VR & AI for Training and Human Performance with Alex Young, Virti Founder


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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Dr. Alex Young founder of Virti. Alex, and I talk about the impact of new technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence on the training and human performance space, and some of the challenges and opportunities facing companies in the changing world of work. Let's get, started.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help the new innovators navigate what's next. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat into what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Dr. Alex Young founder of Virti

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Dr. Alex Young. He is the founder of Virti. Virti helps HR teams and organizations using things like artificial intelligence and augmented reality to improve and measure training. So welcome to the show, Alex.

Alex Young: Thanks so much, Brian. It's great to be here.

Brian Ardinger: I'm excited to have you because you come from a different background. You were a trauma and orthopedic surgeon before you became a entrepreneur founder. So how did you go from being a surgeon to being a founder of a virtual reality training type of company?

Alex Young: Yeah, so it's been a really interesting journey. I mean, my interests have always been around how to improve learning and the performance of people really in any sector. And my original degree, as you mentioned, was in medicine. And then I specialized in orthopedic surgery, working in the UK and also in the US for a little while.

And I've always, always been a bit of a tech nerd as well. So had a couple of companies when I was actually training to be a doctor. And taught myself how to code. Pretty terrible coding skills but managed to build a few companies around that. And then really with Virti, what I wanted to do was build a deep technology company, which tackled one of the major problems I was seeing. Both in healthcare, but also in every other sector, really on the planet which was how do we democratize and scale soft skills type of training for the workforce of the future.

And when I trained as a doctor and a surgeon, often we do communication role-plays and things to train people really how to be more empathetic. How to be better communicators. How to do things in health care, like break bad news to patients, or explain a diagnosis. And in the operating room about how to make decisions under pressure and lead teams. And often those sort of training sessions, were not very scalable. They weren't hugely engaging, and they were quite biased and not that data driven.

So, as you mentioned with Virti, what we do is we use AI and tools like virtual reality to put people into these very scalable, very measurable scenarios, where they can fail in a safe environment and run through lots of soft skills trainings senarios whether that's on a sales team training. Whether it's for managers or leaders, to understand how to deliver feedback. Or it's on your hiring or HR side, where we can actually find if people have some innate biases in the questions they ask during interviews. Or how they deliver team performance. So really, really interesting journey and lots and lots of parallels between healthcare and being an entrepreneur.

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. The whole concept of this metaverse and some of the new things that are coming in when it comes to augmented reality and virtual reality, what are some of the things that you're seeing in that space? How has it changed and evolved since you've started the company? And what are you seeing?

Alex Young: I think the whole VR space has been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Really, you know, going back all the way to the 1980s when NASA first started using VR tech for some of the training that they were doing. And in the healthcare sector there's always been lots of, kind of, sort of use cases of virtual reality for things like surgical training. But it's never really seen mass adoption.

And I think now with some of the newer headsets coming out and with companies like Meta, which of course rebranded from Facebook. Putting kind of billions behind the type of technology. We're seeing some of these PR teams like the Metaverse really galvanizing businesses and people behind this idea of a shared space. Where people can go, communicate with others. Practice in safe environment. Or just go and relax. And, you know, play games with each other.

And I think on the back of the pandemic where everyone was very isolated and teams still work remotely, it's really, really interesting having that projection in a shared space where you can build rapport a little bit easier than perhaps that of over Zoom, looking at your camera. And you get a bit more inclusivity with team communication.

And I think, you know, for us as a training company, we were founded back in 2018. Really under that premise of how can we scale role play or in-person training. And make it more affordable, more scalable and more data driven. And for us, it's just been a great time to sort of execute on that vision and help lots of companies to upskill their people.

Brian Ardinger: You mentioned you started the company before COVID and that. But obviously we've seen a massive shift when it comes to this change with COVID. And the fact that everybody's now trying to up-skill cross sell, figure out new ways to do work and that. Are you finding particular industries or jobs settings that are more conducive to this virtual reality environment?

Alex Young: I think it's really interesting, just the diverse views of kind of sectors and categories. Kind of find, you know, helpfulness from immersive technology. It can be used throughout absolutely everything. For us specialization, which is obviously soft skills, I think, you know, we're seeing a big uptake by people like sales teams. Particularly in industries like franchises, where they got to upskill new franchisees from a playbook and have a certain way of doing things.

The traditional method there obviously was doing in-person meetings or in-person webinars and, you know, live webinars and things like that. And it just wasn't either that engaging or that scalable. We've seen big uptakes there. Other industries outside of healthcare, where we've seen big uptake, things like aviation, which again, anything that kind of has infrequent, but very impactful hazardous outcomes. We found that putting people into virtual reality scenarios to be really, really helpful.

So, things like how to communicate with a passenger on an airline who might be rude to the staff. Or, you know, disruptive to other passengers. Being able to deescalate them. It doesn't happen too usually often, but, but it can be incredibly disruptive and cause flights to be landed in places other than their destination. That kind of thing is just great for running people through that talk of repeatable training,

Brian Ardinger: The trend of VR, seems to be just on the early stages of that. What's holding this back from companies being more focused on using this type of environment?

