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Protocol | Workplace

Can VR Goggles help us talk about racism in the workplace?

"The ultimate empathy machine" — why ServiceNow turned to VR and AR to improve inclusion.

A virtual reality scene with five people sitting around a large table in front of a white board.

Praxis Labs develops VR scenarios to help people experience the impact of inequitable systems and practice advocating for change.

Praxis Labs

Experts agree that one of the best ways to understand someone else's experience is to talk to them about it. But anyone who has ever had to explain racial trauma to a co-worker who has never experienced it knows how re-traumatizing this can be.

Workplace software company ServiceNow is experimenting with virtual and augmented reality to see if those technologies can improve inclusion and increase empathy among its employees. The goal is to better equip managers and employees with the tools needed to show up for each other without burdening folks from marginalized groups.

ServiceNow began piloting VR technology in its workplace back in 2019, and augmented reality in 2020 for managers, "given their outsized influences on people's experiences," ServiceNow director of global diversity, inclusion and belonging Megan Kollar Dwyer told Protocol. This month, the company launched another VR pilot focused on empathy and perspective-taking, which is more widely available to all employees.

The company turned to VR to enable employees and managers to gain a better perspective on a variety of experiences people may face in the workplace as well as improve empathy and show them how to take action, Kollar Dwyer said.

"We know it's not just enough to raise awareness about something, or even just to get a sense of an experience that's either very familiar to you and aligns with your lived experience or is very unfamiliar to you and hasn't been aligned with your lived experience," she said. "You've got to know what to do."

Through Praxis Labs, a DEI VR provider, ServiceNow has taken managers through a number of different scenarios that tackle topics such as promotions, racism, microaggressions and bias. One AR scenario, for example, helps managers talk to their teams about racism in light of a hypothetical event that "happened over the weekend that has affected a community," Kollar Dwyer said.

A VR scenario, for example, puts someone in the roles of experiencing bias, perpetrating bias and watching bias happen to another person. As a bystander in that scenario, people are able to practice the skill of speaking up and being an ally, she said. After the scenario, the tool shares with learners what they could do to foster more equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Praxis Labs CEO Elise Smith believes being proximate to people who are different from you is the best way to understand different perspectives, she told Protocol. She noted how segregation in America is increasing and how the workplace can be an opportunity to interact with folks from a variety of backgrounds.

"But the ability to understand the perspective of this more diverse environment that we typically find ourselves in is limited unless we require folks from marginalized backgrounds to share their trauma for the education of us all," Smith said. "That burden is one that is on top of folks who are already trying to overcome systems of oppression in workplaces."

That's why Praxis Labs sees VR and mixed reality as an opportunity to protect marginalized groups of people from taking on that burden while also providing an experience for others to learn and build empathy, she said.

Trainees can also "practice building muscles of how to respond, how to intervene and how to make decisions that produce more inclusion, that produce more equity, so that when they in real life have the chance to perhaps intervene, they will have practice," Smith said.

ServiceNow measures impact through surveys as well as relying on Praxis Labs to show anonymized patterns and trends. Praxis Labs tracks and measures efficacy across the duration of the program. For example, Praxis measures each participant's personal growth by tracking how well they identify factors that contribute to inequity, as well as whether the decisions they make contribute to equitable outcomes.

Using virtual reality to improve empathy is not a novel idea. In 2018, Stanford University researchers found that those who participated in a virtual reality experience detailing what it's like to be homeless made them more likely to support affordable housing than other participants in the study. A 2020 study found that virtual reality (e.g., being with someone carrying a bunch of water over a long distance) is about as effective at eliciting empathy as an embodied experience (carrying a bunch of water in real life). However, VR was not better than the real experience.

The study concluded: "While more research needs to be done, the mixed results of this study and previous studies indicates the proposition that VR is the ultimate empathy machine seems to be more of an article of faith than a proven fact."

Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab and co-author of the above Stanford study, told Protocol that VR "is not a magic solution that is going to solve bias issues."

Many people wonder if VR is the ultimate empathy machine, but Bailenson cautioned that "no single media experience will perfectly erase decades of how we become who we are."

Instead, he said, VR provides an experience that people might not otherwise be able to have.

"It gives you an emotional, arousing experience which then can be used to drive the conversation," he said. "Where I've settled in my thinking about the role of VR as it relates to diversity training is realizing that a training curriculum is vast and VR gets you one small portion."

