Technology entrepreneur Robson Beaudry shares how we can use VR to practice and improve our interpersonal and communication skills. VR can accelerate and improve our practice, beyond alternatives such as role-playing or watching ourselves. Key insights include the power of meta-learning and the impact of listening versus talking…


Robson Beaudry

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you Robson, for joining us here to talk about how we can use technology to practice our communication skills.

Robson Beaudry: Thank you, Andrea, it’s great to be here.

AW: All right, before we get into the main topic, can you please share with us some background about your project that you just finished up?

RB: Yeah, absolutely. So Cerdio was a venture I co-founded with a friend of mine. Essentially, when the pandemic struck, there were a lot of things going on, I was involved with the contact tracing initiative at MIT. And he got in contact with me and really said, Look, I’m talking to this company that works with a lot of medical laboratories, and they’re having a real difficulty with some of the digital transformations they suddenly need to make. So Cerdio was really a chance for us to come in and start to help these labs, which are absolutely key in the COVID testing process, do things around test booking, test verification, really important things for them. We been doing that for the last year, we were just recently acquired. So it’s been a great chance for me to not only continue to develop some of these entrepreneurial skills that I’ve been working on for a while, but also make an impact within the pandemic.

AW: Wow, I just have to start by saying three things. Thank you for doing whatever you could do to basically help us combat this pandemic. Secondly, congratulations on the acquisition of Cerdio. And thirdly, I have to say, as a communication expert, it is not lost on me how much crafting it must have taken for you to articulate what you were doing with this complicated technology to explain it to someone like me in layman’s terms.

RB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, kind of any entrepreneurial activity or anything, when you’re doing something new, I think so much of what you do is just crafting that message over and over and over again. You’re just constantly explaining it to people, whether that’s your parents, or its investors, its potential new employees, its clients, you really have to find the exact words to use that make it really understandable in a few sentences. And certainly, it wasn’t something that happened immediately.

AW: Well, I have to be honest, Robson, just hearing you say that it makes my heart sing, because and I’m also thinking in my mind of all the other contexts, where that is also true, right? It’s not just high tech, and VR and AI, but it’s even how we describe ourselves. When we’re introducing ourselves. It’s, it’s, you know, positioning a brand or a company, it’s all of the above. So we’re going to get more into watching our words and crafting our words in a minute. But let’s shift then to the fact that you’re now back to your plan A, your original plan for what you were going to be pursuing after you graduated. And can you tell us a little bit about the technology that you’re creating?

RB: So one of the big things I did during my master’s degree was research around how we can use some of these up-and-coming technologies, VR, AR, AI, to really impact the way that we learn. And so one of the sub areas that I was really interested in was this area of what we might call interpersonal skills. And so how can we help people practice these skills, develop these skills, and really become better in a very consistent and scalable way. Part of that was a venture I founded while at Harvard called CollabReality. And so that was all about using VR as a way to practice a lot of these skills, with other employees, with managers, things like that. And so this is kind of as I’m finishing up this one chapter. It’s kind of an area I’m coming back to. And yeah, so when I say it’s a really interesting time to be jumping back in – the pandemic has changed so much about how we think about education, how we think about learning in the workplace, how we think about doing that remotely or in person.

AW: Do you think that your potential future customers, and I guess, in the more short term, your investors are more open to these ideas? Because of COVID. And the impact it’s had on all of us working at home and working online?

RB: I definitely think so. And I think, you know, the way I like to phrase it is the pandemic didn’t cause immediate change, but it’s accelerated a lot of these longer-term trends. And so it’s may not, it’s not necessarily the case that these institutions and these companies were immediately like, let’s change everything. But now they’re really thinking about it. And so that’s, that’s been driving a lot of change all over, whether that’s in a specific technology like VR, or it’s in just general digitalization trends.

AW: So as you’re starting to describe to us this technology that you’re developing, I feel like there’s kind of three things that we need to get our head around. So one of them is VR. So if you could share with us a definition of that, but then just to give you a little taste of where I’d look, I’d love to head also just talking about learning in that invite in that high technology environment, right? Then the third thing is why interpersonal skills? But let’s take a step back. And let’s just start with VR, Can you remind us or for some of us introduce us to the concept of VR?