Alex Young: So, although virtual reality and the concept of virtual reality and the Metaverse has been around for a while. I think the technology now is only really sort of on that precipice of kind of mass adoption. As you mentioned, I think with anything new in the hardware space, whether it's an iPhone, whether it's a new type of computer, in this case, it's the VR headsets.

There is going to be a lot of speculation and a lot of blockers and barriers to adoption just because the hardware itself is expensive and people need to understand how it fits naturally into their workplace. I think what we're seeing now is some of the usefulness of the content. And the apps that sit on these pieces of hardware, really the things that are driving adoption.

And as they become more and more impactful, the quality of those becomes better. We're seeing people, you know, much more eager to adopt. And, you know, again, the technology as a whole, it's gone through a huge amount of technological change. Even just they've the last sort of two and a half years in terms of what the tech can do.

So, we've now got things like eye tracking. The headsets they need wires, that attach headsets to computers. You know, the chips and power of the actual headsets themselves is much faster. What we're now saying is we're still on that adoption curve. It's still very early. But we're seeing real impactful business outcomes being seen by people who are actually using them.

Say we've done a lot of research around how the tech works. We've seen people's learning retention increased by upwards of 200%. It's in confidence and employee's ability to action some of the training they've practiced in VR. Outperform in-person training in some cases. And we've seen the time for training reduced when you combine virtual reality with in-person training. So, lots of cost savings. Lots of better impact. Lots of better engagement. Some of the data coming out of it.

Brian Ardinger: What are some of the surprises that you've seen over the years of how your original assumptions were about how to build a company, or the features and solutions you were going to build out there? What are some of the assumptions that have changed? Or some of the surprises that you've seen?

Alex Young: We've been very lucky in that, you know, we spend a lot of time researching things back in 2018 when the company was founded. And we spoke to E learning development professionals and spoke to people in HR. We spoke to end users (employees) and really got a good understanding of what they were using at the moment in terms of either e-learning or in-person training. And then tried to pull out the critical elements of that into what we built.

I think in terms of what we have built at Virti, one of the big complaints that people made, which I've got to say I didn't realize until I sort of truly spoke to a wide variety of HR and learning development professionals was that if you deliver off the shelf content to, we as a company have our own scenarios, soft skills training, and other types of training, and that's great. And people can pick up and plug those, you know, straight into that training workflows. But actually, people want the ability to create their own content and they want a system that's easy to use in order to do that.

And for things like virtual reality and soft skills training, where a lot of it is conversational scripts, people aren't that intimidated by doing that themselves. And, you know, they've got their own experiences and their own ways of doing that. The big things that we did quite early on, on the back of that feedback was build out this No Code creation set of tools across both video and computer-generated scenarios so that people can actually create their own.

And that then throws out a whole host of, you know, real creativity, back to us as a company. And it's really exciting for me as the founder to look at what people create. Whether it's, you know, very immersive diversity inclusivity scenarios, based on people's previous experiences. Whether it's video training or onboarding training for that company. That's really, really exciting.

Brian Ardinger: I'm glad you brought that up because this idea, and we talk a lot about it on the show about no-code and low-code and democratization of some of these tools that makes it easier for people to spin things up, test things, try things. It's interesting to see that you're seeing that evolve in the virtual reality space as well.

Alex Young: We talk about soft skills. Or power skills as I like to call them, in terms of leadership training or helping managers deliver feedback. But there are lots of different ways to do that. And there are lots of different learning points. And I think the types of scenarios that you can put people through are almost limitless in some ways, in terms of the demographics of the people that you're communicating with. The actual setting. The types of conversation. People's emotions.

And even just from one scenario, you can tweak things behind the scenes and create a whole host of slightly different, slightly more difficult or easier scenarios that you can then run your employees through.

And that's where it becomes really interesting because the data of the system can then pick out some subtle changes and improvements. And it can also start to grade who your best performers are in the leadership space. In the sales space. And in the communication space. And actually, give people a gold standard or a ball that they can hit if they're looking to improve their soft skills, which is a really, really cool and really gamified.

Brian Ardinger: And that's an interesting point as well. When you talk about soft skills, I think one of the challenges is it's very difficult to measure that. And you're saying with technology and that, and you have an opportunity to collect data that you might not have been able to collect in the past and use that in different ways to really put some metrics or some insight into what's going on.

Alex Young: A hundred percent. And I think that the simplest way that I think about things is if I do an in-person role play like I did when I was a doctor or like I did, when I was, you know, practicing my own sales skills as the founder of a technology company. You will do a role play and then a third person, the coach will feed back to you. And they might say something like you started the conversation off well. Or give you some technical feedback on the content of what you're saying. Or they might give you some feedback on your eye contact or your body language.

But it's very subjective based on what they're seeing at the time and the assessors own personal experiences and their own abilities. And what the technology can do is it can actually track entire conversations. It can look at people's cadence of that tone. It can look at what conversational items, you know, that they're actually talking about.

