Roger Goodell At Stanford VR Lab

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put on a pair of Oculus Rift goggles last summer and was immersed in a brave new world -- remarkably similar to our own.

Goodell was at Jeremy Bailenson's Stanford University lab to learn more about virtual reality empathy training.

"The immersion in virtual reality was so convincing and compelling," said Michael Huyghue, a confidante of Goodell who accompanied him on the trip. "Roger was tremendously impressed."

Stanford VR Empathy Training

Goodell visited along with Huyghue and several executives -- including Patriots president and chair of the NFL's digital committee, Jonathan Kraft. The commissioner was so impressed that he had NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent tour the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) a couple months later.

Huyghue, a former Jacksonville Jaguars senior vice president, NFL Diversity Committee member and United Football League commissioner, suggested to Goodell that the empathy training, which promotes tolerance and helps counteract biases of ageism, race, gender, disability, etc., would be useful to the league.

During his visit Goodell experienced multiple empathy-training demos. In one demo, his avatar became a black female, and he observed the way she was discriminated against in the workplace. In another, he saw himself as much older and overweight, allowing him to experience how obese people are treated in society.

"Across many, many experiments, becoming someone else and experiencing prejudice firsthand," Bailenson said, "is more effective at changing attitudes and behavior than controlled conditions, for example, role playing or watching a movie."

Greg Hardy

The NFL declined to make its executives available for interview, but such therapy could have particular meaning for the league, considering its off-the-field issues, particularly the high-profile domestic abuse cases of Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice.

The Chiefs drew criticism for drafting Tyreek Hill, who pled guilty in 2015 to punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend while at Oklahoma State, in the fifth round this year.

This cutting-edge virtual reality technology could help with NFL player treatment and assessment. And it could extend to coaches, front-office executives and league personnel.

"(The NFL) is in the lead," Huyghue said. "I think they'll be the first to put a real comprehensive program together and I think the other leagues will follow."

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Virtual reality empathy training is a three-step process.

The first step of body transfer involves physically moving around the room and seeing that the virtual body is moving with you. It can include a four-minute exercise where you extend your arms and see the different pigmentation or go to a virtual mirror to observe how your face has aged.

"You need to feel like the avatar body is yours," Bailenson said.

Then the treatment phase occurs, where the individual experiences some form of discrimination or hardship. In an ageism study, for example, there was a job interview, where it became very clear that the interviewer would not hire the applicant because of his or her age.

Stanford VR Empathy Training

Finally, it concludes with measurement or a way to test the effect of the simulation on changes in attitude or behavior. Sometimes the participant is measured by a reaction contest or a subsequent social interaction.

"It's always a challenging thing to do because you can't just ask somebody," Bailenson said. "You've got to come up with creative and scientifically valid ways of measuring reducing bias."

This process, which Bailenson has honed for more than a decade, is not intended to replace current diversity training methods. It's more about augmenting it with one empathy-training session lasting 15 to 20 minutes on an infrequent basis.

"That's really enough to make you rethink things," Bailenson said. "It's really intense ... You wouldn't want someone to experience that intensity and drama in the physical world once a month."

Because of the advances by the HTC Vive and the Oculus system, a team or an organization only needs a high-end laptop and some open space to conduct the training.

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Bailenson has provided demos to various organizations -- ranging from consulting firms to, as surprising as this sounds, the Russian government -- that have expressed interest in virtual reality empathy training.

That includes representatives from other sports leagues like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has visited Bailenson's VHIL and studied empathy training.

Stanford VR Empathy Training

"Everyone is looking," Bailenson said. "The NFL, in my opinion, is really close to actually doing it."

The Cowboys, 49ers and Vikings have signed deals with STRIVR (Sports Training in Virtual Reality), and the Patriots and Cowboys already have their own in-house VR labs.

Bailenson, former Stanford and Bills quarterback Trent Edwards and former Stanford kicker Derek Belch co-founded STRIVR, a start-up that shoots 360-degree high definition video from a player's-eye-view, so that players can simulate plays without taking hits.

While at the Stanford lab, Goodell also learned the details of that virtual football experience.

Other VR applications for the NFL could include recreating the view from the sideline for fans or building a training suite for referees to prepare for game situations though repeated simulations.

The empathy training, though, was the focus of the NFL's visit.

"We are looking at a variety of ways to help train and educate our players on important issues," NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy wrote via email.

Roger Goodell

In addition to potentially helping players avoid domestic violence, Bailenson's innovative technology could, among other possible benefits, help them better relate to teammates from different socioeconomic backgrounds or deal with raucous fans.

If the NFL chooses to use empathy training, one challenge is that the technology is so sophisticated that it's not easily mass produced. It takes months to build a demo, and you have to specifically construct the storyboard, the avatar and situation to the person. Right now, they're being tailored to the 19-year-old Stanford students who are the main test subjects undergoing the empathy training.

"The secret sauce is the details," Bailenson said. "The magic is sitting there with an organization, understanding the issues they're concerned with and than crafting a perfect scene that really encapsulates that, and that's hard."

Given its interest, the NFL may become the first to pilot virtual reality empathy training, as no company or organization has implemented it yet.

But someone will soon.

"It's not if," Bailenson said, "but when."

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Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.