Flexing Your Brain in XR, with Cognitive Design’s Todd Maddox

September 23, 2019 00:40:16
Flexing Your Brain in XR, with Cognitive Design’s Todd Maddox
XR for Business
Flexing Your Brain in XR, with Cognitive Design’s Todd Maddox

Sep 23 2019 | 00:40:16


Show Notes

We often talk about how XR technologies are great tools for education and training on this podcast. But why is that? Like, physiologically? Turns out, XR tickles the thalamus in ways traditional learning strategies never could, and that’s not us just whistling Dixie.

Today’s guest — Cognitive Design & Statistical Consulting, LLC CEO Todd Maddox — has a PhD in Computational and Psychological Science, meaning there’s no one better to explain why XR and your brain are a match made in heaven.

Alan: You’re listening to the XR for Business Podcast with your host, Alan Smithson. Today’s guest is Todd Maddox. He is a cognitive design specialist. Todd is a PhD, and the CEO and founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting LLC. He’s also a learning scientist and a research fellow at Amalgam Insights. His passion is to apply his 25 years of psychological and neuroscientific expertise gained by managing a large human learning, memory, and performance laboratory to help build better education and training solutions. Todd has published over 200 peer reviewed scientific articles, resulting in over 10,000 academic citations and hundreds of speaking engagements. During his 25 year academic career, he’s awarded $10-million in federal grants from the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense to support his research. Since entering the private sector, Todd has embarked on a mission to translate the amazing body of research conducted in the ivory towers into plain English and help companies leverage this research to build better products. Todd is especially interested in applying his expertise in the psychology and neuroscience of learning, memory, and performance, and to use immersive technologies in manufacturing, health care, corporate training, and retail, to name a few. You can follow Todd on LinkedIn. Just look for “Todd Maddox PhD.”

Todd, welcome to the show.

Todd: Hey, Alan, it is fantastic to be here. Thank you.

Alan: It’s such an honor. I’ve been reading your posts and your articles, and trying to get through some of your scientific papers is a challenge. It’s so much information there.

Todd: Yeah, I hear you. And to be honest, my recommendation is to sort of skim the peer-reviewed stuff, because it does seem like it’s written in a foreign language, even though it is English. And the LinkedIn post and the more recent stuff, where I really try to talk in plain English, because if a scientist can’t present their work in plain English then there’s something wrong. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Alan: I love it. And one of the articles that was recently published was a report on VR as an empathy builder, through Tech Trends.

Todd: Yeah.

Alan: Here, I’m just going to read a quote from it:

“Any profession that requires interpersonal interaction, such as education, retail, food service, call centers is better served with strong empathy.” Let’s start with that.

Todd: Totally, yeah. Every one of those examples is a people example; people interacting with other people. I know we’ve got amazing technologies; we’ve got robots, we’ve got all these wonderful things that are making our lives better. But let’s face it, in the end, it’s about people interacting with other people and caring for other people, walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes. That is really just so critical.

These technologies — in particular virtual reality, I would say — this is an immersive technology. I could be dropped into any environment. That’s amazing, that’s very cool. But now imagine: Todd, a middle-aged hetero white guy gets dropped into an environment where Todd is now a young African-American lesbian woman. And whatever’s happened to her has happened to her and hey, it’s happening to me now. Now, granted, is this the same as a lifetime of “go back where you came from?” Of course it isn’t. But it’s a start, and it’s visceral. It engages emotion centers in the brain in a way that is rare. And of course, you can do this over and over and over again in virtual reality, because I can be plopped into any environment, into any person’s body that we like. So when it comes to empathy and understanding, I really think that’s one of its many sweet spots, I’ll say.

Alan: There’s been some recent research around using this for human resources, for hiring, and then also one thing that I saw was really neat is, as a manager, you were able to sit in virtual reality and reprimand somebody. You had to give a disciplinary action. You sat there and you talked to the person and it recorded your eye tracking, your hand motions, your head pose. And then afterwards, you got to sit in the seat of that person and watch yourself give yourself the reprimand.

