The Blend Podcast EP020 – VR Soft skills with Bodyswaps

Brendan Cox  00:24

Today we’re going to talk to someone in the VR field because Virtual Reality has a massive amount of potential in terms of not just scenarios and immersive environments to learn, but also potential for learning human skills, like empathy.

We thought we’d do a deep dive with an expert so I’d like to welcome Christophe Mallet, the CEO of Bodyswaps to the podcast. Thanks for joining us. Tell us a bit about your journey and your influences before developing Bodyswaps.

Christophe Mallet  01:00

Okay, I don’t know how far back you want to you want to go. I’m French, as you can probably hear. I did business school originally, that I wanted to work in the music industry and I was a graduate in 2010. So was not exactly the best year to move to London to follow a girl. I lost the girl but I kept the city and I worked for five years in social media creating a Twitter account for Barclays.

That was only 10 years ago, which is a little bit crazy and after five years, I wanted something new. So I looked on LinkedIn for interesting people and I met with Julian Noel, (who’s now the co-founder of Bodyswaps) in a pub in Hoxton.

He had the Oculus DK one, which was the first kind of VR headset, right after Oculus had been bought by Facebook in 2014-2015. He showed me an experience right then in the pub. Someone had recreated a painting of Vincent van Gogh in 3D, so you could effectively walk around the painting and the brush and all the objects look exactly the same. My jaw dropped on the floor. I picked it up and I quit my job a couple of weeks later. We created a VR agency and that was five years ago.

Brendan Cox  02:27

What made you move from the VR agency into the niche area you’re in with Bodyswaps?

Christophe Mallet  02:35

Well, I wish I had a beautiful story of being a visionary. But that’s not really what happens. What happened is, I read a lot of research around virtual reality by people like Mel Slater, or Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University, who spoke specifically around embodiment and behavioural change.

In other words, in VR, you can step inside the body, you have hands, you exist in a three-dimensional space. And then stuff happened to you and you interact with that world. That kind of immersion and embodied emotion – what impact does that have on behavioural change? 

There was a lot of studies around, what if I put you in the body if someone of a different gender or a different race, and you are the victim of microaggression? Are you going to change your behaviour in the real world towards those people and I was always fascinated by those stories?

I used to teach at university in Switzerland, and I was always using those studies as examples of how powerful a marketing medium VR can be. One day we had a brief, where they wanted to do training for nurses in psychiatry and wanted to step into the shoes of other suicidal patient.

I was like, that doesn’t really work because virtual reality is an audio-visual medium, not a simulator for mindset. It’s not an audio-visual experience. So, I remember that experience by Mel Slater, where he would have women with severe depression syndrome being put in VR in front of the mirror, because they had an avatar that looked like themselves, it would be in front of the mirror in VR. 

Then a little girl would appear that was crying. The job in that VR simulation would be to speak for minutes to that little girl, and to help her say nice things. There was no AI. It was very simple. But the little girl was programmed to stop crying after a minute. They would then swap bodies and find themselves in the perspective of the little girl and watch back their avatar.

What they found is with empathic discourse to someone else, you were at the receiving end, and subconsciously, something clicked, as if you were providing empathy to yourself, an excess of self-criticism is one of the symptoms of depressions.

They observed very good clinical results and I said, we could do this for psychiatric training, it could be the nurse, you could be listening to a suicidal patient telling you about her life, taking it further by asking questions and scenarios. 

You would provide your tips, how can you cope better with your days based on what you told me about your life, and you would then step into the body of the patient and watch yourself back, because you don’t know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of your own advice.

It was one of many projects back when we had the agency, and we had such great feedback we decided to focus only on that, and to recruit people who knew about learning, we knew about behavioural science so become an eLearning company.

Brendan Cox  06:11

Wow, that’s fascinating. So as Bodyswaps you use that mirroring environment where you can experience your own feedback, and build empathy with the subjects. So how you set up? Are all the projects similar? Or are their a wide variety of projects?

Christophe Mallet  06:36

So that’s very good question because it’s our blessing and our curse. What we did first is build a methodology, right? We took that prototype, and we said, okay, there’s, there’s something there. But we cannot only base it on that academic research paper, we have to bring in principles of learning design as well.

