If you had to name something that pushes you outside the boundaries of your comfort zone, what would it be? For the majority of people, the answer is public speaking. In fact, a fear of public speaking affects three out of four individuals, making it one of the most common phobias out there.
While the idea of standing up in front of a crowd leaves many of us shaking in our boots, local entrepreneurs Jonah Perron and Eric Steinke are tackling this phobia head-on using cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) technology. Their app, Beyond VR, transports users into a variety of public speaking settings where they can practice delivering speeches and presentations in the safety and comfort of their own home.
“Everyone we talk to is afraid of public speaking,” says Jonah, co-founder of Beyond VR, “so our goal is to develop a tool to help people overcome that fear and get excited about public speaking.”
Starting early, literally
Given that public speaking plays such a critical role in the professional business landscape, it may be surprising to learn that Eric and Jonah have yet to present to a boardroom, deliver a keynote or even graduate high school. In fact, the two budding entrepreneurs are currently finishing up their senior year at St. John’s Ravenscourt School.
“We’ve noticed that even kids our age are afraid of public speaking,” says Jonah, “so when Eric started getting into coding and we began developing the idea for the app, we realized that we’d identified a market opportunity that appeals to a lot of different people.”
The team began developing the app in late 2016 and have been working with a variety of mentors who have provided guidance, feedback and testing to help the app grow into what it is today.
“We’ve been really fortunate with people helping us out,” Jonah states. “Both of our dads are in business and have offered great insight into the content, how to market it and how to think about growing it as a product. Another big mentor is Chris Schmidt of Geofilter Studio. We actually worked for him this summer and we meet with him every few months. He’s been really helpful.”
Jonah is quick to point out that Kathy Knight, CEO of Information & Communication Technologies Association of Manitoba (ICTAM) and John Weigelt, National Technology Officer at Microsoft, have also spent hours working with the pair, and have been amazing resources and sources of advice.
“We literally wouldn’t be where we are right now without all the help we’ve received from our mentors,” Jonah states.
Overcoming the #1 phobia
Beyond VR is available for download in the Oculus App Store and for use with the Gear VR headset. However, Jonah and Eric are currently focusing on developing a toolkit which will enhance the practice users get in VR by incorporating actionable, physical worksheets, event checklists and more.
“Providing a virtual environment for users to practice in is one thing,” says Jonah, “but by correlating what they’re doing in VR with real-world tasks and experiences, we can help cement that learning into people’s minds.”
The toolkit, which is currently available as a pre-order, will include a lesson plan, educational components and exercises in many different settings to provide users with a variety of opportunities to practice their skills.
“Practicing public speaking is not only intimidating, but it can be hard to find the time to do it in front of actual people,” explains Jonah. “So by creating VR experiences with crowds of people, we can simulate the experience of delivering a speech from the comfort of your living room.”
However, the pair doesn’t just have their sights set on transforming how individuals overcome their fear of public speaking.
“Eventually, we’d like to begin developing toolkits for specific industries and for schools,” says Jonah. “We spoke to a lot of people at the DisruptED conference recently and a lot of teachers were talking to us about how the app could help students overcome their fear of public speaking and help them learn what a good presentation looks like.”
A versatile, multi-use tool
On the business to business side, Jonah envisions Beyond VR being used as a sales training tool to help sales reps practice their pitches and become comfortable with receiving feedback from the audience.
Users can even upload their own notes, script, and PowerPoint slides into the VR space so that they can prepare for an upcoming presentation using the information they’ll be referencing on stage. “Or for people who just want to practice their public speaking in general, we have a series of topics the app will suggest so they can improvise on the spot,” Jonah adds.
While you’re speaking, the app will monitor your activity and keep track of various areas which may need improvements, such as eye contact, voice speed and volume, as well as how often you use filler words such as “um” and “like.” It will also display a report so you can track your progress and improve over time.
Currently, Beyond VR has three environments to choose from: a boardroom, a classroom and a conference call scenario. But Jonah is quick to point out that he and Eric are working on a variety of other, less common scenarios.
“We know that people have to do public speaking in a variety of ways, so we’re creating environments that mimic those scenarios as well,” he says. “We have plans to create a massive theatre-style experience, a wedding experience where you’re giving a speech and more.”