Todd: Yeah. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Just to start to dive a little bit into the neuroscience behind all this, because that’s really where I reside and am most fascinated. It’s one thing to study what it’s like to give somebody a reprimand. “Here’s a PowerPoint on how you give somebody a reprimand,” or even, “here’s a video — watch this person getting a reprimand. What did they do right? What did they do wrong?” All of that information is processed by what’s called the prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead. I call it the “What System.” It’s the part of your brain that learns what you’re supposed to do. OK, that’s great, and it’s really important to know what to do. But let’s face it: I know that I should eat a little more healthy than I do. So, I know what to do. But do I do it all the time? Knowing what to do, and knowing how to do something are two completely different things. They’re mediated by completely different parts of the brain, and the processing characteristics of those two brain systems are very different.

So what you’ve got in the VR example that you’re suggesting is, you’re actually in there doing, instead of “here’s what I should do — watch this PowerPoint, hopefully you’ll go do that stuff — you’re in VR and you’re actually doing it. And I love that it’s measuring things like body language, non-verbal communication. What’s fascinating about non-verbals is, it’ll actually provide an enormous amount of information about whether somebody is being genuine, showing empathy, whether what they’re saying is not really what they mean. These are absolutely powerful tools.

And then, yeah, when you can then swap, you’re now getting the reprimand from you. It’s truly remarkable. You’re just so broadly engaging so many of these parts of the brain that are critical for these kinds of tasks. It’s just an amazing technology.

Alan: And in this podcast, there’s always the same things that come up: “I want to be able to empower my field service workers hands-free.” “I want to use virtual reality for training.” Now, the training aspect of things is starting to accelerate much faster than anything else, because the results that we’re seeing across the board in companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Wal-Mart, these big companies are seeing real, tangible results using this technology. Why do you think it’s so powerful? What is it about this technology that’s creating those lasting synapses in the brain that feels like you’ve done it?

Todd: Yeah, it really comes down to the brain. And there are a couple of things. Traditional ways of training – really, what I did for 25 years when I was a college professor educating undergrads — you have butts in the seat and you’re droning on at them. Well, what’s happening in your brain? First — again, we’re focused exclusively on the prefrontal cortex — if you ask your grandmother, you know, well, what does it mean to learn? Ask just any old buddy. That’s really what they’re talking about. They’re talking about the prefrontal cortex. “Okay, I have to sit down. I have to concentrate. I have to process this information. I’ll mentally rehearse it so that I can, quote/unquote, remember it.” Everything is driven through the prefrontal cortex. It’s part of the brain that sets us apart from, quote/unquote, lower animals — which is the term actually I don’t like that much — but in an evolutionary sense, it allows us to have what we call metacognition. That is, we can think about the fact that we think.

But let’s take VR — or AR, for that matter. First thing is, I’m learning through experience. I am in the environment while I’m learning. I’m not in a classroom. I’m not at a desk studying. I am in the environment. Why does that matter? Well, that broadly engages perceptual representation regions in the brain — the back of the brain, the sides of the brain, the top of the brain; all these parts of the brain that represent the environment that you’re in. So, you’ve already got that activation alone.

Now let’s take, say, a hands-free AR device. Now you’re actually generating the behaviors of whatever your job is. And you’re being guided, let’s say, with AR assets in the Hololens: you’re actually generating these behaviors in a guided fashion. You’re not just reading a textbook that tells you what the behaviors are — that hopefully you’ll remember when you’re out on the field — but rather, you’re being guided through these behaviors, and you’re doing them in real-time out in the field.

So, I’ve got the behavioral centers of the brain that are activated. These are the centers deep down in the brain in a region called the striatum. Simultaneously, if it’s an engaging and rich environment — or like with Wal-Mart, if it’s Black Friday is the environment that you’re in — you’re going to have emotion centers lit up. It is as if you’re plopped down in the middle of Black Friday. So, emotion centers in your brain are lit up — like the amygdala and some other limbic structures. Long story short: traditional training engages one part of your brain — the prefrontal cortex — which is a part of your brain that cognitive load is a problem; working memory capacity is a problem; attention span is a problem. Versus virtual reality or augmented reality, where you’re engaging experiential learning centers, cognitive centers, behavioral centers, and emotional centers. So, much more the brain is being engaged in synchrony.

This is why you learn more quickly, you make fewer errors, and you retain the information more. This is really what is driving these amazing return on investment for forward thinking companies that are using these technologies.

Alan: That was actually…


you know how to speak my language on this show! The XR for Business Podcast is all about ROI — what are the best investments we can make as businesses, to drive our business forward using virtual/augmented/mixed reality technology? So, my next question was, of course: what are some of the ROIs being seen by businesses?

