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As a biracial woman growing up in North Carolina with a Black liberal Democrat mother and a white conservative Republican father, Morgan Mercer learned early on that different perspectives help shape opinion. “I would hear different perspectives on school systems, life planning, how to manage finances — it didn’t matter what it was,” she says. “It made me question what identity is as a concept.”
Helping others understand such different perspectives and experiences is what drove Mercer to found Vantage Point in 2018. The company uses virtual reality (VR) to train others about topics such as sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, and soon, disability awareness.
Clients use Vantage Point’s model for their employee training, guiding users through an immersive training platform to evaluate different workplace scenarios. While wearing VR headsets, users are either part of the experience itself or watch it from afar. As situations occur, the user responds to different pop-up boxes with multiple-choice questions about how they would choose to respond. Once the decision is made, the program coaches users on what the optimal solution would be if not already chosen.
Vantage Point offers about 50 different experiences, about 10-15 minutes each, and clients can customize the training. Most clients follow the immersive experience with live training or discussion, either with their own employee leader or a specialist from Vantage Point.
“A lot of technology can cause apathy, but immersiveness can elicit empathy and make the world a better place,” says Mercer. Vantage Point programs are “all focused on developing empathy, soft skills, and making people into better humans.”
Changing minds with technology
In 2016, Mercer had been grappling with the idea of subjective feelings and how to help people change what may be inadvertently hurtful thoughts or ideologies. “In order to create the space for someone to be willing to do that, and to take the actions to reflect on it and make change, people have to feel like something relates to them. How do we do that?”
Then she put on a VR headset.
“I remember screaming and dropping my phone — it was such a visceral, emotional response,” she says. “When I took off the headset, I was like, “If we can create that level of viscerallness for an emotional tie to something for entertainment, why can’t we do this for training and education around some of the areas I care about?”
Others agree. While company names are confidential, Mercer says Vantage Point’s client roster includes two dozen companies, some in the Fortune 500. They span 13 verticals including retail, government, law, technology, and media.
One satisfied client is Devon Peterika, a diversity professional who has worked in the human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion space for more than 20 years. She uses technology to maximize diversity objectives and appreciates Vantage Point’s tools for how effective they are.
“We have some diversity objectives in house and their tools really help people understand the impact of diversity in a safe space,” she says. When wearing a VR headset, you could be watching a scenario where two males, one Black and one white, are sitting at a table. “You are watching the discussion and one makes microaggression statements. The other person looks at you as if to say, ‘Can you believe this?’” Peterika says. The subsequent questions the user is asked help to determine how the user would respond and coaching on how to do so while maintaining company diversity and inclusion initiatives. “It shows authentic, in-the-moment scenarios.”
Combined with group discussions, the program “is everything I want to showcase,” says Peterika. “I can’t emphasize enough that the technology is amazing with diversity and inclusion initiatives. It doesn’t look fake, it raises emotion, and shows that certain behavior is not okay, and this is why diversity and inclusion initiatives matter.”
Mercer says Vantage Point’s VR programs are especially effective because of state dependency, the concept of learning something in the same format as if it were happening live. Just as someone might study for a test in an environment that is similar to where the test will actually be administered, the VR experience is better than group training because people react in a private space and they aren’t exposed to a group mentality of responding based on how their peers or coworkers might react, she says.
“The immersive experience gives people space to fail safely: in an environment where you are able to learn around your actions,” she says. “You’re not just role playing; it actually feels like you’re with your manager. That allows people to train more closely to the behaviors that they would actually do in your life.”
Mercer says she can measure the success of Vantage Point’s VR programs by collecting data on how users respond. “Inside the headset, we capture program analytics and give them back, aggregated, to employees in areas such as hesitancy or comprehension,” she says. “It is immediate coachability automated to how you responded in the headset. Success metrics can be set and compared to pre-and post-surveys.” Ultimately, she says eighty-five percent of trainees felt they were more equipped to respond to bias, whether they knew something was biased, and saw scores improve.”
“Virtual reality embeds memory. It’s like riding a bike — if you watch someone doing it, you won’t learn. You learn how to do it by practicing. With VR, we learn by doing, in the same environment and with the same stimuli,” she says.