Sexual assault and harassment is a serious problem across many cultures and industries, the ever growing list of #metoo stories of the past two months are evidence of that. Vantage Point is looking to use 360 video in VR to create a sexual harassment training program. I spoke to Morgan Mercer, the CEO and founder, about the project and what their plans are.

Various members of the Vantage Point team

Various members of the Vantage Point team

Vantage Point is best explained by Morgan Mercer, who explains it like so:

“Vantage Point is a comprehensive sexual harassment training program experienced in 360 video. Vantage Point focuses on identifying and changing stigma and bias, bystander intervention (passive and active), response training, reaction training, and on sexual harassment identification.” — Morgan Mercer

Vantage Point have gone to Indiegogo to crowdfund their idea of immersive education to stop sexual harassment with a team of people eager to use VR storytelling to make a difference. They’ve even got some fantastic advisers, including Tony Parisi (global head of VR/AR at Unity!). While things are in full swing with the crowdfunding and preparation, it all began with a jump out of bed.

As Morgan explains,

“Vantage Point first came to life when I was in Monaco with Sara Elizabeth Dill, Director of Criminal Justice Standards at the American Bar Association, at a speaker dinner after a TEDx event. Sara had done her talk on women as weapons of war, and a large part of the speaker dinner table conversation after the TEDx conference was around existing training tools for communities of victims of sexual violence (which, as we know, is a prevalent problem). I’m a two-time survivor of sexual violence, and had been following the virtual reality space (and early applications) for a long time.

Two to three weeks after the conference, I quite literally woke up with the idea. I’m not a morning person — I’m the person who will answer your email at 3:30am and will work until 6am and then will sleep until noon — but I quite literally jumped out of bed at around 7am with the idea. I was so excited that I texted both Sara and Samier (both my board members now) 2-3 page text essays about what I envisioned for the product. They both thought it was a great idea, but I never fully pursued it. I started to immerse myself into VR and slowly pursue the idea, but again, never fully committed.”

Eventually, the right connections started to come together with one new friend really encouraging Morgan to take the leap and focus on the potential Vantage Point had:

“I was soft pitching the idea at hackathons, waiting for someone to bite. Finally, I met a woman at Spotify who introduced me to my (now) friend Sheree at Google. Sheree had been very involved with It’s On Us and knew a ton of individuals working in the anti-sexual violence space. At the time, I had a full-time job as the Head of Digital for a startup, and had an agency contract on top of that. I was already working 80-90 hour weeks, but obviously had a lot more financial security with my job and my agency contract, and I was getting some exciting and challenging projects.

However, Sheree really encouraged me to pursue the idea, so shortly thereafter I quit the agency contract to focus on trying to start the company. I loved the startup I worked for, and had been there for almost 3 years of my life and had grown from maybe the 4th employee to managing two teams and doing some of the internal hiring. However, things started to take off with Vantage Point, and I really needed to focus my efforts on it if I wanted it to succeed.”

“It was risky, but you have to risk what you know for the vision you see. I don’t regret anything, and am excited for the next few months given the momentum this project has had. I’ve always been all-or-nothing. That was almost exactly a year ago — that I jumped out of bed and sent off the 7am text — and I’m going at it full-force now.” — Morgan Mercer

VR is the perfect medium

Morgan points out that virtual reality is “the perfect medium for combating sexual assault and harassment”. She provides four reasons for why:

  1. State-dependent learning — Virtual reality “allows for state-dependent learning which improves cognitive recall and reaction times”. State-dependent learning is when memory retrieval is most efficient as the person who learnt the lesson from a virtual situation is in the same state of consciousness as they were when they first learnt the information.
  2. It’s already successful in therapy — Morgan points out that “virtual reality is already positively being used for training programs and for therapy surrounding things such as PTSD. PTSD is common (94% of rape survivors develop PTSD) in victims of sexual violence.”
  3. It can shift mentality — Virtual reality “has the ability to truly create attitudinal change around a topic”. Morgan says she has researched case studies and impact reports extensively, and “there’s quite literally a shift in the mentality of a user before and after an experience usually leading to more empathy surrounding the topic”.
  4. It’s impossible to disengage — The immersion of VR provides a valuable way to ensure people are engaged with the content. As Morgan says, “Virtual reality is fully immersive — so it’s quite literally impossible to mentally disengage within the training program.”
  5. Data analytics — Data is key and Morgan points out that there’s so much data we can gather within VR! “Virtual reality allows us to gather greater data around the effectiveness of the training program. We can track where the user is looking, how closely their actions align with what they state their assumed response would be. We can quite literally create the most effective programs possible focused on reshaping every aspect of the sexual harassment and assault landscape. Why not VR?”