Todd: Yeah. So you mentioned several of them: Lockheed, Walmart. I’ve actually been following PTC quite a bit. Actually, that’s where you and I met. I’ve been following some of their technology and actually met several people who were using one of their products called Expert Capture, and getting… trying to remember the exact numbers. But, training times cut in half, standard operating procedures being generated ten times faster than they were before — you’re seeing numbers like this from company after company after company. And again, from a neuroscience of learning and a neuroscience of performance perspective, none of this surprises me, because we’re talking about engaging one system in your brain, versus engaging three or four systems in your brain, and engaging them in this… almost like a ballet. It’s this beautiful synchrony, all in the interest of achieving whatever it is that your goal is. Whatever you’re learning task is, your training task, whatever it is you’re trying to perform. And so you’re seeing these ROI that’s off the charts.

I will say — and I actually just wrote a report on this last week, also at Tech Trends — that I’ve been making this case. I’m going to continue to make this case so people listen to me. These technologies are fantastic. They broadly engage all these parts of the brain, which is super. And you’re seeing amazing ROI. My very, very strong belief is we can double those at a minimum. Wow, how can we do that? I mean–

Alan: Hold on, hold up! So, we’re already seeing 50, 60, 70 percent increases right across the board. Retention rates, memorization techniques, faster training time. You’re saying we can even double that?

Todd: We can do better on those metrics, and we’re going to get other value that we’re not even really measuring. For example — and I think Expert Capture’s a good example — you’re going to retain this information better. You’re going to learn more quickly. Okay, that’s great. You’re gonna know what the standard operating procedures are, and you’ll be able to regurgitate those back to me. I think you can — and I don’t want to get too into the weeds here — but there are aspects of, in particular AR, that are not optimized for training behavior.

Most of these AR assets… let’s say you have the Hololens on. You’re working on a machine. The Hololens says “move your left hand over here, and turn this knob.” Okay, that’s great. That’s called “guided learning.” And guided learning is solid. There’s nothing wrong with it. But if you start tweaking and incorporating other ways of doing this, that are less guided and more discovery-based by the learner, and – critically — involve real-time reward and punishment. You are now going to be training the muscle memory correctly. It’s actually better for you to discover these things. So, be guided partially. Then you have to generate a response and you get reward or punishment. That is how you’re going to train the muscle memory.

You’re going to be able to train expertise. I have 25 years of expertise in manufacturing. I believe that with these tools, we could create experts much, much faster. And that’s not really the goal of a lot of these technologies. It’s really just “translate that expertise into a series of steps that I present on the Hololens, show it to the workers to get them up to speed.” So, they’re up to speed. That’s great. But they’re not experts. They don’t have all of the expertise that that baby boomer who’s retiring has. I believe we can impart that as well. But we’re gonna have to make some changes to the way that these technologies work. We’re going to have to optimize the AR assets to the way the brain learns best. AR works very well now, because it broadly engages all these parts of the brain. And that’s great. That’s a good starting point. Now we need to optimally engage each of those parts of the brain.

Alan: Yes. How do we do that, then? You’ve got an AR experience that guides me through fixing a machine — and I’ve been able to expert capture, I’ve been able to put on a camera on one of my experts, because here’s the rub: as the workforce starts to age and retire, the problem isn’t so much that there aren’t jobs, the problem is that the jobs are changing slightly. The experts who are the best in the world at that job are starting to retire. How do we have the skills transfer from one generation to the next?

Todd: The first thing is we need to capture that expertise, that boomer expert who’s in manufacturing. If you tell him, “go sit at that computer and write out your standard operating procedures,” for one, he’s not going to be happy. And for two, he’s not going to do a very good job. And you might ask, “well, why is that the case? He’s got all this expertise.” He has behavioral expertise. His expertise is in how he interacts with that machine. That’s muscle memory. That’s understanding situational awareness. So he actually has a feel for when that machine isn’t working right. He can’t even describe it, he just sort of knows it’s off a little bit. And you’re asking him to sit down and type out standard operating procedures, which is knowledge. So you’re asking him to use his prefrontal cortex to write out procedures, when his expertise is behavioral and situational awareness.

So that’s one thing: we have to do a better job of capturing it. Expert Capture does a good job on that! I’m not saying it doesn’t, because it says, “hey, go do your job and I’m just going to capture it.” But how we curate that, and how we present that to young workers is absolutely critical. And we’re not optimized. That has not been the focus to this point.

