Annie Harper and her team at Equal Reality have been putting together an app that has some high aspirations. They are looking to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace by using virtual reality to change workplace behaviours and attitudes, and were recently accepted into the MIT Entrepreneurship Bootcamp in Brisbane! I had a chat with them about unconscious bias and how their app came about.
I’ve personally been spending part of this year searching for examples of people looking to use emerging tech to change the world for the better. I spoke with Taryn Southern about her agency’s endeavours to use VR to make the world a better place and then came across Annie’s project which is another perfect example of the sort of emerging tech projects I hope we can see more of.
Before going too much into the concept of the app, it’s important to cover what “unconscious bias” actually is — luckily Annie had a really great explanation she shared,
“When a child touches the stove for the first time, they quickly map “stove” with “pain”… this is unconscious bias. Our brain makes correlations so that we are not overwhelmed by the world on a day to day basis. Although it exists to keep us healthy, it’s not always correct. Media and culture bombards us with ideas of what “groups” of people are like, be it ethnic, gender, or age related. Just like the stove, we unconsciously build associations, and unknowingly make everyday life choices based around them. It’s natural, and something everyone does, but it can have dire consequences when we’re unaware of it.”
VR/AR might indeed be very well suited for this type of application:
“We want to capitalise on the potential power of VR/AR technology in showing a new perspective, engaging empathy, and using this neural rewiring ability of VR to change behaviour.” — Annie Harper
Those are some very valuable strengths of the VR medium — it can completely immerse someone in a situation that is completely different to that which they’d be able to experience in their typical day to day life. As Annie explains,
“Our overarching goal is to really create that “Aha!” moment for people so that they can become aware of their unconscious biases. Once conscious, they will be able to make fairer decisions, which result in diversity and better financial outcomes. We think VR is in a unique spot to execute on learning through experience. We know from the feedback we have received that this is a valuable proposition for businesses in Australia and around the world, which has been amplified by recent political events.”
“The idea really formed through a collaboration of different contributions, of ideas, and efforts to get to where it is now. Essentially the goal of the team is deliver unconscious bias training for the workplace in virtual reality. We want to capitalise on the potential power of VR/AR technology in showing a new perspective, engaging empathy, and using this neural rewiring ability of VR to change behaviour.” — Annie Harper
The origin story of this team was fascinating, Annie was inspired to tackle this problem because she, and many of her female friends, were “frustrated with the numerous encounters of unconscious bias that they faced in the workplace throughout their careers”. While working in tech in Silicon Valley, Annie realised how important it was to try to change these behaviours and cultural attitudes in an industry with “a notoriously low representation of females”. Recent media reports like those of the treatment of female employees at Uber show this is still an issue needing to be addressed. Annie has personally experienced unconscious bias both within the tech industry and outside of it, and shared one example (of which she has many others!):
“I sat in the audience while my co-founder demoed our VR game at a hackathon. He introduced me to the room as the other person who made the game, and I was proud of how engaged everyone was with his presentation.
After the talk, a friend of ours came to sit next to me. He has a long history of business and has worked with us, but had nothing to do with the game. While we were chatting, an older gentleman walked up and started congratulating my (unaffiliated) friend on his work. He told him how much he liked the game project and told him all about himself. His body language was completely turned away from me, and he did not make eye contact.
When the older man left, I turned to my friend and asked, “did you see what happened there?” My friend said he didn’t, and I explained it to him. This was a very good personal example of unconscious bias. The older gentleman did not mean to exclude me but was drawn to the person he expected to be a developer (despite concrete evidence to the contrary!). My friend, not having lived in my shoes, did not pick up on the exclusionary body language. After explaining it to him, I saw a dramatic improvement in his awareness on this topic. This situation could have been depressing, but it actually gave me a great deal of hope that people can learn and become more open-minded.”
Annie decided that training and generating awareness was the solution to unconscious bias and turned to VR as her tool of choice.
Two other members of Equal Reality, Brennan and Rick, helped add to the concept and bring it to reality with Annie. Brennan had the VR/AR dev skills and was eager to use those to make a difference, he “knew that he could make tools to create VR/AR experiences efficiently and effectively” but hadn’t planned how he’d use those to address real world problems just yet, and Rick, “recognised the value of Annie’s idea in principal, but wanted to discover if it was possible and commercially viable”. In what appears to have been a great matchup, Rick set to work understanding the problem they were looking to tackle and worked on bringing the team together!
Upon this initial idea, the team went out and got feedback on their idea, evolving it with each insight they found. They had feedback from unconscious bias trainers within the industry and thought leaders within the corporate space which helped them to understand what potential customers truly wanted and the problems they faced when trying to train around unconscious bias. This is something that’d be handy for all devs out there to remember — your initial idea shouldn’t be a concrete and unmovable one. You really should be getting out there, asking for feedback and letting your concept grow and improve with each bit of feedback, just as Annie and her team did.