And with some of the new hardware, you can also look at things like eye tracking. Physiological data. So, you can see if people are getting a little bit scared during parts of the conversation as well. And then you can feed that back to the user who might not know some of these subtle things, especially in the eye contact area. So, there's loads and loads of really interesting things that we can do. And the most important thing is then feeding that back and helping people be able to learn and improve in really kind of objective ways.

Brian Ardinger: Any type of technology adoption, there's this focus on innovation. And how do you get folks to adopt new technologies and things like that. So, you've obviously had an opportunity to see how companies take new technologies and the culture that's required. So, I wanted to dig a little bit into what you've seen when it comes to the culture of innovation. And how have you seen better companies adapt to this kind of new innovations. And what are some of the things that you've seen when it comes to the culture of innovation?

Alex Young: It's a great question. And I think we, the gamble operating in health care, is our sort of immediate or near target market. And that is something that is quite slow to adopt. Any type of technology because of any kind of patient safety concerns and things like that. And you've got to go through lots of rigorous procurement processes and so forth. But even there, one of the key things that I always look for is who's going to sponsor, you know, the adoption of this technology entirely in the new company. Who is that going to be?

Is it someone in the C Suite? Is it a champion in the L & D or HR Department? Who's going to really come on board and align with someone from our team who's typically on the customer successful or learning development side. And look at what the real goals and the outcome of introducing this tech is, both in the near term or say, you know, a year or two years.

And I think that's where we, as a company, forget a little bit about the technology and we say, okay, how can we help and align to your business goals? Whether that is just getting to payback of the platform as quickly as possible. You know if we can show we can make you money or we can show you that we are driving things like sales revenues or improving customer satisfaction and things like that through better training.

Or just by, you know, retaining your staff because we do a lot of onboarding training and, you know, there's some craziest statistics from places like Gallup or, you know, LinkedIn's workplace Survey, which shows that, you know, that people don't engage with our onboarding or if the onboarding isn't good enough, they will leave your company in like the first 45 days. Which is terrifying us as a business owner myself.

And I think it's those things that we really obsessed over. And then I think the next part is making sure everyone within that organization, that's adopting the software is basically understanding what their role is. That the users are incentivized to use it. And it's meaningful and it's going to be helpful to them. Rather than being a hindrance or just another password that they need to remember.

And most importantly you know, for us, it's in providing value to our customers and what they're doing. And collecting feedback and iterating on that. So, it's always an interesting journey. Every company is slightly different. Some people love adopting new technology and wants to be at the forefront of any innovation.

Some people want to wait until they've seen some use cases come out. And some people are just super cynical. And it's just human nature and different folks you know, different industries. But it's always fun working with lots of different types of companies and people.

Brian Ardinger: You have a podcast out called the human performance podcast. So, whenever I have a podcast host, I always like to get your take on what's going on in that particular space. Some of the things you've learned in this space of human performance. What are some of the best guests or some of the insights that you've learned from your podcast and the guests that you've had on it?

Alex Young: It's been absolutely fascinating actually. I mean, the podcast began really as a way to provide some stories to our users and our customers that sort of inspired them in their day-to-day lives. And some of the things that I was really, really interested in was how people's mindsets or how their own performance made them do, you know, extraordinary things.

On that podcast, some highlights, but for me personally have been, we've had a couple of astronauts who've been on, who've done, you know, multiple space walks and have to fix shuttle antennas, literally in the middle of the space. That for emergency situations, or sports people who've come back from injury and done amazing things.

But I think, you know throughout, the thing that fascinates me is always how people deal with some of these just enormous achievements. And by that, I mean a lot of people who do really, really well are actually the most humble and nicest people on the planet. And will bend over backwards to help out folks.

And I think a lot of that is about their mindset and it's about them really seeing themselves as a servant to the training and to what they're doing and being very, very coachable. And one great story is that from Scott Parazynski. He's one of the astronauts we've had on the podcast. He not only has done, I think over 40 space walks, but he's someone who is just always learning. And always wanting to challenge himself.

And has that in him. Which he's kind of learned over time. And he's also been to the top of Everest. He's been into a volcano in extreme temperatures. And he's just done some crazy, crazy stuff. And the thing that keeps him going is always that want and need to learn new things. To challenge himself. And to really sort of improve himself as an individual. And it's just amazing hearing stories like that every single week. So, I always think, you know, whatever podcast it's not about the host, it's always about the guests. Which really make it for everybody.

For More Information

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. Thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation, to talk about your learnings and what you're seeing in the world. Both as a founder, as a, as a technology person and as a person who's focused on human performance. So, Alex, thank you for coming on the show. If people want to find out more about yourself or about Virti, what's the best way to do that?

Alex Young: You can follow Virti at @Virtilabs on all social media. And the website is Virti.com. And then I'm Alexander F. Young on all social media. And by all means, follow me. I talk about soft skills and human performance across every channel.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, Alex, thanks again for coming on the show and appreciate the time. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in the years to come.

Alex Young: Thank you so much, Brian. Really enjoyed it.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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