Alan: I think a lot of the focus has been just trying to get the technology to work, let’s be honest.

Todd: Absolutely.

Alan: We’re only 12 months into having headsets that actually turn on when you want them to do it, and object recognition. It’s a very new field. And I’m really excited to listen to the next part of what you were going to say, and that is, how then do we optimize for this? Because we have the very basics worked out. I can put on a pair of glasses. I can recognize a machine. I can walk you step-by-step through how to fix that machine. Now, what you’re saying is, let’s create a more discovery-based, or maybe even gamified experience, where I learn, but I’m learning while doing and making mistakes.

Todd: Absolutely. To your initial point, I want to be clear that I am not making the case that people [in the industry] are too slow. No, not at all. And you’re right, we are we’re in the very early stages. But we have these technologies, and it’s time to say, “okay, I’ve got this great technology. I can present any AR asset I want, I can present it anywhere I want, and I can present it anytime I want.” The question is, “when do I want it? What do I want? And where do I want it?”

That’s where science comes in. And first: Neuroscience. I actually had an interesting discussion about this with Jim Heppelmann months ago at PTC, he was talking about “we use green for some things, and red for other things.” And I said, “Yeah. Do you know why that is, Jim?” And he’s like, “well, green means go and red means stop.” I said, “well, there’s a reason for that.” The cells in your brain that respond to green are the same cells in your brain that respond to red. But they are excitatory to green and inhibitory to red. In other words, it is impossible not to discriminate green from red. You can never confuse the two, because it’s built into the neurons.”

We need to leverage more things like that. We need to go back and look at how the brain processes the what, the where, and the when. And we need to build that into these AR assets to optimize these things. Gamification, yeah. Start with directed learning and then start weaning this worker off of the directed learning, toward more discovery-based. That is going to speed the muscle memory. That also requires rewards and punishments. So there’s gamification right there. That’s going to be the next set of major upgrades, I think.

Alan: What about artificial intelligence? I just read an article recently that was talking about a company that’s using AI for recruitment; they’re able to run these people through a couple of games, a couple of questions, and a video. The AI’s analyzing the video, it’s analyzing their results on the game. And then it’s saying, “out of these hundred thousand” — it was Unilever, by the way, that it’s doing this.

Todd: OK.

Alan: — “out of 100,000 applications, we’ve narrowed it down to 3,500, based on just this algorithm for this particular job.” And then they’ve also started using it to then unlock what does the potential look like for, “maybe you’re not right for this job, but hey, you scored in the 98th percentile on this other job that you didn’t apply for.” It may make for much better recruiting.

One of the things that I think is necessary that we haven’t even scratched the surface of: we use Netflix algorithms every day to give us better movies to watch. We’re not even touching the surface of what’s possible, when we create that sort of AI algorithm to give us better learning in a way that works best for us.

Todd: Totally. Definitely preaching to the choir on that. I mean, big picture, you do an assessment. If I was involved in something like that, I’d say, “okay, great. So what is it that we’re trying to train for? What is the task that the worker will be doing?” And that’s, of course, what we’re selecting for. What are the aspects of that task? Oh, it’s a very behavioral task. Or it’s very cognitive-heavy. Or, well, you’ve got to have situational awareness, you’ve got to deal with any old thing that might happen to you. Or all three.

I’d look at what are the characteristics of the perfect worker: you’ve probably got some [in your company]. We’re going to measure all those aspects of those workers. And in particular, I would be guided by the neuroscience of performance and learning. Then what you do is you use AI. And of course, you’ve got new data coming in, so you’re constantly updating your algorithm. But then what you do is, you have a potential new hire or recruit, you get measures from them. It’s not a template match per say, but it’s a match. You’re basically correlating that new recruit’s scores with the scores for the ideal employee, and you get sort of a measure of fit.

And I love the idea that you apply for a job A; you’re actually not a very good fit for job A. Well, we have job B over here; you’re a really good fit for. It’s such a more efficient way of doing things, because let’s face it: people don’t know what job they want, what job they’re going to fit for. If we could use AI to help guide that process and put people in the jobs that are best-suited for them, whether they, quote/unquote, know that or not, right? We’re not that great at introspecting about ourselves. We really don’t know that much about ourselves. We think we do, but we don’t. Whereas these kinds of tools can actually give us a better insights into what we would be good at. So, AI machine learning, these kinds of algorithms: awesome, awesome future.

