Robin S. Rosenberg of Live in Their World: “Make compensation packages public”

As organizations are contemplating to what extent to bring employees back to an office versus work from home, VR, AR, and MR have the potential to help employees experience the feeling of meeting in person, even when they are not in the same room. This will help with collaboration, engagement and belonging, and a sense […]

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As organizations are contemplating to what extent to bring employees back to an office versus work from home, VR, AR, and MR have the potential to help employees experience the feeling of meeting in person, even when they are not in the same room. This will help with collaboration, engagement and belonging, and a sense of “teamness.” I predict that aspect of the technology will get even better.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewingRobin Rosenberg.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., is the CEO and Founder of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace. Robin is a clinical psychologist, author, and executive coach, and has taught psychology courses at Lesley University and Harvard University. She has combined her interest in immersive technologies with her coaching and clinical experiences to foster in employees a deeper understanding of how and why other people are or may feel disrespected (which undermines engagement, productivity, and creativity), and how to approach such interactions differently.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I grew up in New York City, and was always a reader, enjoying mysteries and science fiction, both of which can address what motivates humans across different situations. I don’t know if this led to, or was led by, my interest in psychology at a young age. Books also gave me an insight into what it might be like to have grown up as a different person, which came to the forefront in using virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It really brought home how important financial autonomy is for women. Of course, this is true for men as well, but it speaks to the issue of equity. For instance, at the time the story took place, it was possible that in a family with only daughters, the daughters would be passed over as heirs and the inheritance could go to some male relative with whom they — or their father — had no significant relationship beyond a blood relationship.

The other book that made an impact on me was Philip Dick’s story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which gave a glimpse into the power of “virtual” memories feeling real, which is, in a sense, what virtual reality has the potential to do.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

I’d become certified in hypnosis about 30 years ago, and was fascinated by an aspect of it in which the hypnotized person holds two “realities” simultaneously: the reality of what is happening in the person’s trance state, and the reality that — while in trance — the person was sitting in my office. About 25 years ago, there began a research literature of the psychology of virtual reality. I immediately grasped how immersive VR provides that same phenomenon: The reality of what we experience in the headset, while simultaneously holding the reality that we are actually standing or sitting somewhere else, in a headset. Neuroimaging studies for both hypnosis and VR indicate that those created realities (i.e., trance and VR experiences) are registered by our brains as real. I was humbled by the power of VR to do good.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

At the start of Live in Their World, we were doing our proof-of-concept research. I was at an airport, and my flight was delayed by hours. I was sitting near the gate doing data analysis on my laptop, and asked my husband, travelling with me, whether he knew how to do an analytic technique in Google Sheets (I was new to using Sheets for data analysis). He didn’t know, but a man nearby said he knew how and told me how to do it. We got to talking and he was interested in our virtual reality experience. I whipped out a VR headset from my luggage so he could have the experience. Our flight began boarding, so I had to stop his experience, but he was intrigued. It turned out that he’s CEO of his company and we ended up using his company as one testing site for our proof-of-concept research. And in a small world way, I discovered a year later that he knew my son (who has a different last name).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before COVID, I had arrived at a company to give a demo of our virtual reality experience, and was setting up the virtual reality headsets. I was having a problem getting two of the headsets to work. I was racing against the clock trying to figure out how to fix them. (It’s a good thing I was wearing a jacket over my blouse!) I wasn’t able to get them fixed in time, but the folks I was meeting with were very understanding; they did the demo in groups, one group after the other, instead of all at one time. I learned two lessons: always arrive early when doing demos, and “memorize” the troubleshooting manual for the headsets. Both lessons have served me in good stead. I try to learn from my mistakes and take them seriously, so I can’t think of a “funny” mistake.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had the good fortune to collaborate on VR research with Jeremy Bailenson, at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. I had been following his work for years before we did research together. At the same time we were doing that research, Trayvon Martin was killed, and then there was the spate of murders of Black people being killed by white people, which led to a surge in focusing on Black Lives Matter. In turn this led some white people to say “all lives matter.” I hypothesized that if those white people could get enough of a sense of a Black person’s lived experience, they would understand what the statement Black Lives Matter really means and, in turn, wouldn’t say “all lives matter.” My idea was to use VR to convey that lived experience. My company, Live in Their World, was based on that idea and the subsequent research we did demonstrated VR was a powerful tool to facilitate that type of understanding and empathy.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We continue to add different experiences and perspectives to our program, which provide additional insight, understanding, and empathy.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

I’m particularly excited about the potential for VR, AR, and MR to provide engaging and memorable training; I think VR in particularly is suited to provide emotional learning because you are powerfully experiencing something first-hand that you might not otherwise experience so directly.

For skills training, such as surgery or crisis training, VR, AR, and MR provide unique opportunities to become proficient while at the same time, mistakes are not costly.

As organizations are contemplating to what extent to bring employees back to an office versus work from home, VR, AR, and MR have the potential to help employees experience the feeling of meeting in person, even when they are not in the same room. This will help with collaboration, engagement and belonging, and a sense of “teamness.” I predict that aspect of the technology will get even better.

