you maybe partnering with the university to find a way to get some real hard evidence around this? Because what I’m seeing with some other things — like STRIVR, for example, you mentioned — but the reason they were able to do that is because Wal-Mart did a pilot, and the results were unquestionable. They saw between 20 to 50 percent better retention rates. They saw shorter training times. So in the case of Wal-Mart, it actually made a lot of sense on paper. And so how do you now go from you’ve got this thing, you’re running a couple of trials. What is the next step to really nail down– go from anecdotal evidence to real empirical evidence?
Christophe: And the short answer for that is you’re exactly what STRIVR did. I think STRIVR, being headed by Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford, they have that mindset of having a hypothesis that something might work, and testing it out again and again and again to make sure that the hypothesis holds. And I think it’s the only way forward for us. We have contacted actually universities to try and scale up the kind of research that we already did, which is only academic validation of the learning format. On the other side of things, you want a business validation as well. So the clients that we’re talking with at the moment, we’re making sure that that cycle of testing and validation is built right into the pilot and that we go beyond the happy sheet.
Alan: That’s really incredible. You guys are onto something amazing. And I think it’s only a matter of time before you have those proof points. I think if you can partner with a university to get those proof points validated, then it’s only a matter of time before the next Wal-Mart comes along and rolls out your Bodyswaps solution at scale. And then a lot of companies — a lot, a lot of companies — are experimenting with VR and AR now. So a lot of headsets are floating around. From what I’ve heard, companies will buy 10,000 headsets and they’re just sitting around. So the more use cases like this that we can generate, I think it’s just going to really snowball. And I think virtual and augmented reality — from an industry standpoint — is really going to be driven from enterprise.
Christophe: I’m with you. I’m quite curious to also get your opinion. Obviously, the market has completely shifted from a consumer-driven market to an enterprise one, and with an enterprise you have vice industries, of course, and verticals. What do *you* see as being the kind of use case that is now fully validated and accepted by industry as a whole?
Alan: Sure. I think the easiest one right now is, is upskilling; being able to use not necessarily full mixed reality or virtual reality, but being able to wear heads-up display — almost like a Google Glass kind of thing — where you can pull up information as needed onsite, hands-free. I think another big, huge one is remote assistance or see-what-I-see assistance, where you’re working on something. You don’t know the answer, so you can either pull up the answer in your view or you can call somebody back at the head office. Maybe an expert, maybe it’s somebody who’s retired who’s just coming in. And one person with a lot of experience can now serve hundreds of people in the field that maybe don’t have as much experience. And being able to see what they’re seeing real-time and annotate on their vision, I think is one of the biggest use cases. Companies like STRIVR who are using 360 video as training, I think that is the lowest hanging fruit and it’s one of the biggest impacts from an investment standpoint, because it doesn’t require one hundred thousand or million dollars in investment. You’re talking maybe 10 to 20 thousand for your first modules. And as an enterprise, if you’re seeing 25 to 50 percent decreases in training times and 25 to 50 percent increases in retention rates, this is no longer “Should we do this?” this is “How do we do this as fast as possible across our enterprise?” And that’s what I’m seeing. And I think medical is the biggest use case of this. They’re using virtual reality for medical training almost everywhere now. Every single lab’s got a VR headset. Being able to look at MRIs, data in full three dimensions is just saving lives right now. And when you talk about return on investment, saving lives is probably the biggest return on investment we can do in this technology. I think we’re gonna see it in schools, eventually. It’s going to take some time. We’re working with some companies right now that are building K-12 curriculums. But it really comes in handy when you want to teach stuff that’s not math, learning times tables in your calculus, but learning how complex equations work. One thing that I did was I went in VR and I tried this thing where it took me on the difference between the carbon of a diamond versus the carbon of graphite. It’s the same molecule, but the way it’s stacked differently makes diamonds super hard and makes graphite– because it’s in sheets and they slide off. That’s why your pencil, as you’re writing leaves a stroke of black carbon. Until I’d seen it in that way in VR in full 3D spatial computing. I really didn’t get the concept, no matter how much I read about it. I think things like that, where you can train people in unsafe environments, being able to give people the sense of what it’s like to be trained in a mine is really key, because you’ll hire somebody from mining company and train them for six weeks, eight weeks, and then you send them underground to the mine, and realize that they have panic attacks and they can’t work underground. So being able to immerse them in a virtual space from the very beginning before you even hire them, will give you a good understanding of their mindset going into that. And I thought that was a really amazing use case, one that is not– compared to the savings, it does not cost a lot of money. You know, you’re talking maybe $10,000 just for the setup. And how much does it cost to train a new employee, to have them not be useful to you in the field?