We brought in learning designers and behavioural scientists, and we said, okay, your job is going to come up with a new format for delivering soft skills training, that leverages what you can do uniquely in virtual reality, like swapping bodies, but also learning design, like importance of self-reflection. we built that methodology, which is essentially a Lego kit of immersive exercises.

There’s an exercise where you can observe people to learn from their behaviour, but you exist in that room, there’s an exercise, which is a conversation type scenario. For each of those exercises, we’ve created a number of analytics, because the way the Bodyswaps work is we record your voice and your body movement. 

That’s what allows us to put you in a different perspective in that scene. What are the behavioural analytics that we’re going to be able to give you to top up the self reflection?

For example, you didn’t speak about that, you talk too fast, you didn’t look the person in the eyes. This builds that Lego kit. And once we had that, we started building the content, but the content is always based on this. 

So it’s been quite varied. There’s been nurses in psychiatry, there’s been safeguarding NGOs, customer service for a railway company, job interview skills, giving feedback in a in an interview environment. All kinds of things but always built on the same foundation.

Brendan Cox  08:46

Could you give us some examples of those projects in more detail, and we’re really interested in hearing the challenges that you’ve faced with each one of them and how you approached it in terms of solving them?

Christophe Mallet  08:58

Yeah, sure. At the moment, the last case study we released was with a client who are a human services provider. They help people with disabilities or other sides of disadvantages, to transition into the world of work. As you can imagine, those people are treated unjustly by society in general and COVID has made things worse.

And one of the massive pain points is job interviews. It is one thing to get the interview, but often they will get it because companies have to hire for diversity. But how do you transform that into a job? You need to be able to communicate to come across to present yourself. There’s a lot of fear involved, to be honest, and how do you train for it?

How do you train for a job interview? For you as an individual, if you have an interview with the company of your dreams, or simply because you have to keep a roof over your head, that’s the single most important social interaction you’re going to have. It’s literally life changing.

When preparing for job interviews, most people will just try to imagine the questions, they might have researched the company, and then rehearse some stuff in front of your mirror, if you’re lucky, you might have a single mock interview with a career advisor, which might be six months before the actual interview. In other words, there’s no way to really practice.

And so the idea there is, let’s use Bodyswaps as a sort of flight simulator for job interviews, where you can learn about your body language, about breathing, about the culture, you can start preparing your key stories that you will refer back to. 

You’re going to learn a technique: how do you structure an answer that so it’s always meaningful? Then you get to practice in the simulator.

The simulator is going to be made available for those people, both in the offices via VR, but also at home, on mobile and PC. It is a psychologically safe space to practice. There’s no one to judge you. You can make mistakes and it’s absolutely fine. You can use that as a point of need. 

You can spend four hours in a simulation the day before your interview, and because you will have watched yourself answer so many questions, you know exactly how you come across. That really fills you up with confidence and that confidence is absolutely crucial to getting the right job.

Brendan Cox  12:02

Yeah, definitely. I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because it’s such an odd situation, that doesn’t happen very often. But it carries a lot of weight. So the ability to practice is crucial.


So how do you measure those metrics? You mentioned posture and looking the person in the face? How do you go about measuring those when they’re actually in the simulation?

Christophe Mallet  12:41

Yep. So in virtual reality, you can do a number of things. The first is you have spatial data. So in other words, you have the headset on your face, and you have the controllers in your hands, which means that I know how you are moving your hands, you know where they are in space and the directions and same for your head.

You can infer a number of things. For example, I know where you looked, there might be the case that in the interview, you were interviewed by a man and a woman, and I could very easily tell you that you looked at the man 70% of the time, that’s very easy to do.

Same for the hands. I know we’re on Skype, as you can see, I move my hands a lot and this software would tell me how many metres a minute of hand movement you do. It’s way above average, not necessarily a bad thing. You also have this semantic analysis. When you talk to Siri, on your phone, you have this kind of speech to text. So we use the service to do that. And then in that text, you can look for whatever you want.

