Six Questions For Jeremy Bailenson, The World’s Leading Expert In Virtual Reality
When companies want to understand Virtual Reality, they seek out Jeremy Bailenson—and for good reason. Jeremy has been studying VR technology for over 20 years, and is founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. His book Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How it Works, and What it Can Do is, in his own words, “for the smart person that’s heard a lot about VR, but really wants to understand the do’s and don’ts, both as a consumer, as well as a designer, or industry leader who’s deciding what to do for [their] company.” Some predict VR will be a $38 billion business by 2026, yet the effect it will have on our work and home life is unknown. Under Jeremy’s watch, VR will be most effective when used for strategy and education, whether helping a football team win the big game through his company STRIVR, or creating content that can shed powerful light on issues like climate change and racism. We were thrilled to chat with Jeremy about following his instincts, wearing multiple hats within his career, virtual donuts (yes, you read that correctly), and how VR can help brands of the future.
“Even though my ego got some pretty big bruises along the way, building and testing VR was too much fun to stop doing.”
You’ve been studying, innovating and believing in the VR field for over 20 years. As you have watched and led the industry in exciting new directions, was there ever a time when your ideas were questioned or doubted? How would you advise an entrepreneur or innovator to follow their instincts, even when faced with criticism or doubt?
Jeremy Bailenson: For me, the big moments of doubt occurred across a three-year period between 2000 and 2003 when I was on the academic job market. I was getting invited to interview at a number of schools each year, mostly based on my academic vita. My vita was full of publications from before my transition to VR—mainstream work about how the mind functions in regards to reasoning, categorization, and decision making. I would show up at the interviews and present my new research—I transitioned from Cognitive Psychology to VR in 1999—on the psychology of avatars. For three years straight, I "came in second" at every interview, across at least a dozen colleges. Then, in the year 2003, the Stanford Department of Communication took a chance and hired this crazy VR guy. I couldn't be more appreciative, and owe so much to my Stanford mentor Clifford Nass, who was the driving force behind that decision. In terms of advice, for me the perseverance was easy because I was having so much fun in my day job. Even though my ego got some pretty big bruises along the way, building and testing VR was too much fun to stop doing.
You’re an esteemed academic, and also a smart entrepreneur. We admire how your company STRIVR works with sports teams and business to help team members and employees recognize common patterns and therefore make better decisions in the moment. Have you always had the mind of an academic and the spirit of an entrepreneur? Do you find you have to switch hats, so to speak, when moving between the two worlds?
JB: For me the entrepreneurship has been easy because I haven't tried to overreach. I know what I do well—build and test VR—and don't try to operate too far outside my comfort zone. When I co-founded STRIVR with Derek Belch, the CEO and founder, our roles were clearly defined: he would handle business and football, and I would advise on VR and training. As the company grew—we went from the two of us to over 70 employees today—some of our earliest hires were designed to bolster the business side. Outside of STRIVR I do spend time with investors, tech startups, as well as folks from large companies, but my advisement doesn't stray too far from the work I have been doing for 20 years, which is leveraging the things that make VR special. y advice would be to surround yourself with people who are experts in areas you are not—with Derek this was football, sales, and corporate strategy—and then get out of their way. The "hands off" strategy of not micromanaging colleagues can work if you find people who are truly domain experts.
“Surround yourself with people who are experts in areas you are not and then get out of their way.”
In your book Experience on Demand, you mention how a new creative class will arise that will use VR to break traditional journalism and film templates and find new ways to reach audiences. How do you see this playing out in the world of retail? Can you give an example for, say, a small product startup and also for a giant like Amazon?
JB: The notion of trying on clothes, buying groceries, and test-driving cars in VR is one which has been around for decades. I actually think that shopping on Amazon is pretty good "as is" for most things. A box of toothpaste on a 2D screen gives me all the information I need to buy it, and in my opinion, wearing VR goggles to see it in stereo and to hold it in your hands with haptic devices falls into the "gratuitous" uses of VR, the type of gimmicky applications I advise against. For the items we actually need to touch and see from all angles to decide if we are going to buy it—for example a piece of fruit—VR doesn't make sense given how much it costs to create accurate 3D models of individual items. think there will come a day when the 3D graphics algorithms are good enough that one can scan her or his body and then see exactly how clothes will look. Right now the algorithms that can predict the folding and draping of fabrics is not fully accurate. Similarly it is expensive and difficult to do a full body scan. But this to me would be a home run: to be able to try on clothes, easily, in the privacy of your own home.
We were fascinated by your donut study as it speaks to the power of the senses by using both sight, smell and touch. How could you apply this theory and use VR to transform everyday ecommerce experiences for, say, a food brand or shopping for clothing online?
JB: The donut study was the first we ever did using virtual scent, and our preliminary data show that a VR donut experience in which you touch and smell and see donuts causes satiation, and causes people to actually eat fewer real-world donuts later on. My dream application here is to make vegan patties look, smell, and feel like the best hamburger ever made. We just solved climate change and the obesity epidemic.
“VR is just a medium, and can be used for good or for ill. It's up to us to focus on its positive use.”
There seems to be alignment on the potential concerns about VR and how it could affect a society negatively. You have said that as a cognitive psychologist, your primary goal is to understand how the mind works with technology. Do you ever feel like you have to be a watchdog to warn people about the potential negative psychological aspects of VR?
JB: My book has now been reviewed by the, New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Nature, and a number of other venues. The common critique across those categories is that I am too optimistic, and don't warn enough about the downsides of VR, for example addiction, distraction from the real world, simulator sickness, and political manipulation. Chapter Two of the book is all about negative consequences, and I often write about how to avoid downsides of VR, for example this piece on Slate about safety concerns, and this piece on CNN about the risks of potential mass shooters having access to VR combat experiences. recently organized an event at Stanford at which the goal was to talk about how to think about government policy as it pertains to VR. I had a former FCC Chairman as well as a CEO of one of the largest VR companies on stage. The FCC won't engage because VR goes through private infrastructure (i.e, not through the airwaves), and the CEO argued that his company was just a platform and that people could do what they wanted with it. I truly believe that if we want VR content that avoids certain pitfalls, we need a successful grassroots movement addressing these issues.
We love the idea that VR could potentially address and create positive societal impact for important issues like climate change, racism, addiction, etc. Is this, ultimately, the end goal of The Lab?
JB: VR creates special experiences—ones that are impossible, dangerous, or too rare to have in the real word. Our work has shown encouraging findings that an "experience on demand" in VR can cause people to change behaviors in regards to discrimination and conservation, and to become more helpful to others. But VR is just a medium, and can be used for good or for ill. It's up to us to focus on its positive use.
A few quickies:
What’s your morning routine?
Get my 3 and 6 year old children to school, feed my dogs and my cat.
What is a place you’d most like to experience via VR?
A Minor Threat concert from 1983.
Last book you read & learned something crucial from:
Catch 22. Just reread a chunk of it last night. Every sentence is a gem.
Director who you think would make awesome VR content:
Jane Rosenthal is my favorite figure in VR and film.
The piece of advice you share most in The Lab:
Long workdays. Great projects succeed when they are the first thing we think of when we wake and the last thing we think about before drifting off to sleep.