Their research expanded the project’s reach as they discovered that customers looking for this sort of training were looking to combat a whole range of types of unconscious bias:
“After talking to potential customers we recognised that the market was shifting from just gender bias to cultural bias, as well as other bias too. We had to shift our focus and start including other types of empathy and research into the product. We started to see that this was going to end up being an emotional intelligence education tool, requiring empathy generation to train for unconscious bias and behaviour.”
Annie says it all goes back to the idea of experience:
“There are many people who do Unconscious Bias training, but consumers have to read, roleplay and imagine. Moving from this way of interacting into VR reduces the cognitive load needed to reach that moment of understanding. Instead of imagining what its like, you simply experience what its like.” — Annie Harper
Their investigations into both unconscious bias training and virtual reality eventually blossomed into a pretty big project, as Annie explains —
“The idea really clicked for us when we saw how high-end VR could combine elements of empathy generation (seeing through another lens) along with behavioural training (how to recognise and stop), with data collection (how to track improvements and learning). What resulted was a commercially viable idea for unconscious bias training in VR (not just for gender, but also disability, age, and ethnicity). This is when the project really began to gain steam and was subsequently accepted into the MIT Entrepreneurship Bootcamp Brisbane at the end of March 2017.”
The idea genuinely does seem like the perfect match.
“We are really aiming to be a benchmark in empathy and emotional intelligence training — we think this is the future of education and strongly believe that AR/VR will be the technological driving force for delivery of this type of content” — Annie Harper
As their team explains further, there is scientific basis behind their approach:
“Science shows that to decrease conscious bias, you have to redefine whom you consider to be the “other” or “outside group”. VR is an empathy machine, we quite literally show you the perspective of those who are directly affected. Extensive academic research has demonstrated that these virtual perspective-taking activities not only decrease negative attitudes toward “other” groups, they also cause people to be more helpful to those they’ve taken the perspective of.”
Equal Reality currently takes people through an interactive journey. The first scene explains what unconscious bias is from a scientific standpoint with 3D data visualisation showing “the magnitude of difference between how much information the mind consciously, and unconsciously processes to illustrate the concept.”
The second scene brings in more of the immersion, as the participant is put into the body of a female with darker complexion. In this scene, they start by looking at their own reflection. A narrator explains who they are, what their background is, and what the goal of their upcoming workplace meeting will be.
It then puts them directly into a scenario they’d never be able to experience in real life:
“Once they have had a moment to “become” this new person, their coworkers enter the room, and they experience what it feels like first-hand to be excluded because of unconsciously biased behaviour. An important aspect of our work is data collection and cataloguing improvements over time. Within this meeting, the user can identify unconscious bias by pulling a trigger on the Vive.”
Currently, the interaction is done solely with HTC Vive controllers, however, the team say they are looking to bring in text-to-speech APIs and emotional/sentiment and natural language analysis to “make the scenario experiences more dynamic”. It sounds like a great path to go down, as it “will not only give a richer sense of immersion but will help give more authentic data than survey results”. They are working with researchers in Psychological sciences and virtual reality training at the University of Wollongong at the moment to perfect their app’s data collection.
Brennan has even made it his mission to educate people on the developments in this area through a Facebook page which I’ve been following along with recently, they have some great links shared and the discussion can get quite fascinating at times.
The idea is even evolving into the areas of artificial intelligence, which I think would take this to a whole new and seriously impressive level:
“We even have introduced IBM Watson AI for data collection and plan to use it even further soon to create dynamic/create-your-own-experience gameplay, which we are really excited about.” — Annie Harper
I’ll finish up this piece with a quote from their team which sums this all up quite nicely.
“There has never been a technology that could do this before. There is a wealth of literature about VR being an exceptional tool for cognitive behavioural training, and VR technology is becoming more available, immersive and interactive, so this will only be further supported in the future. In addition, we are able to collect authentic data about the learning experience from participants in the application, which can be used to track awareness and learning effectiveness unlike anything before.”
“We feel that this is the perfect time, and the perfect tool to help educate the population, and heal some of society’s cultural rifts.” — Annie Harper
A very big thank you to Annie and the team at Equal Reality for taking time out to share their experience and for embarking upon such a worthwhile project! You can sign up for beta access (or pass along your details to help them out!) over on the Equal Reality website. If you are looking to find out more about unconscious bias in VR or discuss it with their team, check out Brennan’s Virtual Reality for Unconscious Bias Facebook group.