Alan: So we’ve got all of these new technologies. They’re happening fast. We’re seeing great results across enterprises. You said we can do more; we can do better. How does a company even start to evaluate or look at these tools? Because you’ve got a handful of companies working on manufacturing and industrial, and those seem to be getting really great traction. But what about sales training, or HR training, or soft skills training, or retail, or… there’s so many other aspects of business that maybe aren’t as obvious at front, but what are some of the other ones that you see these techniques working on?

Todd: I’m really glad you brought that up, because we’ve been talking a lot about the manufacturing and industrial sector, and I think these tools are taking off there, for one, because the ROI is so clear.

I was actually having a discussion with a colleague a couple days ago, that the beauty of manufacturing is, I can have you use one of these AR tools and I can see how quickly you complete the task. Boom. I mean, there’s my data; it’s right in front of me. It’s a short-term ROI. I see it immediately, and I can see it from all of the people that I have use this AR tool.

For HR, for sales, for what people call soft skills — I’ll use the term people skills – but, interpersonal skills. These are harder to measure. They’re slower to develop and evolve. They’re a little mushier to measure. And so it’s been more of a challenge to measure the ROI for, let’s say, people skill training with VR, than in the manufacturing sector. But it’s still there. And I think maybe that’s where the scientists can really come in and try to identify some short-run ROI, but also really that longer-run ROI. Let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to interact with a machine than it is interact with people.

Alan: People are… this morning, before we jumped on this, I said, “you know, I feel like I have a weekend hangover, without the alcohol.” I mean, people are not like a machine. The machine wakes up Monday morning and just works. It doesn’t have three days of camping, or it didn’t go to Vegas for the weekend. Machines don’t do that. But humans, we have all of these complicating factors. And it really complicates business. And it’s part of the interconnected web of humanity. But at the same time, if we can better attune ourselves to watch out for these things using this technology. I think it’s really powerful.

Todd: I mean, let’s take healthcare. Let’s take law enforcement, firefighters, call center, retail — anybody who has to deal with, quote/unquote, putting out fires with adversity. The term I use is situational awareness. It’s an ability to always know what you need to do, right now. It’s like you always make the right choice, and this uncanny ability to kind of predict what’s going to happen in five minutes. There are people that have that. And guess what? It’s trainable.

Alan: Now you’re getting crazy, Todd. Come on now.

Todd: Well, I–

Alan: You can train a sixth sense?

Todd: You can. You absolutely can.

Alan: OK, let’s unpack this. What you’re saying is, using situational awareness and situational training in environments such as VR — where you can recreate that environment — that situational awareness becomes built up. But how can you build that sixth sense in somebody to predict what will happen?

Todd: OK, so yesterday — or I guess it was Saturday — it was the 50th anniversary of [the Apollo 11 moon landing] — those guys had a sixth sense. They had these simulators that cost equivalent of billions of dollars; over and over and over again, they got thrown at them every possible situation, no matter how likely or unlikely. They were prepared for anything. There is a use case right there. It has been trained, and it can be trained.

“Yeah, but gosh, that was like, a handful of guys, and it cost a ton of money. So that’s not too realistic, Todd, in the real world.” No, you’re right. Okay, but now imagine putting somebody in VR. You could throw all the same situations at them. You can measure their physiological responses. VR focuses mostly on where you look, and of course we have auditory, but there’s no reason we can’t — actually, we should — start looking physiological responses.

Alan: Yeah, I saw something, somebody had taken the Gear VR — which is Samsung, you slot your phone in and put it on your head — and it was a meditation app that used the Samsung Gear Watch to keep your pulse rate. As you’re meditating, you can watch your own heart rate inside the VR headset. If we start thinking about… most of the headsets right now, the VR headsets don’t have eye tracking. I think the only one that really has eye tracking is the HTC Vive Pro Eye. Something so simple as being able to know where exactly the person is looking has dramatic effects on the knowledge base of how we move forward with this technology. Then, when you increase that with skin response or heart rate? We haven’t even really touched on that stuff.