RB: Absolutely. So VR virtual reality, the way I would define it is it’s a complete immersion within a digital environment. So as opposed to AR, which is about projecting digital models into a real-world context, VR is complete immersion.

AW: Okay.

RB: We might even break that down further into what’s called three dots and six dots. So three dots is you move your head around the environment tracks with you, you can look around this digital environment, six dots is kind of the next level of technology, it’s becoming more common. So that, in fact, practice you as you move around. So if you think you can walk across the room, you will walk through that digital environment.

AW: Very cool. So how does learning intersect then with VR?

RB: There’s a professor in Stanford called Jeremy Bailenson, who put it in a way I like.  He says virtual reality is all about the experience on demand. So if we think about the internet as providing information on demand, virtual reality can really provide experience with that same consistency and that same scalability.

AW: Okay.

RB: Now thinking about what is that really useful for, I mean, that’s, that’s one of the prime things that I was interested in. And so if you think about certain skills, where experience is just absolutely crucial, and you know, this brings us back to interpersonal skills. It’s not necessarily an information problem, but it’s often a problem of practice.

AW: Absolutely, again, music to my ears. So is that the main reason that you decided to focus on that you were looking for? a subject area where you believe, and maybe based on research that practice really can elevate the learning experience beyond? I guess, just reading about it or just hearing about it?

RB: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a combination. I was definitely interested in that. And it was also a matter of what I was seeing would be the most important skills for the future. And this was talking to academics. This was talking to top learning executives at BCG or McKinsey other firms, they’re all saying the same thing, right? Like, what skills do you think people are going to need the most. And again, again, it’d be interpersonal skills, its collaboration, its perspective, taking empathy, all of these things.

AW: This reminds me of the conversation that I had with Professor Avi Goldfarb, who’s on the marketing faculty at Rotman at the University of Toronto. And we were talking about how so many people are really afraid of technology, because they just go to the point that the technology is going to be replacing humans. And he said, No, because there’s all of these skills that humans have the relationship building, the collaboration, and all these things that you were just mentioning, that are uniquely human, right, and where it’s more difficult, and maybe even impossible for a machine to adopt those skills. And yet, you’re saying that the machine the virtual reality, can help us improve those skills?

RB: Absolutely. And I mean, this is I have an incredible respect for this kind of aspect of human communication. Like, it is so remarkable how complex it is. And what happens on a micro level when we talk to another human being,

AW: you know, what I like to say is we’re all communicating all the time, sometimes purposefully, but mostly not. That’s my line.

RB: So that’s it. And so it’s, it’s really a matter of, it’s not necessarily we can, on this ultra-granular level, just change someone. But it’s a matter of can we set up experiences that allow people to reflect, allow people to see things that they maybe didn’t before, and really start to move those communication skills forward? It’s a very difficult thing to do.

AW: Is there a difference between interpersonal skills and communication skills?

RB: Yeah, I think so. I think so when you get into the weeds of these definitions, and like I said, because it’s so complex, and we’re trying to use our logical brain to understand like, the larger part of who we are, which is this intuitive side of us. And you know, this is exactly the type of thing academics like to fight over. But for my own personal definition, I mean, interpersonal skills is the larger umbrella. Communication skills are really what happens exactly in that moment, when we’re communicating with another human being interpersonal skills are kind of like these larger habits and frames of mind that encompasses confidence in the wider view.

AW: So I’m just trying to think of something that would qualify as an interpersonal skill that would not necessarily qualify directly as a communication skill. And I’m thinking things like relationship classifications. That kind of thing.

RB: Yeah, absolutely.

AW: Can you give us an example of how or maybe take us through a story of vignette of how this might work interacting with your VR technology?

RB: Yeah, so I’ll give one example of a simulation we created. And so we were really interested in perspective taking. This is very important with the diversity of people in the workplace today, very important with the different teams and how they need to work together. So we created a simulation, one person with VR one person without. And so these two people are seeing completely different things. Each one has a piece of information, and they need to solve this puzzle. And so it’s so interesting, the type of things that come out from this. Yeah, and I won’t go too deep into it. But you know, the realizations that come afterwards ended up being the most interesting part, we had two people in at once kind of feel would work closely together before, and they came out. And one of the people said to the other one, wow, I just realized, like, I was telling you everything I was seeing, and I never once asked you what you are seeing.