How it’ll work

Vantage Point will work as either a self-guided experience or can be incorporated into employee trainings with a program guide. It will begin with a pre-assessment, then will run through some situations asking the person to choose what they’d do, followed by a how those responses match with others and a post-assessment. As Morgan explains,

“Within the headset, the user will first experience a pre-assessment that identifies where the user believes he or she stands on the topic of the module selected. After the initial pre-assessment, the user will be taken into the experience simulation in 360 video. Depending on the module, the user will be presented with a variety of situations and will be tasked with selecting the appropriate response given the situation through branching narratives including both correct and incorrect choices. For example, with bystander intervention this might be reporting the situation, intervening verbally (speaking out about what you see happening), getting somebody to help, or ignoring the situation (which is clearly the wrong choice – but we need to provide realistic possible outcomes that people actually take).

From there, the user will be taken into a room where a victim or survivor of sexual harassment is green-screened. The survivor will narrate her or his experience with harassment, and how the experience impacted various aspects of their life. Then, the survivor will narrate how the user’s actions impact the global statistic and how the action stacks up against the company or organization’s statistics as well as against the user’s pre-assessment. After the individual and global impact graph, the user will be taken back into the experience simulation and will be trained on how to respond correctly through a survivor-guided training simulation. After the training simulation, the user will then take a post-assessment, which will measure the user’s attitude and grasp of core learning concepts as it relates to the topic.”

Why 360 video?

Vantage Point will rely heavily on 360 video the team produces for its content to represent each situation. Their choice of using 360 video rather than Unity/Unreal Engine powered computer engine-style simulations was one focused on which would give them the widest distribution:

“First, Unity actually has an amazing 360 video editing suite and I believe they just released some new tools. However, we chose 360 video for distribution purposes. We want to make sure the program is accessible and effective. If we leverage only CG, then we limit the audience to only users who can afford the hardware associated with CG. We want this to be an app that can serve as a fully-immersive tool (360 interactive) or that users can watch on their own PC/phone. In order to change the landscape, we need to make sure we can educate all core audience groups.”

Could this help the existing issue of harassment in social VR?

When it comes to sexual harassment, social VR has its own issues in that regard, so I asked Morgan whether she thought the app could also potentially help. Maybe an unintended side effect of using the VR medium might actually help the medium itself?

“I think that harassment within VR is the byproduct of two things: first, the existing harassment landscape (what we’re currently trying to address) and second, that when you’re hiding behind an avatar you feel empowered to take actions you otherwise might not.” — Morgan Mercer

“This problem carries a lot of continuities with online cyber bullying – when users can hide behind a name, a screen, or an avatar, they feel empowered to do things that they otherwise would not do. However, this issue of empowerment stems directly from issue number one that I’ve just highlighted — our current sexual harassment landscape. Sexual harassment is based upon the use of leveraging one’s power — intrinsic or extrinsic — over another person.”

“If we can change that core belief or attitude — that it’s okay to leverage power to force an individual to do something (especially sexually) — then ideally sexual harassment will become obsolete both in present-day society, and behind the headset.” — Morgan Mercer

How can people help?

Firstly — head to their Indiegogo campaign and contribute if you can! Help them fund this and get it out there to make our society and our world a safer place. They’ll be starting the prototype filming either early December or early January, so if you’ve got assistance you could provide with venue, partnerships/endorsements, distribution, or assistance with filming and production — they’d like to hear from you!

Vantage Point are also on the lookout for women and men who have been sexually harassed to join as spokespeople for the product. They’re planning on green-screening survivor narratives as well, so they are open to anybody who would like to be involved there too.

In terms of tech/developer help, Morgan points out a few areas:

“We’re also going to need an expert CTO who’s passionate about our mission at some point, and would be interested in beginning those conversations sometime in Q1 or into Q2 of 2018. We actually had a young female developer reach out and she was fairly adamant about wanting to work with us — even though we’re pre-funding. We’re currently talking to her to see if there’s a fit and how that role would align with our internal goals and timeline for funding and product development, but we’re always open to those conversations as well.”

There’s so much potential here! It’s fantastic to see the medium being used to help make the world a better place. I love seeing groups like Vantage Point, Equal Reality (reducing unconscious bias in VR), Floreo (helping children with autism) and Tribe of Good (producing VR experiences for positive social impact), these are the endeavours that aim to use emerging tech to help the world in such meaningful ways! They show that we can go beyond the typical shiny product demo and use this technology for social good. If you know of others who deserve a mention here at Dev Diner for their efforts, please let me know. I’d love to cover them!

 

Thank you to Morgan Mercer for taking the time to chat about Vantage Point with me and share her experience so far! Definitely check out the Vantage Point Indiegogo campaign and help them out if you can!

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