A new virtual reality (VR) training program uses immersive technology to tackle sex harassment in the workplace. It is one of a series of schemes using VR to explore social issues that are hard to teach the traditional way.
"There is no better way to explain a feeling than to really immerse somebody in a situation," said Morgan Mercer, who said she was subject to two episodes of sexual violence so founded a training company to help others avoid the same fate. Globally, one in three women and girls experiences physical or sexual violence, the United Nations estimates.
Used in consoles to bring players close to the action, virtual reality is increasingly deployed for far more than fun. Be it increasing awareness about homelessness, spreading the word about sex trafficking or fighting dementia, VR has featured in social spheres far from the gaming world that brought it to prominence. Supporters say it provides an enveloping experience that makes viewers feel personally involved in a given situation.
"People respond to virtual situations as if they were real," said Mavi Sanchez Vives, an expert at the University of Barcelona on VR applications in neuroscience. Mercer founded her San Francisco-based training firm, Vantage Point, in 2017.
Last month it launched its first courses, with staff at 12 companies donning VR headsets to join simulated meetings where they witness inappropriate comments or behaviour - and work out how they might react. At least 25 percent of women in the United States and more than 50 percent in Britain report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Training focuses on situations where work and social life blend, often a fraught place as old-world offices mimic the relaxed culture of a startup, Mercer said in a telephone interview.
"People work in environments where colleagues hang out, get drinks and are friends, so it is about teaching them how to identify when somebody is uncomfortable, what is appropriate and what is not and what actions can be taken," she said.
"Often things can be nipped in the bud before they progress up to HR (human resources)."
In May, a poll found that only a third of U.S. employers had taken new measures to prevent sexual harassment since the #MeToo movement sparked international debate and led to a global furore over the widespread nature of sex harassment.
In Barcelona, Sanchez Vives has been using similar VR technology to help violent men see how it feels to be on the other end of their abuse, part of a pilot rehabilitation program run by the Catalan government. Under the scheme, first-time offenders are transposed into the body of a women facing an aggressive partner, who hurls insults, smashes a phone then moves in uncomfortably close. The simulation gives offenders much more insight into the impact of their outbursts than role play or educational videos, said Sanchez Vives.