The Quest to Create Utterly Normal Virtual Reality Experiences

Virtual reality is being used in the corporate and professional sports worlds to simulate jobs — how to operate dangerous equipment, how to execute a play. In a Q&A, Jeremy Bailenson, a leading expert in virtual reality, says training is just the beginning.

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In his new book, Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), Jeremy Bailenson argues that virtual reality (VR) has the potential to transform work — from the way in which we train for difficult assignments to how we communicate with others.

As founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Bailenson has been at the forefront of developing immersive VR simulations and bringing them from the academic world to the real world. Bailenson, who is also the Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford, is a cofounder of STRIVR, an immersive technology training company based in Menlo Park, California, whose clients include corporations such as Walmart, HTC, and Microsoft, and professional sports organizations such as the National Football League.

MIT Sloan Management Review spoke with Bailenson about how VR is being used for training, the challenge of creating intimacy via VR, and why meetings conducted via avatars could be more effective than those that take place via Skype. Freelance journalist Frieda Klotz conducted the interview, and what follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: Why is now such a key time for VR?

Bailenson: I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and up until very recently, the biggest VR company employed maybe 20 engineers. What you’re seeing now is that the tech giants are getting involved — Samsung and Facebook, Sony and Google — so you’ve literally got hundreds of engineers working on identifying problems and coming up with solutions.

At the same time, the technology is becoming cheaper, and the quality has drastically improved. Now we’ve got VR headsets, or head-mounted displays, that cost hundreds of dollars instead of tens of thousands. All the tech parameters — things like low latency, meaning minimal delays, and high update rate, meaning speed, and accurate tracking, meaning the way VR can measure body movements, along with high field of view and image resolution — are drastically improving. So this is a very special time simply due to the availability and quality of the hardware.

How are companies using these technologies?

Bailenson: Right now, it’s clearly training.

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