bailenson VR

The immersive sense of reality that virtual reality (VR) gives a user under the headware seems so real. And according to Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the human brain’s inability to differentiate the real from the VR experience is something to take advantage of. But let’s forget about gaming for a minute. Bailenson spoke to the members of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Nashville last week about VR applications that may not be widely known now, but that could be useful for society soon.

Bailenson is co-founder of STriVR Labs, the immersive athletic training company that won Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Innovation of the Year and that Charisse Lambert talked about in her first #DigitalPPG column for Startup Southerner. While Balienson told the crowd that he certainly loves working with that product, which has made its way into both Division I football teams’ and NFL practice routines, much of his research projects have a different client in mind—society.

In a “mistake-free” VR experience, Bailenson explained that training for certain scenarios could be done repeatedly without facing any real dangers. There are now training simulations for natural disaster situations like earthquakes. The likelihood that someone would remember the procedure from reading a manual is low, while having gone through all the motions and emotions of being in one via VR is unforgettable—without requiring an actual earthquake to have the experience.

Likewise, Bailenson, a trained psychologist, broadened the scope of such workplace training to include one that addressed diversity. With the basis of the training grounded in empathy, a major tenet of contact hypothesis, he created a VR simulation for Cisco that allowed the user to see himself as someone of a different skin color, or in a different physical condition. The user would then experience this “world” as that person he saw in the VR mirror. The results from the initial study and actual implementation of the program in a work setting showed much higher understanding of the training by those who experienced it.

Bailenson also has developed similar modules that help reduce ageism via empathy that is hard to have when one can’t quite experience a different age in real life.

Bailenson’s mission to changing behavior by utilizing VR to bridge the gap also has led him to products that help the user understand what deforestation is like, without actually having to cut down trees to prove a point. Their testing showed that users who experienced the VR deforestation were more likely to purchase toilet paper made of recycled material. His studies that tested VR users’ ability to build self-efficacy, often in health-related cases, were equally intriguing.  

This idea of a mistake-free environment is intriguing, but what will happen once the human brain begins to be able to distinguish the real from the virtual? For now, VR’s capabilities are here to help solve the current issues in the world that require an urgent solution.