Sexual harassment training is outdated. VR might be a fix.

VR sexual harassment and discrimination training might be the next frontier in the metaverse.

Army members wearing VR headsets

Some companies have been working to bring harassment prevention training into the present, fusing seminars with virtual reality.

Photo: Moth+Flame

If you’ve taken a sexual harassment training seminar at work recently, chances are you’re learning from materials that are at least a decade old.

Sexual harassment training has remained stuck in the past, with many workplaces still relying on PowerPoints or videos that don’t engage users, fail to promote empathy and haven’t done enough to prevent or reduce workplace harassment on a large scale. An analysis by an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law found that although the delivery formats of harassment training have changed, the nature of the content has remained fundamentally unchanged since the ‘80s and ‘90s. Meanwhile, harassment persists in workplaces, with 59% of women and 27% of men reporting receiving unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment, according to a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center.

More recently, though, some companies have been working to bring harassment prevention training into the present, fusing seminars with the latest tech trend: virtual reality.

An Air Force member uses a VR headset.An Air Force member uses a VR headset for training.Photo: Moth+Flame

“It's one thing to verbalize and to tell somebody what something feels like or what happened,” said Morgan Mercer, founder and CEO of VR training company Vantage Point. “It's a completely different thing for somebody to be in that lived experience, to embody it and to feel the same thing.”

VR can't cross that chasm entirely, but it's a start. Studies tell a similar story: A PwC survey from last year found that VR learners felt 275% more confident in applying learned skills after training, as well as 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content when compared to classroom-based learning.

Mercer founded Vantage Point in 2017, aiming to use VR to address the lack of up-to-date harassment and bias training in workplaces. She said she realized there was a need for better sexual harassment prevention training after talking with friends and hearing that they had all experienced the same things — harassment, discrimination and sexism — in different corporate settings.

Typical video-watching tools, Mercer said, just don’t offer the kind of real training employees need. In a VR headset, she said, “You're actually given the opportunity to practice speaking up, practice intervening, you can tell your colleagues to say something. That's how we're teaching people.”

How it works

In Vantage Point trainings, which are aimed at senior-level leadership, users are “completely transported into a real-world environment” once they put on their VR headsets, Mercer said. The company uses photorealistic characters rather than avatars to create a “sense of immersion” and heighten the “emotional stakes” of the experience.

“The characters within the experience may come up to talk to you, make eye contact with you, sometimes maybe get a little bit too close,” Mercer said. “Much like in the real world, the things that you do influence the outcome you have, and so if you speak up sooner, things get better.”

In traditional prevention training seminars, it can be hard to keep the attention of a group while going through slides or videos. Even as many prevention trainings are conducted using e-learning software, people often quickly click through, retaining little of the information. But applying VR to prevention training demands the attention of the user, better teaching skills such as bystander prevention and how to properly report incidents that happen, Mercer said.

VR prevention training also helps users “get an understanding of how it might be in another person's shoes,” said Jocelyn Tan, co-founder of training company Sisu VR. Sisu VR’s training programs put users in the positions of either "victim," "offender" or "observer," and have them go through simulations of harassment, discrimination and bullying. The training sessions last roughly two hours, breaking up VR experiences into 15-minute periods.

Tan said she had experienced sexual harrassment and discrimination in workplaces before, but when she was slapped by a colleague during a work meeting prior to the pandemic, she said she realized that if something like that can be allowed to happen at work, modern harassment training simply wasn’t sufficient.

The incident fueled the mission of Sisu VR, causing Tan to double down on her work to get the company off the ground. “The most important advantage [of VR training] is being able to practice making empathy-driven decisions as you're undergoing the simulations,” she said.

Code of ethics

But while VR can heighten the emotions of a training situation, it’s dangerous for VR sessions to be thought of as “empathy-enhancing simulations,” said Erick Ramirez, an associate professor at Santa Clara University who worked with Tan on creating a code of ethics for the use of VR and AR. A 30-minute VR training, he said, can’t replace or approximate a lifetime of lived experiences of discrimination.

“I don't think that we can actually enter into someone else's perspective in that way,” said Ramirez. “What it means to be you isn't just what it would look like to put a camera where your head is. How you see the world is really impacted by a lot of things stemming from your prior experience.”

