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Professor Andrew Robb is Studying ‘Social Presence’ To Improve Job Training through Virtual Reality


One way virtual reality can benefit people is in job training. This is not something new, since many companies within aerospace, military, oil and other industries utilize VR or digital training environments to put people in “real life” scenarios. Though in real-life scenarios, people are usually interacting with other people in some form or another.

This is what Andrew Robb has been studying on, especially when it pertains to the medical industry. He understands social interaction plays an important role in how people respond to different scenarios within their work environment.

One scenario within the medical field he is hoping to improve on, is training nurses to report  surgeons who are not following proper protocols during surgeries, such as proceeding with a operation with disregard to replacement blood not being ready. As with any work environment, there is a fear of social consequences within the work culture which would deter an employee from speaking up.

Andrew believes training in virtual-reality could alleviate this problem, by having virtual avatars which can be controlled by another human with pre-recorded responses. In an interview with Kent Bye from VoicesOfVR Professor Robb explains, “Originally the approach was the only time you want use a virtual human is when a real human is not available… but additionally for other reasons why as we’ve been seeing more interactions… is issues with consistency [in training].”

He also repeatedly uses the word “social presence” to describe the feeling we have when we are communicating with another human or A.I. entity. Or as Frank Biocca and Chad Harms from Media Interface and Network Design Labs defines it: “sense of being with another in a mediated [Virtual/Augmented Reality] environment.”

Why is ‘social presence’ important when it comes to training people in virtual reality or VR in general? Well because we are social creatures that spend a decent amount of our time communicating with other humans or personifying non-humans so we can interact with them/it.

Since this is an important part of our nature, it is important that ‘social presence’ is implemented in VR to add that extra layer of immersiveness. If not implemented right, characters or avatars in VR will run the risk of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ syndrome, where we feel the entity we are communicating to is not responding naturally to us.

With this in mind, it makes since that Andrew Robb believes virtual reality with the correct implementation of virtual characters in virtual training environments, can improve drastically new workers performance as well as responsiveness to various situations when they are performing their duties in real life, because of that extra layer of ‘social presence.’

You can learn more about Andrew Robb by visiting people.clemson.edu. You can also connect with him or join one of his courses by emailing him at arobb@clemson.edu.

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