ASU team developing virtual reality software to teach cross-cultural norms

The Cross-Cultural Communication Lab, a group at ASU’s Learning Futures, is developing simulations to teach people the nuances of cross-cultural norms and language in a virtual reality business environment.

Developed in collaboration with ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, the simulations will immerse students in virtual business scenarios without the pressure of the real world.

The simulations use a VR platform developed by Talespin, a company that creates VR technology for workplace training. The simulations are currently projected to launch in the spring of 2023 and will be provided in English, then potentially Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Italian.

Students will be immersed in a realistic VR environment, making them feel as if they were in another country, said Michael Grasso, director of digital initiatives, audiovisual and media at the Thunderbird School.

“It’s the full feel of language putting them into a place overseas, like a cafe in France,” Grasso said.

The simulations will put the user in front of characters and environments that reflect real-world scenarios using Talespin’s software.

While in the simulations, the user will see an animated character and multiple choice options that can lead to different paths to take in the conversation. Depending on the user’s choice, the character will respond with different emotions, said Taetum Knebel, creative lead on the Cross-Cultural Communication Lab, over an email.

The software will be used in language classes at ASU for both professors and students, and the student can be graded based on the choices they made, Knebel said. The simulations are meant to be used for less than 30- to 60-minute increments to prevent headaches with VR, Knebel said.

For people who do not attend ASU, the simulations will be available on Talespin’s platform for a fee, said Toby Kidd, director of the Learning Futures Studios.

The simulations were originally intended to be used for language building, but as development progressed, cross-cultural communication was added to make it more unique and provide more value than other language-learning software. The simulations focus not only on language learning and cross-cultural communication but specifically on how to use these skills in the context of business.

“We want to teach students the executive level if you will,” Grasso said. “So when you walk into that executive boardroom, how do you approach people from other regions, right, it’s very different. Depending on where you are. Tokyo versus South America. There are different mannerisms of speech.”

The project team is working with subject matter experts from ASU faculty to navigate sensitive topics and mannerisms that may arise when communicating with people from different cultures and how to apply that to the simulations, Kidd said.

Learning Futures is developing other VR software, including a virtual classroom called Huddle and an interactive and virtual replica of the ASU Tempe campus.

The simulations are currently in an early testing phase, Kidd said. The immersiveness of learning with VR can help students build empathy, Knebel said.

“The immersiveness of the content makes learners more focused on the content so they learn more, and it also creates more empathy towards the content because you’re sitting in front of this virtual human that, like, has very realistic reactions to what you’ re saying,” said Knebel.

Edited by: Kaden Ryback, Wyatt Myskow, Sophia Balasubramanian and Grace Copperthite.

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