Todd: Totally. And I think that’s… I’ve talked to a number of people recently, some pretty big companies that are starting to bring VR and/or AR into their companies. I’ll talk to them about the neuroscience, and they’ll say, “we’d really like to do some studies where people get a magnetic resonance imaging machine or put the EEG on them.” And I said, “I’ll be really honest. Those are really, really great tools. But why? Why do you want to run one study — that’s going to cost you an enormous amount of money — to learn one thing?” I mean, you’ll have some pretty pictures of the brain, but there are strengths and weaknesses of all of those techniques. And that’s a time for another discussion.

Alan: Well, I think you can get really deep with this technology or you can just take it one step at a time and say, “okay, let’s just measure your heart rate.” That’s simple with a watch band.

Todd: Totally. And if we’re talking about situational awareness, and we’re talking about dealing effectively with stressful situations, knowing that you’ve got EEG activation, or that your amygdala is lighting up is not really relevant. What’s relevant is: are you calm? You can measure that with heart rate, galvanic skin response. We can measure that with things that are on the market today, that are super effective.

Alan: And inexpensive too, let’s be honest.

Todd: And inexpensive.

Alan: Skin response and heart rate is cheap.

Todd: Very. And they’re everywhere, right?

Alan: The ubiquity of sensors.

Todd: And you’re seeing more and more of… certainly, the military spending a lot of money on this, but understanding the physiological responses: hey, perfect application of AI. I can determine whether — to use a military example — whether a war fighter is ready to go to war today. I can put them through a simulation; I can be measuring their physiological response. “You’re not up to snuff today.”

Alan: Military, they’re way ahead. They’re using this technology, they’re studying these types of things. But let’s just take it to even the most basic aspects: a K-to-12 learner; some kid in grade 6. We send our kids to go to school from 8:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, and they learn science from 10 to 11, math from 11 to 12. We just run them through this gamut. But have we ever really looked at what is their optimal time for learning? Maybe those kids learn math better at 8:30 in the morning, or maybe phys-ed in the morning. Have we ever really looked at that? And of course, every individual learner is going to be different.

Todd: Yeah. OK, so there’s a lot to say and there’s a — I’m actually really glad you brought up kids, and I’m going to add middle-aged and older adults to the mix as well, so–

Alan: All the people.

Todd: Basically, anyway.


Well, okay.

Alan: You know, to be honest, we’re all lifetime learners now.

Todd: We are.

Alan: Gone are the days where you go to school, you graduate, you go into a job, and that’s the end of your learning career. Now we’re entering the exponential age of humanity. We must maintain our lifetime learning status.

Todd: Totally. There’s no doubt about it. And we need to use learning tools that are optimal for where we are in our lives. Kids — actually, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until you’re about 25 years old — yet we have kids learn math, like you say, from 10 to 11 in the morning. And what are they learning it with? Their prefrontal cortex. We are training children to learn information with a system that’s not fully developed. That’s crazy. We should be using immersive technologies that more broadly engage more parts of the brain, that are fully developed. I’m not saying we shouldn’t still work the prefrontal cortex, but relying exclusively on the prefrontal cortex with children is incredibly suboptimal.

Move to the other end of the lifespan. Your prefrontal cortex actually starts declining in your 40s. On that end of the spectrum, we shouldn’t be relying purely on the prefrontal cortex. Healthcare examples are great: I go into my doctor, they tell me I need to have some procedure. They give me some bunches of pieces of paper to take home to read about the procedure. Incredibly ineffective. How about if I go into a VR experience, I see what their procedure’s like? I’m going to be less stressed, I’m going to have more knowledge, I’m going to be more prepared for it, and even more satisfied. Guess what? I’m going to be more likely to heal well after that surgery. There’s actually data on this.

Alan: There’s a sick kids hospital here in Toronto, that did a partnership with Samsung, originally. And what they did was, they just put a simple 360 camera on a gurney and they wheeled it through, as if it was a kid. They wheeled it right through to surgery so that you know which hallways you’re going to go down, and which room you’re going to go in, what the room looks like, and what the sounds are like. They let kids wear that in VR before the surgery, and it decreased their stress. And when you’re going in for surgery, stress is actually the opposite of what you need. When you’re going into surgery, you need to be calm and relaxed, and let your body heal.

