Filming Vantage Point’s immersive virtual reality experience. Picture credit: Morgan Mercer
by Pip Usher
For tech entrepreneur Morgan Mercer, it was the decision to confront her own biases that led to the creation of her business.
Recalling how a friendship with a Swedish-Ethiopian woman was nearly derailed after Mercer made a “really ignorant joke”, she says the experience prompted much soul-searching as she tried to understand how she could hold views hurtful to those she loved.
This self-enquiry, combined with a growing interest in gender disparity, resulted in Vantage Point, a virtual reality sexual harassment training program founded in 2017.
Morgan Mercer speaking at Techcrunch Sessions AR/VR in Los Angeles in 2018. Picture credit: Morgan Mercer
Mercer’s cutting-edge platform relies upon the intimacy of virtual reality as a tool to encourage others to face their prejudices.
Wearing a VR headset, participants appear as an avatar in a workplace environment. As the training progresses, they witness escalating harassment targeting a fellow employee.
Throughout, they are presented with a range of choices; whatever they choose to do directly impacts what happens next.
“It allows people to start recognising the consequences of their actions,” says Mercer of this interactive mode of storytelling. After they’ve completed the training, participants are given feedback on where they failed to act, and are then encouraged to try again.
Morgan Mercer on set during filming. Picture credit: Morgan Mercer
“I’ll have guys go through [the training] and go, ‘Wow, I had no idea that’s what it felt like,’” confides Mercer.
A staunch believer in the power of immersive technology to generate empathy and drive change, Mercer plans to use it to address the many issues faced by women in the workplace.
Why did you decide to launch Vantage Point?
I am a bi-racial female who grew up in a small town in the American South. I am also a two-time survivor of sexual violence.
What I realised from these experiences is that you don’t necessarily realise the way that your environment impacts your perception of the world. That, in turn, influences the way that you interact with another person.
With things like gender-based violence and sexual harassment and unconscious bias, we are inundated with such constant information – and there’s such a great bridge to overcome to even begin to understand the problem, let alone solve it – that we pull away if we don’t feel it impacts us.
But, given my ties to the topic, this felt very personal. One thing led to another and, in 2016, I quite literally woke up with the idea of leveraging virtual reality [for a sexual harassment training].
It’s incredibly impactful because it can create that relationship with the problem and enable people to understand things in a completely new way.
Vantage Point is an immersive VR experience that replicates workplace harassment. Picture credit: Morgan Mercer
Why did you believe that virtual reality can tackle sexual harassment in the workplace more effectively than traditional training?
A lot of training has no situational relevance – you’re giving people information but you’re not defining it in a way that’s relevant to them.
With VR, you feel like you’re there. As the situation is unfolding around you, you’re forming relationships with the characters, you’re responding to a situation in real time, and your response influences the outcome that you see. It’s a lot more true to life.
I have the view that technology often creates apathy, but immersive technology can drive empathy.
You have the ability to feel how uncomfortable it is when someone leans in too close; you can see the micro responses on somebody’s face when a colleague makes an inappropriate joke for the fourth time.
Your latest training aims to increase women’s confidence at work. Why did you decide to focus on this?
Women are inherently socialised not to ask for more.
So when you have this wave of women entering the workforce and taking executive positions, but you’re not equipping them with the same tools, it has direct, calculable business costs and economic repercussions. This doesn’t give women the opportunity to lead from a place of strength.
Using the VR experience in the workplace. Picture credit: Morgan Mercer
At Vantage Point, we’re looking at leveraging voice recognition technology to allow women to sit in a virtual meeting and verbally practice negotiating.
Technology allows us to recognise tone, sentiment, and confidence. You can look at the word choice used and compare it to a male equivalent. [With this technology], we can train women on how to negotiate just as well as their male counterparts even if they’ve not grown up doing that.
As a woman in tech, what helped you succeed?
When I was fundraising, I was lucky enough to have a role model, a solo female founder who started a technology company and now has $110 million in funding, most recently from Paypal.
When I sat with her in the middle of my round, I said, “I don’t see any other solo female founders, it makes me feel like I can’t do it.” She sat across from me and she said, “Look at me. I did it.”
Women need to see others who look like them, and they need to know that there’s a road there even if it’s hard to walk.
Tech companies should highlight female employees, promote women internally, and create a space where they’re guiding women even before they come into the company through internship and mentorship programs.
Educate the next generation of women – that’s what’s really going to progress us along.
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