On a recent afternoon, Cargill employees filed into a quiet room at the company's headquarters in Wayzata. Each slipped on a virtual reality headset and headphones and watched a 360-degree documentary called "Traveling While Black."
Staff members from REM5, a St. Louis Park-based virtual reality laboratory, circled the employees, adjusting headsets and whispering instructions. When it was over, employees were encouraged to reflect on what they saw and learned.
The racial immersion activity was far from the gaming experience typically associated with virtual reality, said Amir Berenjian, co-founder of REM5. But it represents a key goal of the two-year-old company, which aims to connect students, teachers, artists and community groups with the possibilities of virtual reality.
The idea is that the technology can democratize experience and provide a more comfortable — and immersive — way to explore difficult subjects like racial or gender bias. "We want to use virtual reality for good," Berenjian said.
The "Traveling While Black" video, for example, seats a viewer across from the mother of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was playing with a toy gun when a young police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, fatally shot him in 2014. Virtual reality can simulate the experience of being homeless or show what it's like to be a woman in a meeting full of men.
"We don't ever want to view VR as a solution, but rather as a tool for this work," Berenjian said. "The real work comes when the headset comes off."
REM5 is developing virtual-reality experiences for use in diversity and inclusion training. The company has developed a prototype that has participants take a step forward or backward based on the advantages or disadvantages they've had in their lives. It's a powerful exercise, Berenjian said, but doing it in a group setting can cause some people to feel outed or ashamed. Virtual reality can shield participants yet spark open, productive conversations afterward, he said.
"You remove some of the chance for that finger-pointing mentality," he said.
About 800 Cargill employees have watched "Traveling While Black" as a part of several company activities organized around training themes of diversity and inclusion.
Many shared their reflections afterward. One employee took note of a scene in a diner.
"That was the first 'time' I was at a table with three people of color. Not the last," the employee wrote.
Another wrote, "This video really brings you into the experience and makes it real. Very powerful!"
A few participants wiped away tears after taking off the headset.
"I can see a lot of demand for more experiences like this that address different issues," said Demetha Sanders, Cargill's global head of talent and inclusion. "The impact and feedback has really been amazing."
The Institute for Lawful, Safe and Effective Policing (ILSEP), a Minnesota nonprofit aimed at building trust between communities and law enforcement, also has been working with REM5 to use virtual reality to train officers about implicit bias.
Last year, the institute began training sessions that place law enforcement officers in a virtual scenario where they have scant details about a situation that could escalate to a split-second decision about the use of force.
"They might know that the call was about someone who may have a gun or that there may be a black male in a certain kind of neighborhood," said Greg Wiley, ILSEP's executive director. "Does that affect the officer's use of force? Should it? That's what we're thinking and talking about."
Virtual reality can have more impact than watching an online training video about bias, Wiley said, because "you're immersed in the experience." He said he wants the public to walk into virtual scenarios that law enforcement officers routinely face.
"We want people to be able to put themselves in law enforcement officers' shoes to see what it's like when they're confronted with a very dangerous situation, and we want police to think about it from community members' perspectives," Wiley said.
"It's another way to help build empathy."