How a virtual reality startup wants to end bullying and harassment

PeerSpective members outside the Capital One Innovation Center in Shockoe Bottom. From left to right, Veronica Lopez, Brett Bowker and Sarah Carter (BFA ’19).

When you put on a VR headset, your eyes and ears are sealed. You’re ensconced in a new reality, where digital sights and sounds coalesce to form a convincing personal experience. You might even be emotionally moved by what you see and hear.

At least, that’s the dream for VR technology. The truth is that the technical landscape remains foggy, and the medium’s potential is far from being realized. To develop for VR, creators need an inventive spirit and unerring optimism. The VCU alumni running PeerSpective have both.

PeerSpective has a singular goal: to leverage VR to snuff out bullying in all its forms, from schoolyard discrimination to workplace harassment. To do this, they’ve built an interactive bullying simulation with more than 20,000 unique storylines.

“Our simulation follows a very similar structure to those ‘choose your own adventure’ books,” said Brett Bowker, a PeerSpective co-founder and an alumnus of the VCU marketing program and da Vinci Center. “Throughout the simulation, an individual makes choices along the way that impact the events of the narrative.”

Whether those choices trigger helpful or hurtful turns in the storyline reinforces the consequences of your decision. There’s no wrong answer—but there’s always a tangible response to your actions.

The startup team has already recorded measurable results; their module inspired a change of opinion in trainees 97 percent of the time.

The multidisciplinary PeerSpective team comprises five VCU alumni from the arts, business, journalism and science. They developed their project in Unity, a widely supported game engine that allows them to build interactive 3D environments, navigable through the Oculus Rift. 3D modeling was built using May or Blender.

The Rift is then connected to a powerful PC, which includes a VR headset with six-axis tracking (so it knows where you’re looking) and two controllers that allow you to reach out and touch the virtual world. To make a decision, you pull the corresponding trigger.

“I’d never worked with VR before this project,” said Sarah Carter (BFA ’19), an alumna of the Department of Communication Arts and the da Vinci Center. “It was a lot of Googling and searching through message boards to find someone who had written out some code to see if it worked.”

If VR development sounds expensive, it is. The more sophisticated the idea, the pricier the peripherals. And the learning curve is steep.

Last year, when the team tested their training module in the VCU Innovate Living-Learning Program, the only equipment they could afford was a phone that was slipped into a Google Cardboard viewfinder. Their “interactive experience” was a 360-degree video starring the team members as bullies and victims. But even that meager setup was enough to prove their concept.

“Despite it being only a cellphone strapped to someone’s forehead by a strip of elastic held together by a cardboard box,” said Bowker, “we saw significant impact in the emotional intelligence of the people who went through these experiences.”

The team’s success buoyed them. Earlier this year, PeerSpective won $3,000 from the James R. Gregory Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The prize paid for their Oculus Rift and development PC, taking their class project from a cardboard box to a high-tech startup.

The Gregory Prize aims to boost arts undergraduates as they pursue bold business ventures—just as its benefactor did. James Gregory (BFA ’71) graduated from the communication arts and design program and built a successful New York City advertising agency at 23. The same confidence that drove him to take such a risk, he said, still lives on campus today.

“I started the prize to inspire VCUarts students who might have an idea for a potential business,” said Gregory, “to obtain seed funding and explore the concept without risk. Ultimately, I would love to see these ideas launched as actual businesses. I know it is possible because I did it.”

While the Gregory Prize elevated PeerSpective, the project still didn’t end there. When the team members graduated in May, the Richmond-based business accelerator Lighthouse Labs offered to mentor the company for the summer. At the end of their 13-week intensive, they secured a workspace at Capital One’s 1717 Innovation Center, with support from the nonprofit Startup Virginia.

Throughout the project’s development, each member has taken on a variety of responsibilities in order to hold the business on a steady path.

“My first role [at PeerSpective] was an actress,” said Veronica Lopez, an information systems and da Vinci Center alumna. “Then it turned into data analyst when the data came in. Then it turned into researcher, then co-founder. The great thing about having a startup is that you can do anything in the company.”

“I think our résumés are like overstuffed coat racks right now,” said Bowker, laughing.

As the artist among them, Carter has been able to try out a broad range of tools and mediums that she hadn’t encountered in more traditional classes.

Right now, Carter is the design lead for PeerSpective. She’s created models for the VR software, designed posters and promotional material, and created a mockup of the company website. She’s also helped with research, storytelling, script writing and even acting.

“I just go where I’m needed,” she said.

Regardless of their backgrounds in STEM, journalism or the arts, the team agrees that diversity of thought is what has made building PeerSpective so enjoyable and invigorating.

“It was really refreshing to hear all the different perspectives from everyone else,” said Carter. “It was more of a creative space because we weren’t all thinking the same.”

The Gregory Prize and other VCUarts undergraduate research and innovation grants are currently accepting applications. The deadline to apply is Nov. 8, 2019.