Another aspect of VR that I’m excited about is its increasing use to treat various mental disorders, such as anxiety, and to treat pain. There is terrific research about using VR to treat such conditions.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

One thing I’m concerned about is that VR experiences could isolate us rather than bring us together. This can happen when we prefer to have virtual interactions with non-humans rather than humans: You can set the VR non-humans to interact with you however you want — but you can’t do that with humans. So, you might prefer to interact with virtual humans who are optimized for you, rather than interact with other humans who are, in comparison, unpredictable and motivated by their own goals and desires. For instance, using VR for sex, users can create the person of their dreams, who behaves exactly in ways the user wants. It’s more complicated to negotiate with an actual human sexual partner. Plus, the actual partner has a real body with the human imperfections that come with that. Similarly, I’m concerned that the alternative realities of VR and MR can be compelling enough that people won’t want to go back to their “real” lives. We can already see the addictive nature of computer games; with VR, that squirt of dopamine that rewards you with computer games will be even more powerful in VR.

Another thing I’m concerned about is empathy fatigue: as VR and MR become more widespread and increasing numbers of people have emotionally engaging experiences, will they become more likely to become less affected by each? Research with other media suggest that answer is yes.

I’m also concerned about how certain VR experiences can affect individuals and society. For instance, what is the effect of you virtually killing someone in a VR game, since your brain has registered the experience as real? Will it change your view of murder? If you are a juror on a murder trial, would having had that VR experience change the way you vote, since you, too, have murdered someone?

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Imagine being able to experience a very fun or powerful experience with work colleagues, such as a VR concert or a thrilling “treasure hunt,” even when you’re working from home and therefore not in the same room (not co-located) with them. VR can enable us to have real-time, memorable shared experiences that bring us together in ways that are hard to do during a pandemic or when we are not co-located.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

I look forward to seeing increasing adoption of MR. I love the way that MR allows you interact with objects in three dimensions — allowing you both to see “the whole” of something and also separate out and enlarge multiple parts and organize them in space. We have “seen” much more information at a glance. We can also manipulate those virtual objects. For instance, using MR, surgeons can both see three-dimensional patient images while operating, allowing them to see problem areas from different angles — something they would not be able to see in real life, leading to better outcomes.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Unfortunately, just as there is still bias and inequity toward women in many fields, there is still bias and inequity toward women in STEM education and STEM fields. I think four possible changes can help a lot:

  • Look at the whole talent acquisition process to minimize biases that skew who is hired: from the language used in the job description, whether resumes are reviewed with names stripped out, what questions are asked of applicants, whether“style” or “culture fit” are prioritized (rather than fit with the values of the organization).
  • Make compensation packages public. This will help create equity in compensation.
  • Use clear, transparent, and consistently applied criteria/metrics for allocating high status work, mentorship/sponsorship opportunities, and promotions.
  • Incentivize and reward inclusive behavior in leadership, managers, and individual contributors.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

That’s a tough question to answer, because many of the “myths” are true — or have enough truth that to dispel them implies the myths are false.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Among the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of relationships. I’m an introvert, and in my previous job I did not have daily contact with colleagues or collaborators. I feel incredibly fortunate that the path to launching this company has connected me to wonderful people who gave me their time and wisdom, and with whom I’ve had the fortune to develop personal relationships. Their support and counsel has enriched my life.

Another lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being adaptive and creative. Our program was developed to be used in the Oculus virtual reality headset. But with many employees working from home once the pandemic hit, we had to come up with a different way to provide the virtual reality experience to employees. After many sleepless nights thinking about how the company, featuring virtual reality content, could launch during a pandemic, I decided that we should retool and offer mobile VR viewing (via a mobile VR headset for people’s phones) and immersive video.

In addition, I knew from my experience coaching founders, and from living in San Francisco, which is filled with people working at startups, that hanging in there — persevering — is a crucial quality. That said, it’s not about rigidly persevering. Rather, it’s a general, continual focus on the mission of the company, and adapting the product or service as you get new information. Of course, the tricky thing is deciding where and when to adapt. For us, with work-from-home during the pandemic, to persevere with the company’s mission, we had to adapt the virtual reality delivery model.

People have talked about the emotional roller coaster of founding a startup, and is that ever true! One of my lessons is learning my signals about when I need to shut off thinking about the company. For me, this is most likely to happen when the roller coaster is at its lowest point — when there are specific challenges that have no easy or quick solution. I’ve had to learn when to recharge myself with other aspects of life. During the pandemic, that’s been particularly difficult, since there are so few opportunities to meet with friends and family in person, or have a “different” re-charging experience that would have been possible pre-COVID.

My last point is about the power of chance. It was chance that I was doing virtual reality research around the time some white people were saying “all lives matter,” and so the power of VR was forefront in my mind. It was chance that I happened to mention the idea to a venture capitalist I socialized with. It was chance that the events of the MeToo movement reminded him of my idea and he offered to fund me. How often is someone offered money to start a company to test an idea — when I wasn’t even asking for funding and had no thought of starting a company? By the same token, right as we are about to launch, COVID hit. So that’s a case of chance creating adversity. You can’t plan for chance, but you can plan to be alert to notice when chance produces an opportunity, and to be ready to seize the moment when you see an opportunity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to see people treat each other with more respect — even if you don’t agree with each other or don’t like each other. Being respectful to others generates in ourselves and others a sense of dignity, humility, and awareness of the humanity of each of us.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to have a meal with Christine Porath, one of the pioneering researchers on civility in the workplace.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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