Todd: Yep, you don’t want to be stressed out. Reading a piece of paper does not provide the information that you want, so you’re still uncertain. You’re still stressed. Put on a VR headset: again, you’re broadly engaging more parts of the brain than just the one. I don’t have to generate a mental representation of what the hospital’s like, like I have to do with the piece of paper. No, it’s in front of me. I know exactly what the hospital is like. I know where the surgery room is, I have the feel of it. And I’m going to be less stressed because of that. I’m going to be more likely to heal. No brainer. And that’s cheap.

Alan: Really cheap. So, to put it in perspective: in all of human history, we’ve never had a device that can deliver training and education as efficiently and effectively as virtual and augmented reality. Now, you combine that with studying our emotions through eye tracking, head pose — that sort of thing — our movements, and then also through our biometric responses — our heart rate, our galvanic skin response — when you combine that all together and then run it through AI to deliver this in a personalized manner: we really are setting ourselves up for what I believe to be the most powerful tool we’ve ever created to train people. And I think it’s the only way that we’re gonna be able to remain competitive in a world where everything is increasing exponentially.

Todd: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree. And the beauty is that each of the parts of that puzzle, we’re making progress on. We’re making progress on AI. We’re making progress on wearables that tell us all kinds of stuff. The VR headsets are getting better, and the cost is going down.

We need to put all that stuff together — which we’re doing — and we need to use science. We need to look at how the brain processes things, do some experimental science as we optimize these tools. And you’re absolutely right: the savings, people are going to learn better, they’re going to be less stressed in medical situations. We’re going to have better-trained police officers and, I mean, you name it: everything. And it’s just around the corner.

Alan: One thing we didn’t touch on, which I think is timely right now, is neural link, or brain-computer interfaces. Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink, announced that they’re going to be able to embed these little microfibers that act as almost like a brain stimulator, and also capturing the data. So we’re gonna be able to capture and read-write onto our brains. What are your thoughts on that?

Todd: Yeah, I actually have a colleague who’s really into it, so we’ve been talking a lot about this. I actually read a really cool article about neural link a couple days ago. You know, it’s insane. OK, so look. So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to link to the brain. OK, that’s great. Well, what is step one? “Step one: understanding how the brain works.” Hmm, we really don’t know how the brain works all that well, do we? “No, we don’t.” So step one is to understand how the brain works a lot better than we do today.

Now, I think we can do that in concert with the goals of neural link, but I think we have to always keep our eye on the ball, which is: how does the brain process? What do these signals mean? Understanding that there are different parts of the brain that provide different types of information and signal different things, and making sure that we combine that information in the same way that the brain does. So, the engineering side is great. We need good engineers. But we also have to always pay attention to the “neuro” side of neural link, and really understand how the brain works. Then we’re gonna make some real progress. And it’s incredibly exciting.

Alan: It really, really is. I read this quote in one of your articles that you wrote, and it really stuck with me. And I think this kind of will cap off this conversation:

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.” -Albert Einstein.

Todd: [laughs] A colleague of mine, Tim Fitzpatrick, who was actually the CEO of a VR health care company. He exposed me that quote nine months ago, and I was just blown away by it. I mean, I’m so enamored with Einstein anyways, and was like, “yeah, he’s a learning scientist, too, because it’s brilliant.”

But absolutely. Learning is an experience. You learn while doing. You learn in your environment. Why? Because it broadly engages so many parts of your brain at once, that the information sticks; it’s retained. You learn the behaviors. Everything else is just information. Information is the prefrontal cortex. It’s how we focus almost all of our learning tools. We try to drive everything through the prefrontal cortex to the information system, when we should be training people through experience.

Alan: Well, thank you, Todd. We’re at the end of the XR for Business Podcast with your host, Alan Smith, and this has been an amazing exploration of what’s possible when we use virtual/augmented/mixed reality for training, artificial intelligence, and biometric responses.

I have one more question to ask: what problem in the world do you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Todd: Oh my goodness, there’s a lot of problems in the world, but I guess the one I’ve been most focused on — and there’s some personal reasons for this – but: senior care. We have — some people call it the silver tsunami — running down the train track. We’ve got boomers, myself included, who are aging, and we do not have enough people to take care of seniors. And we need to do a better job of training not only the seniors on what’s to come; their family members on what to expect; and experts to help them. And I really believe there’s so much empathy involved there, and so much detailed understanding and training: these technologies can absolutely solve that problem. So that’s one of the ones that I’m most excited about and want to put a lot of my time and energy on. But many, many more. Many, many more.

Cha-ching” sound effect by Muska666

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