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How VR is revolutionizing crisis preparedness

December 2, 2021, 5:13 AM UTC

From gaming headsets to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, the spotlight on virtual reality  is getting bigger by the day. But instead of providing entertainment or an avenue to escape into an alternate reality, VR could also be a powerful tool for enhancing our current reality—and ensuring we’re safe while living our daily lives.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, is on the frontier of VR research. More than any other medium, he argues, VR can teach people how to navigate precarious, and potentially even dangerous, situations. Synchrony is at the core of this. “When you move your bodies together, you operate as a more tightly-knit group,” he said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday. “That measure of synchrony—the correlation among our movements—you can actually use that as a predictor for how collaborative a team is and how creative they’re being.” 

What sets VR apart from other digital media is that it tracks all of the user’s body movements. “VR only works if there’s a text file that details every micromovement 90 times a second of how you moved your head, hands, and feet,” Bailenson explained, adding that these movements can be used when building machine learning algorithms, which can then be used to predict collaborative outcomes in various situations. “No one has had data of precise movements in large groups like this.” 

While some may argue that VR is a niche application, predicting collaborative outcomes could prove incredibly useful when training people how to act in real-world situations that carry high risk of physical harm. 

“VR is an intense medium. You can’t see the world around you; it gives you incredibly powerful experiences,” noted Bailenson, who is also the co-founder of Strivr, a VR training platform that got its start as a tool to train quarterbacks. “They put on the goggles, read the defense, and make decisions; they practice where they’re going to make their looks and how they’re going to change the play.” 

That evolved into working with enterprise clients such as Walmart, whose use cases include training staff for the Black Friday holiday rush. Bailenson says it was the hardest VR simulation he’s ever done. “The cacophony of people screaming at you and running at you—but you get to practice who you’re going to look at and what you’re going to say,” he described. They’ve even been able to use the technology at scale: just last year, Strivr trained one million Walmart associates using VR. 

The key is to use VR for what it’s actually meant for, Bailenson argues. Reading emails in a VR headset, for example, defeats the purpose of it. But things that are counterproductive, expensive, or dangerous in the real world constitute perfect use cases for VR. FedEx currently uses Strivr to teach its workers how to correctly stack boxes in the truck, which reportedly saves them a million dollars a year per truck. Flight simulators use it for pilot performance reviews. Bank of America and Verizon use it to train associates on how to handle armed robberies. 

But VR can do more than help businesses train staff and save dollars. In some instances, it can save lives. “One of the worst VR demos I’ve ever had to do, but it was the most amazing one I’ve seen, is an active shooter training we built for Walmart,” Bailenson said. He then recalled the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which left 23 people dead and another 23 seriously injured. “The people on the floor had done this active shooter training. [Walmart CEO] Doug McMillon said that lives were saved because people made quicker decisions and knew the right way to act.” 

Considering the unfortunate prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S., it’s a relevant use case that illustrates VR’s potential role in harm reduction and public safety. 

“It’s so horrible to talk about,” Baileson continued. “But the VR training tells you where you look, how to not look [the shooter] in the eye, and how to stand to protect other people. And then you think: the people before me six months ago were doing this with PowerPoint.”

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