More recently, however, some companies have been scrambling to bring harassment prevention training into the present, merging seminars with the latest tech trend: virtual reality.
An Air Force member uses a VR headset for training.Photo: Butterfly + Flame
“It’s one thing to verbalize and tell someone what something looks like or what happened,” said Morgan Mercer, founder and CEO of VR training company Vantage Point. “It’s a completely different thing for someone to be in that lived experience, embody it and feel the same.”
Virtual reality can’t cross this chasm entirely, but it’s a start. Studies tell a similar story: A PwC A survey last year found that VR learners felt 275% more confident applying the skills learned after training, as well as 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content compared to learning in class.
Mercer founded Vantage Point in 2017, with the goal of using virtual reality to address the lack of up-to-date harassment and bias training in the workplace. She said she realized there was a need for better sexual harassment prevention training after talking with friends and hearing they had all been through the same things – harassment, discrimination and sexism – in different business contexts.
Typical video-watching tools, Mercer said, simply don’t provide the kind of training employees really need. In a VR headset, she said, “You actually have the ability to practice speaking, speaking in, you can tell your colleagues to say something. This is how we teach people.
How it works
In Vantage Point trainings, which are aimed at senior executives, users are “completely transported to a real-world environment” once they put on their VR headsets, Mercer said. The company uses photorealistic characters rather than avatars to create a “sense of immersion” and raise the “emotional stakes” of the experience.
“Characters in the experience can come up to talk to you, make eye contact with you, sometimes maybe get a little too close,” Mercer said. “Just like in the real world, the things you do influence the outcome you have, and so if you speak earlier things get better.”
In traditional prevention training seminars, it can be difficult to hold a group’s attention while going through slides or videos. Even though many prevention trainings are delivered using e-learning software, people often click through quickly, retaining little information. But applying virtual reality to prevention training requires user attention, better teaching skills such as bystander prevention and how to properly report incidents that occur, Mercer said.
VR prevention training also helps users “understand how it might be in another person’s shoes,” said Jocelyn Tan, co-founder of training company Sisu VR. Sisu VR’s training programs place users in the positions of “victim”, “offender” or “observer”, and run them through simulations of harassment, discrimination and bullying. The training sessions last approximately two hours, dividing the virtual reality experiences into 15-minute periods.
Tan said she had experienced sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace before, but when she was slapped by a colleague during a work meeting before the pandemic, she said she was s realized that if something like this could happen in the workplace, modern harassment training just wasn’t enough.
The incident fueled Sisu VR’s mission, causing Tan to double down on work to get the business off the ground. “The most important advantage [of VR training] is being able to practice making empathy-based decisions during simulations,” she said.
Code of ethics
But while VR can heighten the emotions of a training situation, it’s dangerous that VR sessions are seen as “empathy-enhancing simulations,” said Erick Ramirez, an associate professor at the University. of Santa Clara who worked with Tan on creating a code of ethics for VR and AR use. A 30-minute virtual reality training, he said, cannot replace or come close to a lifetime of lived experiences of discrimination.
“I don’t think we can actually get into anybody else’s perspective that way,” Ramirez said. “What it means to be you is not just what it would be like to put a camera where your head is. The way you see the world is really influenced by a lot of things from your past experience. .
The code of ethics that Ramirez helped draft, published in 2021, recommends that virtual reality be used for ethical “nudges”, helping people to be more likeable, less bigoted and better understand their biases. . However, developers should be wary of “developing nudges that give users the false impression that they understand what it’s like to live a different person’s life,” he said.
But in terms of understanding, liking and retaining information, virtual reality is an incredibly useful tool, said Kevin Cornish, founder of Moth+Flame, a Brooklyn-based virtual reality company.
“With virtual reality, you can have that conversation and you speak out loud,” Cornish said. “There is a person inside the VR experience who makes eye contact with you and shares their emotions with you.”
Beyond the workplace
Virtual reality can be used beyond traditional work environments. For example, in the military, sexual assaults are common and often go unreported. Following the release of a report last year that revealed the Air Force received more than 1,600 sexual assault complaints in fiscal year 2020, Moth + Flame partnered with the Army’s Air Mobility Command on its Sexual Assault Prevention Program, which trains Air Force personnel to have conversations with victims, provide emotional support, and go through appropriate reporting channels.
Members of the Air Force in formation.Photo: Butterfly + Flame
Cornish said typical Air Force training is “mostly PowerPoint-led” with some role-playing, done over 40 hours in a classroom setting. But that style of training usually doesn’t stick, he said. “A very common challenge is they go through the training, maybe a month or two goes by, and then they get their first call and they have this conversation with someone,” Cornish said. “He is someone who is in one of the most vulnerable places in his life, and he finds himself completely unprepared to handle this conversation properly.”
Carmen Schott, sexual assault program manager for Air Mobility Command, said Moth + Flame training is more effective at building skills than traditional methods of sexual assault prevention training because “they have to actually say the words out loud”, which helps users more easily remember resources and reporting methods. Moth+Flame modules also only take 30 minutes. On the first day Air Mobility Command rolled out its training for the Air Force, 110 people completed it, Schott said.
“They went through training, they talked about it. We offer small group scenarios, discussions and PowerPoint presentations, but it’s different from being in a real scene and seeing something happen and then playing it out in a virtual world,” Schott said. “They’ll leave the experience feeling like, ‘Wow, I can make an impact, and what I do matters.'”
Advocacy for virtual reality
Prior to developing its current offering, Moth+Flame first worked on VR projects with clients in the entertainment industry. The company then shifted its focus to business and focused on workplace training, offering virtual reality seminars on topics such as conflict management, cross-cultural communications and diversity, equity and inclusion. He began working on sexual assault prevention training modules in 2019 and launched the program last year.
“We thought it could be really useful for training child protection workers, to help prevent suicide by training people to have difficult conversations with people who are at risk, and then, more recently, by training in ways to stem the epidemic of sexual assault,” Cornish said.
Moth+Flame also recently received funding from the Air Force to conduct a study on the effectiveness of its sexual assault prevention training, as well as its suicide prevention training, at the University of Florida, JC said. Glick, chief of staff of the company. His goal is for the program to eventually be extended to the entire Ministry of Defence.
“It’s huge — the ability to be able to say we have an academic study that says what we’re doing is worth it,” Glick said. “The Air Force is funding it, they believe in the program.”
An example of a VR training scene.Image: Butterfly + Flame
Although Sisu VR began with a focus on sexual harassment training, it has recently expanded its repertoire to offer active shooter prevention training in partnership with virtual reality company MindGlow. Sisu is also working to grow its customer base and is currently in contract talks with Microsoft, Tan said.
Vantage Point currently offers anti-harassment leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion training in VR, Mercer said, and the company is looking to expand its content with simulations for things like “the negotiation skills and intercultural business skills”. Mercer also wants to expand future training to all employees, rather than just leaders. The company’s client list includes Comcast, Alphabet subsidiary Looker Data Sciences and law firm Latham & Watkins.
The main challenge for these companies, Tan said, is to get workplaces, especially those whose sexual harassment training methods remain outdated, to accept and widely adopt virtual reality. The growing hype around metaverse technologies has introduced more people to the concept, but there’s still a long way to go. And virtual reality itself is not a panacea – sexual harassment can and has happened within the confines of a VR headset.
“Users aren’t usually familiar with the space yet, so it can be difficult to really nudge them toward it,” Tan said. “Being able to convince users unfamiliar with virtual reality that although it is a new innovation, that it should not be feared, is a challenge.”