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This VR Founder Wants to Gamify Empathy to Reduce Racial Bias

Clorama Dorvilias wants to remove shame and guilt from diversity and inclusion training.

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Jul 20 2018, 1:00pm

Clorama Dorvilias Image: Courtesy of Dorvilias

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The tech industry, and companies like Starbucks, have spent millions of dollars to address implicit racial bias through diversity initiatives and racial sensitivity trainings. When Starbucks closed 8,000 of its stores in May for racial bias training, the company recognized it would take more than four hours to undo a lifetime of unconscious behaviors in just one of its baristas, let alone 175,000 employees. One barista said she felt “shaken” during the training while watching “Story of Access,” a short film by award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson highlighting the emotional tax for people of color in public spaces.

US companies invest an estimated $8 billion on diversity and inclusion training without clear metrics to determine the effectiveness and employee performance. But they don’t always go as planned. Employees can walk away from these trainings with triggered emotions.

Clorama Dorvilias wants to remove shame and guilt from this experience. Her gaming lab, Debias VR, wants to remove bias in professional and educational settings. Dorvilias is currently the only black woman who has developed this unique empathy tool using debiasing techniques in VR.

“Companies can spend millions of dollars on extremely inaffective, and virtually useless trainings that can have an adverse effect which can hurt the company even more,” she said. “Bias training shouldn’t be there to shame. People should feel good about making others feel accepted. Debias isn’t something that you can work out in a day. It’s a behavior that you have to work through. We want to give people the capacity to work in a safe and comfortable space.”

Before she developed the VR lab, Dorvilias says she enrolled in grad school to expand her front-end development expertise and planned to backpack across the country working with grassroots organizations to amplify their digital presence.

Dorvilias enrolled in the Interaction Design Master’s program at the University of the Arts London in 2014. She continued working as an independent UX designer, becoming quickly immersed in emerging tech and motion sensors for everyday human interactions.

Dorvilias and her partner, Jessica Outlaw. Image: courtesy of Dorvilias

“That was really frustrating for me, and I was contemplating quitting because it began to affect my mental health and the self-image of the work I was doing.”

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The day she decided to walk away from it all, a final project became her saving grace. Dorvilias says the course professor assigned a master’s research thesis where students were asked to work with technology to solve social problems. The served as the most fitting assignment for the unfair treatment she felt in the course. She used this as an opportunity to explore what causes implicit bias and how to solve it. “I stumbled upon empathy, which allows people to humanize each other. I knew the solution would have to be, how can I develop empathy for a professor like him for someone like me?”

Little did she know, this would forge her path to Teacher’s Lens.

She explored the language around implicit bias including microaggressions, a term first introduced psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s. The term has since evolved with Columbia University psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue defining racial microaggression as "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them."

During her research on empathy solutions, Dorvilias became intrigued watching a TED talk by Chris Milk titled, "How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine." Milk, founder and CEO of VR media company Within, explained how he used footage of day-to-day life in third world countries using 360 video to establish empathy. He produced a VR film, “Clouds Over Sidra,” placing users inside a Syrian refugee camp that follows a 12-year-old girl named Sidra.

When the Oculus Rift is in use, viewers experienced first-hand trauma with Sidra. Milk then took the machine to the World Economic Forum where he says the people who make decisions for third-world countries can insert themselves in the places where they're charged with creating change.

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Dorvilias didn’t have the same resources but she knew she wanted a similar outcome. With the help of a defunct Oculus headset at school and video tutorials on building a virtual reality environment, she made her own in two days. “It bit me from there. For the next four months. I slept, ate, and dreamed about virtual reality and I was able to make my first project. I was able to gamify a diversity trainer using debiasing techniques.”

Along the way she, documented her findings.

She developed the game using minority avatars set in a tech environment and users had to rely on people of color or women to get closer to their end goal to win the game. Her game is backed by research from the University of Barcelona. In the experiment, 32 white women participated in a demo where half were portrayed in a white virtual body and the other half in a black virtual body. The participants unconsciously imitated gestures of avatars who shared their skin color. They responded to more interactions with avatars that resembled their virtual features. For instance, the white women who depicted dark-skinned avatars copied the movements of other black avatars as opposed to white ones. The result concluded positive social outcomes and proved implicit racial bias tends to diminish when users are assigned a virtual race, different than their own. Dorvilias implemented the study, successfully completed the project, and finished her graduate program in late 2015.