Image: Sisu VR

The code of ethics Ramirez helped write, released in 2021, recommends that VR be used for ethical “nudges,” helping people be more sympathetic, be less bigoted and understand their biases better. However, developers should be wary of “developing nudges that leave users with the false impression that they understand what it’s like to live the life of a different person,” he said.

But in terms of understanding, sympathy and retention of information, VR is an incredibly useful tool, said Kevin Cornish, founder of Moth+Flame, a Brooklyn-based VR company.

“With virtual reality, you can have that conversation, and you're speaking out loud,” Cornish said. “There's a person inside of the VR experience that's making eye contact with you and sharing their emotions with you.”

Beyond the workplace

VR can be used beyond traditional workplace environments. For example, in the military, sexual assault is common, and often goes unreported. Following the release of a report last year that disclosed the Air Force had received more than 1,600 complaints of sexual assault in fiscal year 2020, Moth+Flame partnered with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command on its sexual assault prevention program, which trains Air Force personnel how to have conversations with victims, provide emotional support and go through proper reporting channels.

Air Force members in training.Air Force members in training.Photo: Moth+Flame

Cornish said the Air Force’s typical training is “mostly driven by PowerPoint” with a bit of roleplay, done over 40 hours in a classroom. But this style of training doesn’t usually stick, he said. “A very common challenge is they do the training, maybe a month or two goes by, then they get their first call and they have that conversation with somebody,” said Cornish. “This is somebody who's in one of the most vulnerable places in their life, and they find themselves completely unprepared to properly handle that conversation.”

Carmen Schott, sexual assault program manager for the Air Mobility Command, said Moth+Flame’s training is more effective at skill building than the traditional methods of sexual assault prevention training because “they're having to actually say the words out loud,” which helps users remember resources and reporting methods more easily. Moth+Flame’s modules also only take 30 minutes. On the first day that Air Mobility Command rolled out its training for the Air Force, 110 people completed it, Schott said.

“They’ve gotten training, they talked about it. We give scenarios and discussions and PowerPoint in small groups, but it's different from being in a real scene and seeing something happen and then getting to act it out in a virtual world,” said Schott. “They'll leave the experience with a sense of, ‘Wow, I can make an impact, and what I do matters.’”

Making the case for VR

Before developing its current offering, Moth+Flame first worked on VR projects with entertainment industry clients. The company later shifted its business to the enterprise and its focus to workplace training, offering VR seminars in topics such as conflict management, intercultural communications and diversity, equity and inclusion. It began working on sexual assault prevention training modules in 2019 and kicked the program off last year.

“We thought this could be really helpful for training child welfare workers, for helping to prevent suicide by training people on having difficult conversations with people at risk and then, most recently, training around ways to stem the sexual assault epidemic,” Cornish said.

Moth+Flame also recently received funding from the Air Force to do a study on the efficacy of its sexual assault prevention training, as well as its suicide prevention training, at the University of Florida, said JC Glick, the company’s chief of staff. His goal is for the program to be eventually expanded throughout the entire Department of Defense.

“It's huge — the ability to be able to say we have an academic study that says what we're doing is worth it,” Glick said. “The Air Force is funding it, they believe in the program.”

VR scenarioAn example scene from VR training.Image: Moth+Flame

Though Sisu VR started by focusing on sexual harassment training, it has recently expanded its repertoire to offer active shooter prevention training in partnership with VR company MindGlow. Sisu is also working to build out its client base, and currently is in contract discussions with Microsoft, Tan said.

Vantage Point currently offers anti-harassment and diversity, equity and inclusion leadership training in VR, Mercer said, and the company is looking to expand its content with simulations for things like “negotiation skills and intercultural business skills.” Mercer also wants to expand future training to include all employees, rather than just leadership. The company’s client list includes Comcast, Alphabet subsidiary Looker Data Sciences and law firm Latham & Watkins.

The primary challenge for these companies, Tan said, is getting workplaces, especially those whose methods of sexual harassment training remain dated, to widely accept and adopt VR. Growing hype around metaverse technologies has introduced more people to the concept, but there's still a long way to go. And VR itself is not a panacea — sexual harrassment can, and has, occured within the confines of a VR headset.

“Users are in general still unfamiliar with the space, and so that can be challenging, to really push them towards it,” Tan said. “Being able to convince users unfamiliar with VR that, although this is a new innovation, that it is not something to be scared of, is a challenge.”


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories