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Today, the dream of goggle-wearing masses has deflated, and investment in the tech has dwindled. But VR companies like Talespin have found a growing market insimulating the least entertaining content imaginable: our jobs. Consumers may not yet feel the pull of visiting fantasy worlds in their free time, but for businesses that need to train their workers, better tools are a necessity, not a luxury. “What you’re seeing today is not an evolution but a return to the application that’s always worked,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and one of the founders of Strivr, a competing virtual reality training start-up. He traces the roots of virtual reality back to the Link trainer, a mock airplane fuselage mounted on a platform that could simulate real flying sensations, which half a million military pilots used to safely train during World War II.
Talespin found its first major client in Farmers Insurance Group, which needed a new way to train claims adjusters for home inspections. The start-up designed a virtual house, complete with cluttered closets and leaky sinks, that trainees could scour for evidence of water damage. The simulation changed slightly each time, letting new hires rack up months’ worth of experience in just a few days. The company has grown to 75 employees to match the demand for VR training coming from Farmers and other large corporate clients, fueled only by $5.6 million in outside investment. But the company always uses Barry’s termination as a demo for new clients — it’s a compelling proof-of-concept experience designed, Jackson said, “to see if talking to a virtual human can actually make you uncomfortable. It’s proved to be pretty effective.” That emotional realism is what separates virtual reality from all the other tools for teaching interpersonal skills in the workplace, from pamphlets and role-playing workshops to interactive tutorials.
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