Christophe: It’s a good analogy of the flight simulator. If you are still training pilots on real planes, it would be very, very dangerous.
Alan: You wouldn’t have very many planes. We wouldn’t have very many pilots!
Christophe: Yeah, but the value proposition of VR — of immersive learning in general — it’s not a new one, it’s just taking the flight simulator, except the cost of a flight simulator is upwards of a million pounds; now we’re talking Oculus Quest’s gonna be $400. So, by dividing something by two thousands, you’re kind of expanding the money to go into a lot more jobs. And the way we present that to clients who come in and ask about ways that we can do in training is just three value propositions that I think we all mentioned today. The first one is skills-based — so, anything that way you gonna use your hands. Excavators, fitting a door in a car. And he’s basically building psychological skills, building spatial memory of a particular task. And the academics there is, why do it in reality — with all the danger and the costs of reality — when we can do it virtually? That’s the first one. The second one, which you mentioned about the graphite and a diamonds is knowledge-based — so, knowledge bases where we learn about the world around us in three dimensions. When I spatialize content — when I make it interactive — I am improving the understanding of that content, and improving the retention. And as you said, it doesn’t apply to everything. It would make no sense to learn how to read in VR, because reading is two-dimensional by essence. But if you are learning about how a heart is working, for example, and I write a chapter about how the heart is working, I would not let you operate on me tomorrow, because that’s not how you work about a three-dimensional, beating object. The last proposition is behavior-based, and that’s the one we’re talked at the beginning about, the Bodyswaps. It is what happens when I put you in the body of… let’s say you’re a white man. What happens when I put you in the body of a woman? Or someone much older? Or a different race? Or someone with a handicap? What happens when, in that situation, I asked you to interact with other humans? and that’s the whole “return on impossible,” here. We’re not talking so much about costs. We’re talking about giving people a perspective that they simply never had before. You cannot even role-play that! This is something that is absolutely native to virtual reality. And I think that the moment in the behavior model, we are only scratching the surface. In the same way that when TV started, and they were doing radio shows on TV, and radio started doing theater plays on radio; I think, at the moment, we’re still there, when it comes to behavioral–
Alan: I agree.
Christophe: And we need to think, what happens to your behavior when you change scale; when you have superpowers, when you die, when you resuscitate people. It doesn’t have to stick to reality, too. There’s a lot of experiences at Stanford that have you driving or flying over a city as a helicopter pilot, or as Superman, in VR. It is going to change your altruistic behavior in real life, when it comes to helping out someone. I think we still have to map the subconscious impact of living beyond reality — in virtual reality — to give you those… almost like superpowers, in real life.
Alan: Have you tried the experience called Tree?
Christophe: No. No, no.
Alan: So there’s an experience that they made of the — I’ll put it in the show notes — but basically, you’re in the Amazon Forest, and when you first start the experience — before you even put the headset on — they give you a seed, a tree seed, and they put in your hand. You hold on to the tree seed, and then put on the headset. And you are a seed growing, and you grow out, around, and then you grow up, and your arms are actually moving the limbs of the tree. Your leaves start to sprout and you grew up to this be this big, huge tree, and you’re swaying in the wind. It’s really beautiful. And then all of a sudden in the distance, you see smoke.
Alan: And basically, you are the tree that’s about to be cut down in the rainforest.
Christophe: Oh, wow.
Alan: They slash and burn all the trees around you and then they cut you down. It was mind-blowing. And it really made me feel this kind of connection to the trees in the forest. It wasn’t somebody telling me, “Hey, we gotta stop cutting down trees because of deforestation.” It was this intrinsic feeling of being part of the forest. And it was really beautiful. And I think this is something that we’ve only, — just like you said — scratched the very, very tip of the iceberg on. I’m really looking forward to it. One last question for you, Christophe: What problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?
Christophe: I want people to be able to become the best versions of themselves fast and without harming anyone else in the process. If I could put your presidents in a Bodyswaps experience, I would be quite curious what would happen.
Alan: Well, I would have to say that he’s not my president. I live in Canada.
Christophe: Fair enough. Good for you. [laughs]
Christophe: I want to see a video of him trying the experience that you just described, as well.
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