ServiceNow is not the only company to try to improve inclusion through virtual reality. Praxis Labs also counts companies such as Google, Amazon and Uber as customers.

"The feedback we've gotten and why we are able to partner with huge companies when we are an early stage startup is because these are visceral experiences that are pushing people and making them think differently," Smith said. "They're learning about concepts they might not realize exists in workplaces and they're being able to see them and expose them in their workplace. It's not just building empathy, it's not just identifying barriers to equity but taking action to produce more just, equitable and inclusive workplaces."

Virtual reality is part of ServiceNow's broader diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. On the more structural side, ServiceNow has also implemented what it calls "bias busting nudges" to identify common biases that come up in performance review processes. The automated nudges are designed to remind managers about confirmation bias, similarity bias, proximity bias and other biases as they input information about employees during a performance review.

ServiceNow's diversity numbers are generally on par with representation statistics from other tech companies. The company is 70.8% male globally. In the U.S.,the company is 55.8% white while just 2.7% Black, 6.2% Latinx and 32.2% Asian, according to its 2020 diversity report. Meanwhile, its leadership team is 72.4% male globally and 68.6% white.

ServiceNow has set goals to increase the representation of Black and Latinx people, as well as women in leadership roles, but declined to share those goals.

"Obviously," Kollar Dwyer said, "the goal is to get to balanced and diverse teams across the organization."

Protocol | Fintech

Amazon wants a crypto play. Its history in payments is not encouraging.

It missed chances to be PayPal, Square and Stripe — so is this its chance to miss being Coinbase, too?

Amazon wants to be a crypto player.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The news that Amazon was hiring a lead for a new digital currency and blockchain initiative sent the price of bitcoin soaring. But there's another way to look at the news that's less bullish on bitcoin and bearish on Amazon: 13 years after Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper appeared on the internet, Amazon is just discovering cryptocurrency?

That may be a bit unkind, but the truth is sometimes unkind. And the reality is that Amazon has a long history of stumbles and missed opportunities in payments, which goes back more than two decades to the company's purchase of internet payments startup

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Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Enterprise

How Google Cloud plans to kill its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation

Under the new Google Enterprise APIs policy, the company is making a promise that its services will remain available and stable far into the future.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has promised to make the company more customer-friendly.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images 2019

Google Cloud issued a promise Monday to current and potential customers that it's safe to build a business around its core technologies, another step in its transformation from an engineering playground to a true enterprise tech vendor.

Starting Monday, Google will designate a subset of APIs across the company as Google Enterprise APIs, including APIs from Google Cloud, Google Workspace and Google Maps. APIs selected for this category — which will include "a majority" of Google Cloud APIs according to Kripa Krishnan, vice president at Google Cloud — will be subject to strict guidelines regarding any changes that could affect customer software built around those APIs.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is Protocol's enterprise editor, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire, and served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure.

Amazon job opening points to plan to accept crypto payments

The news sparked a rally in the values of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Amazon may be planning to let customers pay for orders with cryptocurrencies.

Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

Amazon is looking to hire a digital currency and blockchain expert suggesting a plan to let customers accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

The tech giant's job opening says Amazon is looking for "an experienced product leader" to help develop the company's "digital currency and blockchain strategy and roadmap" Amazon is looking for product leader with expertise in blockchain, distributed ledger, central bank digital currencies and cryptocurrency.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Policy

Big Tech tried to redefine terrorism online. It got messy fast.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism announced a series of narrow steps it's taking that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

Erin Saltman is GIFCT's director of programming.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Flickr

A little over a month after the Jan. 6 riot, the tech industry's leading anti-terrorism alliance — a group founded by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter — announced it was seeking ideas for how it could expand its definition of terrorism, which had for years been more or less synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The group, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism or GIFCT, had been considering such a shift for at least a year, but the rising threat of domestic extremism, punctuated by the Capitol uprising, made it all the more clear something needed to change.

But after months of interviewing member companies, months of considering academic proposals and months spent mulling the impact of tech platforms on this and other violent events around the world, the group's policies have barely budged. On Monday, in a 177-page report, GIFCT released the first details of its plan, and, well, a radical rethinking of online extremism it is not. Instead, the report lays out a series of narrow steps that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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