The NFL is exploring VR to conquer racial and sexual discrimination through diversity-training scenarios, which aim to engender empathy
April 10, 2016
Virtual Reality Tested By NFL As Tool To Confront Racism, Sexism
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Virtual reality can bring us to the top of Mount Everest. But Stanford University researchers believe it can conquer an even steeper challenge: racial and sexual discrimination.
“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made for,” says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Its diversity-training scenarios, which aim to engender empathy, have attracted interest from one large organization: the National Football League. The NFL is in the early stages of determining how it will use the new technology to train league staffers and players on understanding bias, league executives tell USA TODAY.
The NFL hopes to leverage the immersive power of virtual reality, referred to by experts as “presence.” By putting on goggles that replace the real world with interactive VR scenes, the brain comes close to truly believing what it is seeing. The effect of such realism could be lasting behavioral change.
Jefferson Graham reports on a Virtual Reality seminar for filmmakers at YouTube’s production space in Los Angeles, where the Google owned company talked VR and diversity, and VR as the next big computing platform.
The Interaction Lab’s diversity demos are designed to transport users into unfamiliar and unsettling realms. In one scenario, a user is represented by an African-American female avatar who is being angrily harassed by a white avatar. When the user reflexively lifts his or her arms in self-defense, the hands feature black skin.
VR remains a new and largely unstudied technology, with some scientists expressing concern over the brain’s reaction to extended VR sessions. But it’s also easy to see why some hope it could create breakthroughs where past efforts at stemming discrimination have come up short.
Harvard studies examining decades’ worth of corporate diversity training sessions conclude that in many cases, the training is ineffective or even counterproductive, as attendees feel singled out for implicit criticism.
New approaches to diversity training are being pioneered, such as Google’s ongoing bias-busting workshops aimed at its entire workforce. And the pressure is on to explore other solutions, as companies address workforce demographics that tend to skew white and male, despite goals to reflect the diversity of their customers, and as cities grapple with repeated instances of police brutality against African-Americans andlow recruitment rates for minority police officers.
NFL’S GOAL: ‘BEST PLACE TO WORK’
NFL officials, who visited the Interaction Lab last summer to learn about VR coaching for athletes, realized they could use the technology for diversity training purposes.
“VR can deliver on real social issues that allow people to be better,” says Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, who visited the lab with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“We’ll start using this as another teaching tool later this year,” says Vincent, whose league still struggles with low numbers of women and minorities in top positions. “We want to be known as the best place to work.”
While the Stanford lab’s software is free to any interested organization, the NFL will have to order any custom-built diversity VR sessions through Strivr, a VR coaching company co-founded by Bailenson, former pro quarterback Trent Edwards and former Stanford assistant football coach Derek Belch.
Strivr tech is used by a number of pro and collegiate football teams to help train athletes by running them through though filmed drills in VR, which imprint faster on the brain than watching regular video footage.
Although Bailenson has dabbled with VR diversity scenarios for more than a decade, his work is starting to get attention now partly due to the increasing affordability of VR technology. Before, a company considering such a training program would have to invest in military-grade headsets that cost $10,000 and up. Today’s Oculus Rift and HTC Vive goggles are priced around $700.
LAB STUDIES: 30-MINUTE WINDOW
Fortune 500 companies and startups alike spend more than a collective $8 billion a year on in-house diversity training sessions that are largely ineffective and often counterproductive, says Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University sociology professor who has conducted numerous studies on diversity programs that date back decades.
“All lab studies show that you can change people’s attitudes for about 30 minutes after training,” he says. “But three to six months later there’s either no change or a negative reaction because you’ve actually activated their bias.”
A January paper in the Journal of Social Psychology reported on a trio of experiments that showed “high-status groups,” namely white males, were threatened by companies that stressed their pro-diversity message during mock interviews.
Company diversity efforts that prove most effective include minority recruiting programs and staff-wide mentoring programs that don’t single out minorities, Dobbin says. He adds VR diversity training should be studied before it is implemented.
Some are doing just that. In 2014, a group of European researchers conducted a series of tests that revealed that subjects who saw and interacted with VR versions of their own limbs that were a different color than their own skin scored high on tests that measure empathy.
Judith Williams, the new head of diversity at cloud storage company Dropbox, says she has had internal conversations with colleagues about how VR “might open up the diversity conversation.” In particular, she notes that VR can potentially lead to job interviews being conducted through avatars that mask a subject’s ethnicity or even sex.
Such blind evaluations have been known to eliminate bias. In one particularly well-known shift that took place in the 1980s, the number of women playing in leading orchestras jumped from 5% to nearly 30% after musicians auditioning for jobs were completely screened off from those judging their performances.
“Bias often plays out in tech as a like-me bias,” says Williams, who previously was head of global diversity and talent programs at Google, where she was integral to the development of the company’s hands-on workshops aimed at addressing hidden biases.
In the end, says Williams, “for some people it’s really just a matter of never being exposed to their own privilege.”
The idea of VR diversity is intriguing, says Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm, a firm that advises companies on how to become more inclusive. But she remains skeptical of its ability to create long-term change.
“It’s very different to have a few experiences through a simulation on a single day versus a series of experiences over the course of your whole life,” says Emerson. “So I’m not sure what kind of impact we could expect (from VR).”
REVEALING COLORBLIND EXPERIMENT
The best proof that VR can help us become more understanding is found in another one of his empathy experiments, says lab director Bailenson.
One group was asked to perform a tasks sorting colored blocks while being effectively rendered colorblind through VR. The other group was asked to perform the task while simply imagining they were colorblind, an echo of the role-playing scenarios familiar to many diversity training sessions.
After the experiment, both groups were asked to search online for colorblind help groups – essentially a way to gauge empathy. The VR group wound up spending twice as much time searching the web for such organizations.
“What we’re learning here is that experiencing hardship in VR is better than role playing,” he says. “I’m not saying, ‘Put on a VR goggle and you’ve solved racism.’ But I’m optimistic it can help.”