What if virtual-reality avatars could teach humans empathy--in the real world, not in the realms of gaming or science fiction? In some workplaces, that's already happening.

Mursion, a San Francisco company, offers VR-based training to help employees improve their people skills. By interacting with avatars in realistic simulations, managers can learn to give constructive feedback, salespeople can polish their negotiating skills, and call-center agents can practice calming down angry customers--without endangering any real-life relationships or deals. VR companies say their training is faster and more cost-efficient at scale, though it's still too expensive for all but the largest employers. As costs come down, virtual empathy training could one day become a competitive advantage in the post-pandemic workplace.

"I guarantee our avatars know how to push your buttons," says Mark Atkinson, CEO of Mursion. His is one of a growing number of companies developing VR learning and development programs for empathy, adaptability, resilience, and other hard-to-teach "soft" skills. 

When I tried a Mursion demo via Zoom--a simulation to help managers learn to handle difficult conversations--I was face to face with "Linda," an avatar with a blank expression. According to the instructions, Linda was my employee, and I'd called her into my office for a private meeting. She didn't seem particularly human--until she started speaking. With agitation in her voice, she complained about a colleague who she said wasn't pulling his weight. When I asked a few questions, she became defensive. The conversation felt natural and spontaneous, not at all like a scripted role-playing exercise. I found myself trying hard to speak carefully and be a good manager. That's because, like a good theater performance, the simulations have enough emotional realism to allow for a suspension of disbelief, Atkinson says. Participants react as they would in real life, even though they know the situation is artificial. 

Mursion can customize its avatars by gender, age, skin color, clothing, and virtual setting, to suit whatever scenario is needed. This flexibility is a big advantage over in-person training. "The primary purpose of using avatars is to put a learner in front of personality types that resonate within a workplace circumstance," Atkinson says. The simulation aims to replicate the atmosphere of a difficult conversation--down to facial expressions, body language, and environmental stressors, like the background noise of a busy coffee shop or a manufacturing plant. Each avatar is voiced in real time by a real person. Atkinson says this is because A.I. isn't advanced enough yet to work on its own, but the human touch also adds plausibility. "We really are trying to authentically represent what it's like to talk to a human," he says.

Mursion employs more than 100 part-time "simulation specialists," trained actors and improvisers who can each play several characters at once. They are based around the world and in all speak a total of 11 languages. Most sessions take place on a computer or tablet. Less than 10 percent of Mursion's customers opt for a full 3-D experience with VR headsets. A 30-minute Mursion session costs $49 per learner, and most people practice the same scenario twice when learning a skill, according to Atkinson.

The tax-preparation company H&R Block hired Mursion to onboard call-center employees after finding that many new hires felt unprepared after regular training and didn't show enough empathy, says Kim Iorns, the company's director of learning and development. "We knew that they were following the right process, and they were using the right tools, but there was something that was missing in that connectedness with their clients," she says. H&R Block typically hires thousands of workers each year, some of whom join later in the tax season and so have less time to train. Its 1,600 late-season hires who trained with Mursion performed as well as or better than the earlier hires who were trained without it, Iorns says, and the company saved more than 4,000 hours in call time.

In virtual reality, workers can practice the kinds of encounters that aren't easily replicated in a classroom or an online module. A 2020 study of VR soft-skills training by the global consulting firm PwC's U.S. emerging technology group found that VR learners completed training four times faster on average than those who learned in a traditional classroom and were more confident to act on what they learned. It also found that, at scale, VR training can save money. Despite the higher upfront cost of equipment and content, VR can train employees in less time than other methods, the study concluded. However, it found that a company would have to train 375 learners with VR to reach cost parity with classroom learning, and 1,950 to reach parity with online learning. And while the cost of VR headsets is dropping, they still run $300 to $1,000 apiece--unaffordable for many small businesses. 

Mursion uses its own simulations for employee onboarding, as well as for sales and diversity, equity, and inclusion training, Atkinson says. It even uses them to vet potential investors. When the company was raising its Series B round in November, "we definitely had some people who we thought, 'Maybe these aren't the right fit,' " he says. "You'd be surprised how quickly people reveal their inner self when they do a simulation." 

Founded in 2015, the company has raised about $35 million, according to Crunchbase. It's on track to earn about $20 million in annual revenue, Atkinson says, citing the company's current run rate. As Mursion looks toward growth, Atkinson says its biggest challenge is the "compliance mentality" that causes employers to treat soft-skills training as a box to be checked rather than an ongoing process. Regular practice with Mursion is meant to be a routine part of the learning that enriches a company's culture, he says--not a gimmick or a substitute. "We're a complement to learning. We don't replace it," he says.