Did you call Brendan by his name when he answered the question? Did you mention the word analytics and behavioural in your answer? So you can do that kind of granular analysis and tell people these are things that you could say or that that you could try?

Then you have other stuff like elocution and filler words. I see a lot of desire to use data for assessment and scoring. That’s very dangerous because the data is not entirely reliable. When you speak to Siri on your phone half the time she does not understand if you have an accent.

If the background noise of the microphone of your headset is not great, you will get a penalty essentially. Our approach is really to say, you’ve watched yourself and from self-reflection you get a lot of things. You will feel how you come across. Then we’re giving you that data on top and say, Look, this is how you talk. Some people talk faster. Some people talk slower. This is up to you, but just give it a try and try saying those words as well.

So it’s not an assessment, it is coaching. However, there’s something about the data in VR. Let’s say I’m interviewing you for a job as a podcaster. I asked you a question, tell me about the time a podcast went very, very wrong and what you did to stop it, the only thing I’m going to learn from your answer is how good you are at telling the story. Whereas if I put you in a body swap, or in a virtual simulation, where you are in a podcast, and I’ve programmed a series of terrible accidents to happen, and you have to act out, then this will be much closer to your performance in the real world because it’s a simulation, not a quiz or an interview.

What that means is that virtual reality has a predictive value, just like a flight simulator has a predictive value and computes performance that is far superior to anything else. And when you have predictive value at scale, when you have an aggregated data, that becomes business intelligence and something you can use to make choices, for example, in HR. That’s human data. That’s not numbers. It’s also not biased because you don’t know the colour, origin, race or age of the person.

The future is leveraging that data to make smart choices and give the best job to the people who really deserve it and help the people who need it most.

Brendan Cox  16:45

I agree completely, there’s definitely a very holistic approach, if the amount of things that you can measure in VR is so powerful when you combine it all together to get a general feel for how you’re performing, and gives you such a realistic scenario to review at the end.

Because like you said with the podcast – we transcribe all of our podcast episodes, and it’s a really interesting exercise in actually aligning what you think you’re saying and how you’re talking, and how you’re presenting yourself to then actually read it.

For example, I talk a lot faster than Tom, my co-podcaster. So, seeing it written down, you get a sense of actually slowing things down, I still can make the same point. But actually, it’s less convoluted, it is more concise. But then at the same time, just reading, it doesn’t give you a sense of the energy of the person talking. It’s so much about how you present it as much as what you’re presenting.

That’s where VR is fascinating because it considers your posture, your tone of voice, the speed at which you talk, all these different key elements, they paint a much more in-depth picture, when you’ve got access to all of that information it’s really interesting.

Christophe Mallet  18:11

Self-reflection bridges that gap between knowledge and awareness is working to transform behaviour. However, I don’t know about you, but I spent four or five hours a day on the phone or on teams to try and sell my company to potential clients. And I know that if I recorded myself and watched it back, I would make immense progress very quickly. But I just cannot bring myself to do it.

Have you ever listened back properly to the full podcast with the objective of analysing your performance?

Brendan Cox  18:53

Stepping back from your ego and allowing feedback to come in and not take it personally is a really big barrier to get over. Both of us listen back to every episode of the podcast. Then we discuss what we did well and what we didn’t. Once we’ve transcribed it go through the transcription to remove the parts that are unnecessary.

We notice when we’ve made a good point, or if we’ve talked too much, for example, there’s a definitely a fear based aspect at the beginning. The same thing with creatives as a designer, when sharing your work there’s a lot of fear behind it and pressure and worry about judgement basically.

If they’re just in the scenario in VR with themselves, they can remove that aspect of being judged by a panel of employees, employers, and so it is slightly less scary.

Christophe Mallet  20:04

There’s two things we found. One is roleplay; the vast majority of people don’t want to be playing a role in front of other people and feel a bit ridiculous and fragile. So, the people who actually thrive in roleplay are generally the people who need it less. Rather than having other people tell you what you did, right or wrong, you’re going to be able to judge yourself, and you’re going to get the data, but it’s calculated by an AI. So the AI has no ego.