AW: empathy. Wow. Right?

RB: So it’s a pretty powerful realization that you’re probably not going to get by just saying, you know, perspective taking is important.

AW: When you were describing that you said, when these participants are in it, can you share with us? What does that mean? Like, physically? What does it mean?

RB: Yeah, I mean, in terms of the VR technology, in it means you are looking around and you are seeing this digital environment around you with a headset, you have a headset on, you have, in this case, you had two controllers, so you could pick things up, you could, you know, walk towards the table, walk away from it, look around, pick things up, look over. And so it adds such a layer of difficulty. You know, you can do a lot with role playing exercises, but there’s this realization, like, it’s not real. Whereas your brain really thinks it’s real when you’re in VR.

AW: Wow, wow. That’s just amazing. And so and so just to clarify, it is not cartoon, this is live action. This is a world that you’ve created.

RB: Yeah. So there’s actually two types. So there’s what you might call like, live action, like you said, people have a 360 camera and record that. And then you can go through that. That’s not my preference, just because it’s actually not interactive. So you can look around and see in this 360 environment, but you can’t actually walk up to something you can’t pick anything up, because it’s just a record. Right? So in the experiences that I’ve created, it’s 3-D rendered. So you can think of like a video game or like you said, an animation. So it is animated that it can be in a way that’s more photorealistic or not…

AW:, as video games can, right?

RB: Absolutely.

AW: Very cool. And, and so there would be another. I don’t know, I don’t want to call it player but another participant in the virtual reality world with you?

RB: So some of the one of the simulations we created, both people are in headsets, they’re in the same environment. This particular one I described, one person is outside, they’re just sitting in a chair and just looking at a piece of paper where their clues are, and the other person is within the virtual environment.

AW: There’s what are the what are the clues.

RB: So these two people, we tell each of them, you’re going to solve something which requires you to collaborate, and that’s all the information we give, okay, one person goes in the headset, they find themselves in this digital environment, there’s trees, a little fire, there’s a table and with a little placard that says, work with your partner to solve this puzzle. And what they see is a bunch of little squares with symbols. They don’t correspond to anything in real life, but there’s symbols there. And then they have to put that symbol into a two by three grid, but they don’t know how, and they don’t know why. And they don’t know how these relate to them. Okay, meanwhile, the person outside of VR is sitting there, they’re given a piece of paper that also has some symbols, and they’re in the form of equations. Okay? Now, the trick is to realize that person with a piece of paper, their equations are going to tell the other person how to put the symbols on this two by three grid. Wow. So, but it’s amazing how challenging that is, because we haven’t told them anything beforehand. They really have to communicate with each other about what they’re seeing, and make that connection and that jump, and also try and communicate what these symbols are, because they don’t correspond to anything in the real world. So it’s an incredibly challenging exercise, and one that requires a huge degree of perspective, communication, and empathy, in order to successfully complete.

AW: so I was just trying to imagine myself in that situation, and the first thing that came to my mind was, we would all be tempted to describe what it is that we see what it is that we personally are experiencing. But what might be more helpful to actually advance in the collaboration would be to ask questions. And that goes back to your point where you said, when they take the headsets off, they have this epiphany like, wow, I was telling you and I should have been asking you, right?

RB: Absolutely, you hit it right on the head. And it’s so easy when we’re in, you know, whatever the situation we’re in, to only think about what’s in that situation and just try and like for someone else to see what we’re seeing, rather than trying to make the step of understanding?

AW: Well, you know, there’s this default in communication that people really think about projecting, instead of listening and interpreting. So that is absolutely brilliant. Are there any other sort of epiphanies that commonly are articulated by your participants in these exercises?

RB: I’ll share one other interesting thing that came out. You could really see differences when we had people who are of different ages are from different cultural backgrounds. And so particularly, they had to describe these symbols, what someone might see as a metro symbol, because it looks kind of like the subway sign from the city where they’re from the other person might see as the Mario symbol. So it’s like making those jumps are much more difficult. When I had two people who were in their 50s, who were both scientists, they could actually really go back and forth, very efficiently. When I spread that out someone from Turkey, in their 20s. And someone from India in their 60s, trying to communicate, the difficulty ramps up. And so it really shows how challenging it I to work with, you know, diverse teammates, it requires that extra level of empathy, that extra level of perspective taking to make it work.

