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Speech Center VR promises a simple cure for public speech anxiety: virtual reality avatars

The flames nipped and licked at forest trees’ delicate twigs almost teasingly, at first, but within moments it devoured the branches with the ravenous appetite of a Savannah predator. Thick, rolling smoke – a sign of the kill, like turkey vultures — cast a grey curtain so thick it nearly obscured the dirt oasis on which I stood: a humble clearing dotted with benches of indeterminable (but fire-retardant, presumably) material.

It was the stuff of Smokey Bear’s nightmares. But I couldn’t let the raging inferno distract me. My audience — roughly humanoid in appearance but distinctly cartoonish — was waiting for me to begin. I had a speech to deliver.

Luckily, I was in no actual danger. The forest fire threatening to roast me alive was part of a massive update to Speech Center VR, an app for Samsung’s Gear VR headset that’s supposed to help you become a better public speaker, the work of San Francisco app developer Cerevrum. It was, in other words, entirely an illusion, though convincing enough to give me the real-world willies.

“It’s one of our high-pressure environments,” Olga Peshé, Cerevrum’s COO, told me after my demo session in New York City’s Ace Hotel.

Learning public speaking in VR

Speech Center VR got its start as a $30,000 winner in the Mobile VR Jam competition hosted by Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR company behind the Oculus Rift headset. That build — Peshé refers to it as the “early days” — contains environments, too, but a far more limited selection of them. One places users at a podium and has them address an assembly of literal demons. Another features a more conventional crowd — human-like stick figures — that make frequent, distracting interruptions like coughs and buzzing beepers.

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Speech Center’s other historical component, and one I hadn’t experienced before, is “lectures” — narrated courses that teach basic public speaking strategies like “keeping calm” and “concentrating on specific individuals.” The format is a familiar one: an omnipresent “speech coach” guides you, the user, through lessons, occasionally pausing to pose interactive multiple choice questions about the material you’ve just reviewed — you respond by gazing in the direction of the correct answer and tapping on the Gear VR’s directional pad to make a selection. At the conclusion of the lecture, you’re given a chance to practice what you’ve learned: you address a hall of virtual listeners on the subject — and in the environment — of your choice.

Talking to real people, virtually

Previous versions of Speech Center VR weren’t particularly social experiences. Lessons were siloed and conscripted: you practiced presentations in a solo lobby, surrounded by what amounted to virtual mannequins. The revamped app retains a few of those elements, but introduces a new feature: online interaction with real people.

The update’s most significant addition is “multiplayer environments,” or virtual spaces where several people can speak to one another, intrepidly explore the lushly detailed environments, and just … chill. This is designed to help immerse nervous people into social situations, making them more comfortable with them in time. I saw two spaces. One was tropical paradise — a picturesque island replete with palm trees, wind-kissed golden beaches, and the calmest ocean I’ve seen inside or outside of virtual reality. The other was a bit more drab: a staid corporate boardroom with fixings like a whiteboard and potted ferns. VR, like the real world, isn’t all fun and games.

The revamped app introduces a new feature: online interaction with real people.

Exchanging words with someone — in my case, a smattering of Speech Center’s development team — is as simple as walking within virtual earshot. The audio feed is binaural, which is to say the volume of sound modulates based on your proximity to other users. Someone nearby and to your right will sound louder, for instance, than someone in the distance behind you.

Moving around is not as natural. You move a blue pointer on the ground by gazing in the direction you’d like to travel. Instead of moving around the environments, you teleport through virtual space. Interacting with objects is accomplished in much the same manner — sitting in an executive leather armchair around a boardroom table, for example, entails peering in its general direction, waiting until a glowing blue highlight marker encircles it, and tapping the Gear VR’s touchpad. The mechanics are intuitive, although mastering the locomotion it is a challenge — it’s too easy to teleport yards ahead of you, or down a hallway, rather than the few feet forward you intended to travel. In Speech Center’s defense, Peshé said the sensitivity was a “work in progress.”

There are more than 10 environments in all, Peshé told us, including the beach and office scenescape I was provided time to explore. Several, such as the forest fire, are specially designed to induce stress — the idea being that higher the pressure you feel while practicing, the easier the real deal will feel by comparison. The unfortunate primitiveness of those environments’ art style work against that mission, but the idea isn’t a bad one. Another environment I tried, a tightrope between two metropolitan skyscrapers, gave me a mild sense of vertigo.

The virtual bungalows are more than just speakeasies or pressure cookers, though. They’re a part of Speech Center VR’s new flow: virtual reality training sessions. It’s a multi-course affair, said Peshé: the first portion, which was undergoing “beta testing” at the time of my demonstration, will consist of groups as large as 20 who’ll watch short videos illustrating basic speech skills. The second part puts that accumulated knowledge to practice: a moderator will encourage group members to participate in “social games” like situational roleplay.

Virtual guest speakers

Initially, the lessons — 16 in all, at launch — will be free, as will the new lessons Cerevrum plans to add biweekly. But eventually, the plan is to introduce “guest speaker events” that will feature renowned communications experts from “around the globe,” Peshé said. “We plan to host people from public relations, from universities, and other interesting speakers from different industries.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The team is testing the waters for targeted, niche series like “effective pitching,” “effective selling,” “extending courtesy to difficult clients,” and “dating.” That last effort has already gotten off the ground. Cerevrum is already wrapping up a 360-degree videos with a “top dating coach.”

“We plan to host people from public relations, from universities, and other interesting speakers from different industries.”

But despite Cervrum’s undue attention to the consumer market, thus far, it believes the biggest potential for VR platforms like Speech Center lie in the corporate world. “We can solve problems enterprise has on the communications front, like engagement issues” said Peshé. For example: a company might have a culture of mentoring, but an overabundance of young staff. Typically, youngsters “don’t get time on an executive’s calendar,” but an app like Speech Center could share that executive around.

VR presentations can be recorded and watched in an interface somewhat reminiscent of YouTube: each video is timestamped and viewers can submit comments or “like” and “rate” videos. It’s an impressively robust toolset that has already impressed bigwigs from the likes of BMW and “one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.” It’s not hard to see why: Cerevrum is almost a sort of Twitch for VR.

Virtual job interviewers are coming

The future holds even more exciting prospects. According to Peshé, Cerevrum is dipping a toe into machine learning. It’s sketching out a VR job scenario featuring a computer-powered interviewer that asks questions of a human interviewee — uniquely, questions would be generated on the fly. But the concept hasn’t made the leap from the drawing board yet.

But some things won’t change at Cerevrum anytime soon. Case in point: its VR platform of choice, the Gear VR. The little design studio is sticking stubbornly to Samsung’s headset for the foreseeable future. “We love the affordability and mobility of mobile VR,” Peshé said. “We want as many people as possible to experience Speech Center, and it’s perfect for it.”

The newly revamped Speech Center hits the Oculus Store today for free.