How VR can play a critical role in ending public speaking anxiety
The Virtually Word Perfect journey began by accident.
I discovered virtual reality at a Google-organised technology conference in London back in 2016, where Cardboards were handed out at the end of the event as conference swag.
Reluctantly, I tried Google’s cheap-and-cheerful VR viewer — and instantly realised that its potential was huge, extending way beyond gaming. Once home, I began researching its existing applications, and soon came across mental health research highlighting clinical trials that showed really impressive results from using VR in practice.
I became fascinated by the technology’s applications in addressing mental health issues, which I see as among the biggest challenges we face as a generation.
“Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability. More than 260 million are living with anxiety disorders. Many of these people live with both.”
I began contacting various academic institutions that had conducted studies into anxiety. And I went to workshops. Lots of workshops. One event featured a real celebrity in the field — Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo, the Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California.
Rizzo started his own company in the '90s to develop a Bravemind, a virtual reality therapy tool which uses simulations to treat patients suffering from PTSD. Rizzo has amassed a wealth of clinical evidence from trials on the efficiency of the virtual simulations, including six month follow-ups.
The research was inspirational, confirming my suspicions that the market for VR in mental health real, and that the product could be effective. I lost the summer of 2017 to further research, with product development beginning later that year.
Some of the information I gathered along the way was sobering: the United Nations estimates that 300 million people globally suffer from depression, with more than 260 million afflicted by some kind of anxiety disorder.
We began development with high-end VR equipment that cost the best part of £2,500, with a headset that was more suitable for developers than anything a consumer would find usable.
Our early efforts focused on reducing anxiety and phobias. Luckily, we spent plenty of time testing every iteration of the product on partners, who were quick to point out that the hardware was simply too bulky and therefore difficult to manage — so we changed direction to mobile VR.
Initially we created four scenarios, addressing variety of fears and phobias. And as our work with therapists and academics progressed, one phobia became a recurring theme — the fear of public speaking.
Most of the clients attending therapy suffered from a degree of social anxiety, and they especially found public speaking a real challenge. We soon realised that, as tends to be the case with so many things, the audience tends to define the product for you.
And so Virtually Word Perfect was born — the personal training system for public speakers.
We started thinking how we could make the greatest impact with our work and this lead us to create more public speaking scenarios, incorporating the valuable lessons from our early partners. As the product has developed, so has our network — we now count ourselves lucky to be on first name terms with some of the best public speaking training experts in the world.
The demonstrations I've given along the way have been invaluable — seeing how people use virtual reality, and how differently they react in the experiences. I came to understand that the experiences needed to change and adjust with user’s reactions
For example, I had people trying to use the furniture in the virtual experience — one lady wanted to lean on a non-existing table.
And it’s great when therapists are happy to share their experience of our product with the world…
Human beings are hard wired to improve themselves.
And to do that, they need a variety of experiences. The problem is that for many, the fear of those experiences is too great a hurdle, and so it becomes an in virtuous circle.
Virtual reality hacks that loop — it enables you to practice, to fall over (time and again, if needs be) in a safe environment where success in the wild becomes more likely.
If you’re interested in knowing more about how Virtually Word Perfect can help you or your training business, please get in touch!
Claudia Babescu, Founder & CEO, Marmot Labs