AW: That is, that’s a fantastic insight as well. So it’s understanding the other person’s context, and then shifting your lens and your communication style, so that it fits with the other person so that it’s meaningful with the other person, right, so that you can build on each other’s perspectives and ideas. And, and it might go back to what we were talking about, at the very beginning, when you were describing the other technology that you were working on. Sometimes, when our perspectives or contexts or lenses are so different from the other person, we just have to go down to basics, right to layman’s terms.

RB:  right

AW: So I guess, fundamental to your technology is sort of a core belief that by practicing your skill over the longer term, it will change and be improved.

RB: Yeah. And I think that’s absolutely the way I think about learning. In general is it’s kind of where information, community and application meet. And so you really need that application part, to learn anything. And practice looks different in different contexts. So, you know, if you’re trying to learn a foreign language, you need to learn the vocabulary. And that’s actually like a pretty linear thing. It’s just about exposure, and you can kind of efficiently just go through that. But what you see with a lot of people who have learned in a classroom, when they get into a conversation, suddenly it doesn’t work. So there needs to be that wider exposure as well. You need to have conversations with people to get better at having conversations. So, you know, there has to be a combination of different parts of practice, and there needs to be, I guess, there needs to be experienced, there needs to be practice that is similar to how you’re going to apply it in the real world.

AW: I agree. 100%. And then I would add, also an opportunity to reflect on what you did, right? What you could do better, and then the discipline, just take that reflection, and use it next time. It’s really, really tough, but it’s, it’s worth it. Right? Obviously, you wouldn’t be doing this and I wouldn’t be doing this.

RB: Now, what we what we would call meta learning in the learning science, so so important, right? And, you know, it comes back to really taking responsibility for your learning, for getting better.

AW: we share that, that perspective. And I appreciate that so much. So what what’s the status in terms of the short term, and then your long-term vision for this technology?

RB: You know, it’s a great chance to look at this technology, look at this experience and kind of see how does this fit in with the post pandemic environment. And so I think for me right now, finding a way to contribute to some of the enterprises and initiatives that are really making a big difference in the post pandemic environment. I think it’s exposed a lot of the issues, the cracks in the system that were already there. So I think a big part for me right now, and we’re kind of wrapping up this acquisition though, it’s a chance for me to look where can I contribute my skill set my abilities, my knowledge to really help with the overall picture? Because long term I you know, the way I envision the future is really one in which this ability to learn, this ability to practice, is very accessible, very effective. Ultimately, it’s just so important for us to think in terms of equity. That that piece needs to be there. And I think technology is going to play a really big part in that.

AW: It’s huge. It’s huge. I applaud you, I encourage you, I celebrate you. I think your ideas are fantastic. I’m so excited to see what you’re going to do, Robson, is there anything else before we move on to the five rapid fire questions? Is there anything else you want to add about practicing specifically in this context of interpersonal skills and VR technology?

RB: I think practicing is interesting in the sense that sometimes it’s just about shaping the path in a way. It’s about thinking about your day-to-day life, and how that can be integrated in what you do on a daily basis. And so it might be something as simple as I’m going to make that extra bit of effort to go to this networking event, I’m going to make this extra bit of effort to connect with some people in my network, and really try and listen and be very purposeful about that. I think, you know, as much as I love to talk about technology, and I’d love to talk about what it can bring, ultimately, it’s just another tool. And so, you know, the way we learn, and we practice, it always comes back to this human level of what we bring in our day to day life.

AW: It sounds like your perspective is fundamentally grounded in a growth mindset. Right? You’re not just your technology that you’re developing, but your whole persona.

RB: Thank you. Yeah, yes, I think it’s, it’s, it’s an absolutely crucial thing. And you know, both personally and in my line of work.

AW: so I love that you recognize that as a compliment. It definitely is a compliment. Okay, are you ready for the five rapid fire questions?

RB: Absolutely.

AW: Okay, question number one, what are your pet peeves?

RB: Oh, one that I have right now is people who throw their masks on the ground. I’m just seeing all this garbage. On the streets.

