Virtual Reality in the Service of Research, Therapy and Training

By Coline Drévo, Junior Project Manager

On Thursday, January 12, a diverse audience of 50 came to WeWork Charging Bull to hear Marianne Schmid Mast and JoAnn Difede present their research on virtual reality. This panel event was organized by HEC Lausanne (Business and Economics School of the University of Lausanne) and the swissnex Boston New York Outpost; it was hosted by Club HEC Lausanne in NYC (the network of HEC Alumni living in New York.)

After a few words of welcome, Oliver Haugen, Head of the New York Outpost, gave the stage to the first speaker, Marianne Schmid Mast, who is Professor of Organizational Behavior at HEC Lausanne. Marianne is also an Associate Editor of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior and a member of the editorial board of Leadership Quarterly. Marianne spoke on the advantages of using virtual reality for the experimental study of human interaction behavior and for interpersonal skills training (e.g., public speaking, job interviews), helping to demystify the idea that virtual reality is only used for fun. She explained that because some real environments are too dangerous and some human interactions are too difficult in real life, that virtual reality enables us to learn and train in a “safe” environment. 

Marianne’s research uses immersive virtual environment technology to investigate interpersonal behavior and communication, as well as computer-based automatic sensing to analyze nonverbal behavior in social interactions. Through her work, she demonstrated how virtual reality allows us to train and learn with fewer limits, and that VR will become an integral part of our everyday lives. She predicted that we will “train with virtual humans in the future” because “meeting an avatar is like meeting a real human,” and explained that “a virtual audience is always available, never tired.” 

Her presentation was followed by remarks from JoAnn Difede. JoAnn is a Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Medicine, an Attending Psychologist at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Director of the Program for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies (PATSS). She is internationally recognized for her pioneering work using virtual reality technology in clinical settings and in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD), which affect some survivors of acts of terrorism, violent crime, or war. Her presentation spotlighted the benefits of VR exposure therapy for trauma treatment. In the context of anxiety and trauma disorders, virtual reality technology and virtual reality simulation of trauma and phobic experiences allow professionals to conduct psychotherapies relying on verbal communication of experience. Virtual reality exposure therapies incorporate many of the non-verbal and sensory elements of events, and particularly trauma memories, which are often vivid and fragmented sensory memories. This takes up the idea of a “safe” environment in which counselors can bring a person back to their trauma. According to JoAnn, “VR exposure therapy is the best treatment for PTSD.”

Each presentation included a moderated Q&A, and a networking reception followed the conference. Attendees also had the opportunity to experience three different virtual reality environments. Two of them were built at HEC Lausanne and presented by Marianne’s team: Benjamin Tur, PhD candidate in Marianne’s laboratory, and Stéphane Billeter, lab technician at the University of Lausanne. They demoed a walkable, immersive virtual reality environment and a desktop job interview training session using virtual humans; both programmed with Vizard software. The walkable VR system immerses users into a virtual world that stimulates auditory and visual senses using an Oculus Rift headset. 

Pictured above: Walkable immersive VR environment (HEC Lausanne) (left), Desktop job interview training (HEC Lausanne)

The third experience was presented by Michael Valdovinos, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University. The attendees had the opportunity to put on a head-mounted display that enabled them to simulate a soldier’s experience in Afghanistan or Iraq. 

  Soldier’s experience simulation with HMD (Weill Cornell Medicine) 

Soldier’s experience simulation with HMD (Weill Cornell Medicine) 

All three immersive experiences provided a vivid and experiential complement to the fascinating presentations by the two featured scholars. 

We would like to extend a warm thank you to each speaker, their respective teams, and to the audience – all of whom took part in making this event a success.