Could Virtual Reality Cure Your Fear of Public Speaking?

Users can practise speeches and presentations in front of customisable crowds -- where ‘rudeness’ can be set to maximum.

28.05.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Ovation
Photo by Ovation

There are few things more distressing at work than an inability to perform under pressure. And nowhere does this fear seem more common —the sweaty palms, the inability to breathe, the tightening of the chest, the anxious glances into a sea of well-meaning, long-suffering audience members— than during a professional presentation.

They say practice makes perfect, but when the price of practising is so fear-inducingly high, where does one turn?

One answer could be virtual reality (VR). Famous for simulating ever-more realistic gaming environments, the tech is increasingly being used for educational and self-fulfillment objectives. PTSD sufferers have given controlled exposure to sites of trauma through VR headsets and Google Maps Street View, and people with fear of heights have been transported to places high above the ground.

Ovation, a VR programme created by Jeff Marshall, is another step in this direction. The company styles itself as the “future of communication training”, offering users the chance to deliver and refine presentations in front of crowds in classrooms, courtrooms and boardrooms. Visual cues are used to encourage speakers to shift their attention around the room; filler words are highlighted to encourage a more diverse use of language, and prompts are used to help speakers use more gestures.

The programme appears infinitely customisable: Users can not only select the size and gender ratio of their audiences, but select their appearance and even their ‘level of rudeness’ — how likely they are to be checking their phones or chatting to people next to them.

The most courageous users can even then share their recordings with colleagues for feedback.

Marshall, who learned to code on his own, writes on LinkedIn that while public speaking skills are key to professional development, practice is “intimidating and infrequent”.

“Ovation in virtual reality overcomes these obstacles by providing a supportive audience that feels real alongside training tools and feedback designed to grow your skills and confidence,” he adds.

The former global data analyst at Bloomberg appears to have had a long interest in the power of VR to ensure professional growth, having delivered a speech about virtual reality at a conference in San Francisco.

Writer Lauren Mechling detailed her use of Ovation in a piece for The New Yorker, saying she was able to watch her ‘performance’ back from any and every angle. Each time she finished speaking, Ovation provided her with a grade—a result of gaze distribution, pace, pauses, reliance on filler words and hand activity.

“As my hours spent behind goggles moved into the double digits, I became accustomed to pacing around the kitchen and talking to myself. I dropped lines that felt extraneous, simplified sentences that tripped me up,” she writes.

“My speech became tighter, and my relationship to it began to take on the slightest edge of boredom.”

Isn’t that what everyone with public speaking anxiety longs for?

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