The second thing we found out is when people watch back their avatar, it was interesting, because we found that there is a distance visually between how you look in real life and your avatar is actually a relief.

You’re not focused on how my hair is today, a bit of a beer belly etc. You don’t do that with an avatar. You can analyse what you say and how you say it and focus less on what makes you self-conscious.

Brendan Cox  21:40

Yeah, you can be more objective, rather than worrying about your insecurities and things, you can just look at what’s actually there. I’ve done a lot of stuff with things like Comic Con and there’s this really powerful effect that takes over when you see rooms of people who might have social anxiety or communication skills are a bit lacking. Yet, when you put them in a costume, they can embody the character or even an embody an ideal version of themselves. And the difference in their behaviour, the difference in their confidence changes.

They don’t feel that weight of judgement on them personally, they embody that character. I can imagine if you if you’re analysing your behaviour, but it’s just far enough you’re not bringing your own personal insecurities and fears into it, can make it a lot easier to learn from it and embrace feedback.

Christophe Mallet  22:54

Comic Con is a great example. When you’re dressed up, it’s not only that you’re not that afraid of fear of judgement, but more that you are borrowing the qualities of the person or the character that you are dressing up as. You feel more powerful, you feel more invincible, and that’s something that’s been tested with virtual reality, they call it the Proteus effect.

The Proteus effect is where you adopt the characteristic of the character and it is very interesting. We have an exercise on managing your nerves, where it’s always helpful to verbalise why you are scared ahead of an interview, what’s the worst that can go wrong?

Brendan Cox  27:23

What would you say are some areas that the Bodyswaps approach are ideally suited for? Are there any other applications that you’re really interested to try?

Christophe Mallet  27:45

I had a brief yesterday about helping people who are coming out of prison to find jobs, a brief about hostage negotiation. You can’t do everything for everyone. So, what brings the most value, you need to find something that has a big trend appeal and really changes the life of the individual.

I think interview skills does that from a macro point of view, with COVID (also before COVID) matching those gaps between employers and the workforce, and upskilling millions of people in the face of automation, making sure that whatever was gained from Black Lives Matter and Me Too is actually turned into behaviour in business. There’s a huge demand for those kind of employment skills.

Everyone who’s not working is not paying taxes to the government and it is costing money. f you can put those back to work, there’s a real economic reward. Then at an individual level, every job interview you have is potentially life changing. So, if we can improve your chances of getting the job, or the chances of not getting the job for the wrong reasons, which is also important that’s really going to make a difference.

I think employability is an area now that’s very interesting for us that we adding on top of the leadership and management simulations that we already have.

Brendan Cox  29:35

You’re literally addressing one of the key tenants of the pyramid of needs, you’re helping them take a step up onto the next level by being able to change their financial situation. I can see why this is a really big area for making a big difference. So, what would you say is some of the boundaries for entry for augmented and virtual reality in terms of technology and understanding from a client perspective?

Christophe Mallet  30:06

I think there’s a lot of myths going around about virtual reality. I think one challenge that is often exaggerated is the cost of the hardware. I will find myself on the phone telling people that a VR headset is a shared device, the nucleus quest is £300. If you keep it for three years and have just one person a day trying it could have cost you £20 or £30 per person.

When you compare it to £200 to £500, for half an hour cleaning, or listening to a guy presenting a PowerPoint, it’s negligible. The hardware is a very small part of the of the puzzle and VR software is great already.

The issue is you need someone to manage that fleet, whether from a software perspective deployment, but also storing it, cleaning it and making it available to learners. You will need people to deliver the actual training, whether it’s face to face in the session, or remote.

You need to facilitate the onboarding on VR, it does take a commitment. It’s very important for organisations to say, I have a very clear challenge. And if I solve that challenge, this is what success looks like. if I can solve that challenge, then I know that I can commit to human resources to make it happen at scale.

I would really suggest that the right reason to start adopting VR is not because you want to adopt VR, it is because you have you have a real challenge to solve. The more painful the challenge, the better the reasons will be.

