Virtual Reality Takes Fear Out Of Public Speaking at Nebraska College

Hastings College student Emily Herbek with virtual reality headset. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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June 15, 2018 - 6:45am

Mark Twain once said, “There are only two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and liars.” The fear of public speaking can be debilitating for some, something they avoid at all costs. Now, a professor at Hastings College is trying to turn that fear into confidence. He’s using virtual reality to trick the eye and brain and give nervous public speakers new hope.

In a second floor classroom at Hastings College in south central Nebraska, Dr. John Perlich watches as sophomore Emily Herbek peers into a virtual reality headset. It looks kind of like a blacked-out, oversized scuba mask. When she puts it on, she instantly enters a new reality.

Perlich is a professor of communication studies and teaches an introductory speech class first year students are required to take. A few years ago, he bought a new phone that came with a virtual reality headset. One of the free applications was a virtual reality roller coaster ride.  

“As I’m on that roller coaster virtually, my stomach starts to move like you would when you’re in a car or like you would when you’re on a ride,” Perlich said. “And I’m thinking after I take the headgear off, wow, it’s amazing to me the way in which this was so immersive. And it was through the course of the next few weeks that I realized what if this visual sensation can be harnessed somehow to help our students in public speaking?”   

360 camera used to create virtual reality environment at Hastings College. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

From there, Perlich bought a 360-degree camera that captures an entire room, shot some video of a classroom full of students, and then turned that into a virtual reality environment that simulates what students feel when they’re in front of the class giving a speech.

“The key here is that these are faces they recognize because they’ve been in this class with these students for weeks before they have to give a speech and this is the very group that’s going to be looking at them, so it feels real,” Perlich said. “They know these people, they know these faces and it’s that authenticity of the moment that I think is crucial to make this work.”  

Soon, Perlich found students who were terrified of public speaking weren’t so afraid anymore. They were able to practice within the virtual reality environment without the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates.

“It does recreate the same amount of anxiousness and nervousness, but none of it is real, so I tell them, you can make as many mistakes are you want,” Perlich said. “You can embarrass yourself. Guess what? When you take the headset off there’s no one there, so you’ve lost nothing. And since we’ve started that, the students have been fascinated and engaged.”     

Dr. John Perlich and Emily Herbek at Hastings College. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

For student Emily Herbek, the virtual reality environment has changed how she looks at public speaking. She’s gone from a reluctant speaker to someone who looks for public speaking opportunities.

“This year alone, I’ve actually given presentations at a couple of different conferences,” Herbek said. “And seeing myself a year ago, I never would have imagined speaking confidently in front of my classmates, let alone reaching out to conferences with professors, students and other academic individuals, being able to do that and be confident about it and enjoying myself. It’s really changed the whole way I view speaking in general,” she said.   

Dr. Perlich thinks getting students over their fear of public speaking early could pay off in a big way when they graduate.

“I think when we can get students in their first year getting used to this, comfortable, and then we build upon that, when you’re going out for a job and you can do the thing that most people fear more than death, you’ve found yourself some job stability,” he said.  

His idea has gained some traction and he’s hoping to expand the virtual reality environments, maybe a boardroom setting or a graduation ceremony. And he’d like to experiment with augmented reality that would make the experience seem even more authentic.

“Imagine it this way; the top of half of the screen that you’re looking at through this headgear is an audience that has been previously recorded. But the bottom half is real world, so you can look down at your notes, you can look at your script and when you look up, there’s that audience,” Perlich said. “If I can find a way to blend those two things together, which I think the technology is almost there to do, then we’re getting a step closer to help the student make this feel like it’s real world.”

Perlich says even if the virtual reality environment idea stays in his classroom at Hastings College, he’s glad he’s helping his students get over a major fear.

“Public speaking is the thing that people fear more than death. You conquer that, and sky’s the limit,” he said.  

It’s a new reality he hopes will change lives and open up new opportunities.  



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