AW: You’re right. They’re tossing them. That’s not cool. Question number two, what type of learner are you auditory, visual, kinesthetic? This is a really interesting question for somebody who’s working in VR.

RB: certain of my professors, when I was standing in the space really considered this as a debunked theory, but it is, like widely believed. But I mean, I definitely think there’s certain ways I prefer to communicate, depending on the context. You know, if I’m getting just sets of facts, I absolutely just want to see those written or a chart or something like that. Very visual.

AW: As opposed to listening to them in a podcast or, you know, in an audio book, for example.

RB: Right, right. So if I’m doing something really fact based. But if I’m just if it’s a little fuzzier, if I’m getting to know a person, or just getting to know an idea, I tend to prefer an audio format, I tend to find that human warmth comes through a lot more clearly in an audio format.

AW: That makes sense. Question number three, yeah. Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

RB: Yeah, I’m definitely an introvert. And it’s kind of funny, you know, going through my graduate degree, people tend to think of me as very extroverted. But I think the thing that really gives it away for me, if I come back from the night of networking, a night of meeting strangers, even a phone call with someone I don’t know, I feel really tired. Like, it’s a big energy expenditure for me to constantly be introducing myself in meeting new people.

AW: So you and I met during an online networking event, and afterwards, I was on fire. I was like running around my house, and I had a big smile on my face. And you were like, Oh, it’s time for a nap.

RB: Yeah, no, absolutely. It’s funny. But you know, something like this, I find this much more energizing. It’s one-on-one, you know, we’re talking about something I find really interesting and really compelling.

AW: Yeah, well, that’s good self-awareness. Now, question number four. Do you have a communication preference for your personal conversations?

RB: Yeah, I’m glad you asked this, because I feel strongly about it. For me, I’m on like the tail end of that time before cellphones became prevalent. So as a kid, you know, I was still in that environment where you call your friend’s house, you awkwardly ask their mom if they’re home and like, you figure it out. And so I still have an idea of just like, when you want to talk to someone you just call them so for my close friends. I mean, I always tell them always open. Like if you want to talk, don’t bother sending a text message. Just call me. I much prefer to talk over the phone. I find it. Yeah, just that much more human and meaningful. Ideas are exchanged in a much more interesting way. Like it’s, it’s just more intuitive. More open to possibility

AW: more organic?

RB: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

AW: Okay, last Rapid Fire question. Is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most lately?

RB: Hmm, I think so. There’s two I’m gonna put out there. The first is a podcast that I’ve been enjoying. It’s from the Harvard Business School. It’s called After Hours. Yeah. It’s just three professors and they’re just talking and it’s just very interesting like your

AW: Is that the one with Younge Moon?

RB: Yeah.

AW: I used to work with her actually. She’s phenomenal. Yeah, she’s an award-winning teacher. She’s fantastic in the classroom.

RB: I can only imagine. Yeah, that podcast is excellent. And the second, it’s not a podcast or newsletter, but a book I’m reading right now, fairly well known, I guess, like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

AW: It’s right behind me! I’m pointing at my bookshelf….

RB: Ha! But it’s just so great in terms of, again, on this topic of communication on this topic of how we think, just yeah, phenomenal book.

AW: Yeah, it really I guess illuminates biases, right, that we have. And the, I guess, scary and kind of sad thing is, the research shows that even when we become aware of these biases, apparently, we still revert to falling victim to them. Yeah, put it to put it in simple terms. But you know, I choose to be a little bit more optimistic about our opportunity to learn like if we truly understand the phenomenon, we just get to the whole point of this interview, if we just practice, right, and we’re self-aware, and we put ourselves in the situation, we experience it, then we can hopefully overcome some of those biases that are not helping us.

RB: Yeah, yeah. And there’s a lot of interesting work with companies through virtual reality right now on combating bias, and definitely, I’m sure that’s one of the big use cases being used right now for the technology.

AW: Yeah, that’s great news. Thank you so much, Robson, for sharing with us your thoughts about how to use technology to practice our communication skills. I learned a lot. I learned a lot and I’m feeling inspired about the future. Thank you.

RB: Thank you so much for having me, Andrea. I really, really enjoyed this conversation.


THANKS for READING – and Talk soon!




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