Brendan Cox  32:16

Yeah, it’s that thing of letting the message define the medium in which is presented, isn’t it? You choose VR because it is the best solution, not choose VR then crowbar it into what you’re going to do.

Christophe Mallet  33:12

VR is not a standalone solution, if not here to replace face to face training or to replace eLearning or virtual classrooms. It’s really a new tool in the toolbox. What VR is great for is contextual practice. We give people an opportunity to take the knowledge that they have acquired on those other mediums – eLearning or face to face, and try things in a way that is safe for themselves and for others to build the confidence that is necessary to transform real life behaviour.

Brendan Cox  33:51

But how fast is the actual industry changing? And in what way?

Christophe Mallet  33:56

VR is almost a model case for the Gartner curve. Now it’s coming back in a way that is much healthier, because technology is a means to an end. So, it’s not VR can do all of those things you have a market for. We have a market for VR soft skills training, there’s a market for compliance and health and safety.

Whether it’s going to be collaborating on a three-dimensional object for VR for car design, and so on, you have all those kind of micro verticals with very clear challenges that I would say is moving quite fast and we now start seeing companies neutralising the use cases as well.

The pandemic has presented a short term challenge for VR, because it’s too early to really deliver the VR headsets. No one is in the office. So clearly a challenge there, but it’s also an opportunity in the long term because it has brought forward the digitization of learning by 10 years.

Brendan Cox  35:56

Yeah, it’s been a real big acceleratant in terms of opening up people’s eyes to the potential for these different ways of teaching and learning. How do you normally approach educating a client or potential client about the benefits of using VR? Say someone who knows what VR is, but not its applications?

Christophe Mallet  36:18

I’ve spent many years evangelising as they say, which from our point of view is not the best thing to do. There is now absolutely amazing resources and people like Jeremy Dalton at PwC, who has published a book that is fantastic on VR.

Brendan Cox  36:50

What would you say your predictions are for the eLearning industry as a whole over the next few years? Post COVID?

Christophe Mallet  36:57

It’s obviously an industry that that’s going to grow fast, simply because the world of work is changing. There is going to be less face-to-face training. Things have been moving extremely fast into the eLearning domain. I think we’re going to try to find a new way that is neither the passive consumption of content, neither the synchronous kind of zoom calls, and there’s going to be new modalities that are more experiential, more interactive, and more and more collaborative.

Its going to make use of improving virtual classrooms, but also of AI and technologies like VR and AR. I think the market is going to grow. I think learning is going to be more important and more fun.

Brendan Cox  37:51

We’ve been talking to a few people and everyone everyone’s saying is moving very quickly. The interesting thing is that there’s an aspect behind that as well in terms of infrastructure – the people at the bottom that maybe can’t afford infrastructure or don’t have access to it can sometimes get left behind.

So we’re hoping that as it starts at the top, there’s more development, and then hopefully people can address the infrastructure aspect of being able to get access to these types of interesting ways that really improve the learning process. Could you recommend any resources other than the ones you’ve already mentioned, for people that are really interested in mixed reality technologies and how to best make use of them?

Christophe Mallet  38:37

I would recommend Jeremy Dalton’s book called Reality Check.

Brendan Cox  38:57

Great. So where can people find you online if they want to get in touch?

Christophe Mallet  39:02

Yes. So, we have a website, which is Otherwise, I’m Christoph Mallet on LinkedIn, and Bodyswaps_VR on Twitter.

Brendan Cox  39:17

Okay, great. What key thing would you like the listeners to take away with from this chat?

Christophe Mallet  39:21

That the future of learning incorporates those technologies. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Once you know that, you really want to think about how you want to change people’s lives and your organization’s using those technologies.

Brendan Cox  39:43

Thanks very much for talking to us. That was really interesting. I encourage people to go and check out Bodyswaps. It’s really, really cool what they’re doing. Thanks very much. Bye.

Intro/Outro  39:55

Thanks for listening to the Blend podcast. It’s available on Spotify, Google and Apple. You can find blend interactive content on LinkedIn or www.blendtraining. Don’t forget to like and subscribe. See you next time.

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