Dorvilias didn’t expect to stay in VR because at the time the industry wasn’t prominent in Europe and returned to in 2016. “When I came back, I saw there was a huge thriving VR community and I realized I was ahead of ahead of the game than people who were just getting started.”

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In 2017, Dorvilias earned a UX Researcher and Designer fellowship through Code for America, developing an app for job seekers in Anchorage.

Dorvilias recently developed Teacher’s Lens, described by its developers as the first VR solution “that allows for measurable training towards diversity and inclusion goals.” Teacher’s Lens is a pilot program under Debias VR developed by Dorvilias and with research led by her app cofounder, Jessica Outlaw. Using the same guiding principles of Debias VR, Dorvilias built an accountability tool to track bias reduction in classrooms.

Outlaw, founder of The Extended Mind, a company that trains VR/AR companies through practical behavioral science insights to improve overall user engagement, met Dorvilias at Oculus Launch Pad in 2017. The event, held at Facebook HQ, had ended and the two women were waiting for their Lyfts to travel back to San Francisco. Outlaw describes their meetup like a classic scene from a romcom.

A few minutes into their chat, she remembers telling Dorvilias, “Just cancel your Lyft, let’s just go together.” They shared a ride and began a 45-minute discussion that would soon lead to the creation of an app correcting implicit racial bias using VR.

The two delved into classroom bias, where studies show educators have lower expectations for students of color and are less likely to encourage girls in STEM courses. For instance, researchers at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found recurring gender disparities exists the in sciences where educators tend to show more favor for male students that girls. What comes as the perfect prism for their cofounder relationship, Outlaw says six months prior to meeting Dorvilias she’d become interested in anti-discrimination tools and the research behind it. In six weeks, the concept became concrete and Outlaw says Dorvilias got to work completing the app in three weeks.

Outlaw and Dorvilias. Image: Courtesy of Dorvilias

Outlaw credits Dorvilias as the tech muscle behind the platform with her research contributions rounding out their team.

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“Black and Latino students are disciplined at higher rates and tracked into AP courses at lower rates so it would be good if people would start making decisions based on data and examine some underlying structural issues,” Outlaw said. “This is an evidence-based approach, if you can change teacher expectations you can change student’s performance.”

In a 2017 Google commissioned report by, American University and Stanford, researchers explored unconscious bias in the classroom. They found that teachers disproportionately subject students of a different race to harsher treatment and are less likely to provide them support causing an achievement gap for students of color.

Outlaw says the “late bloomers” study also played a key role in their research. Formally known as The Pygmalion Effect, the experiment was conducted in the early 1960's by psychologist Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. It found that, proving intellectual improvements take place when students were held to higher expectation by their teacher—which often doesn’t happen if a teacher has extreme biases.

“It affects society and our economy as a whole when you draw the line on what you think a person is capable of doing based on how they look,” Dorvilias said. “What limitations are we placing on society and our innovation when people in power put a cap on who gets to succeed and who doesn’t?”

Dorvilias and Outlaw won an Oculus Launch Pad scholarship in late 2017 and officially launched the app on May 25th, 2018.

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While Teacher's Lens is primarily funded by Oculus, Dorvilias says the app is still being pitched to investors. “A lot of the investors that we meet will say they’re willing to mentor us. For some reason when it comes to money they’re not throwing it in our direction, ” she said.

There are similar VR tools on the market, but Dorvilias she feels that hers is more unique in a sense that it packages positive interactions by tracking progress over time with a sustainable outcome that doesn’t involve suffering. She’s continuing to pitch Debias VR and has plans to develop more virtual empathy tools to use in schools and businesses. “The nature of VR has limits to it. Until people try it, they won’t really understand why it’s so powerful. Once they try it, they’re transformed.”

This piece is part of a series of stories produced in partnership with The Plug .

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