Business Startups

Start-Up Spotlight: How Dark Slope is Bringing Virtual Reality to the Workplace

Dark Slope

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown, it sent Dark Slope CEO, Raja Khanna, into innovation mode. Now, what started as a spatial computing company has pivoted into a leader for immersive learning technology.

With restrictions on social gatherings and personal bubbles, the world needs new ways to work across all industries. Just as Zoom calls took over meeting rooms, essential and critical simulation training exercises need a new way to function.

That’s where Dark Slope comes in.

A new partnership with American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) has Dark Slope working to create virtual reality (VR) training programs for the future leaders in clinical chest medicine. In addition to bringing the training for chest medicine into the future, Khanna hopes that the learnings will be able to see Dark Slope’s VR training flourish into other industries of healthcare and technology.

“Virtual immersive learning is much more cost effective at scale, is easily deployed remotely, can be updated and evolved in real time, and can be used to deploy new skills to a workforce within hours or days of being needed, not months,” said Khanna

In addition to training up and coming professionals, by removing physical barriers of previous training simulations, VR technology can allow industries to ensure current employees are knowledgeable about updated protocols and procedures with ease. 

But can virtual training be as effective as real-life? According to this PWC study, it might be even more beneficial. From the study, VR learners were 4x faster to train than in the classroom. In addition, VR learners were 275% more confident with the content they learned.

VR began as a fun way to discover new worlds, and has turned into a tool to help navigate our current world. 

For this week’s Start-Up Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Dark Slope CEO, Raja Khanna, about the benefits of virtual learning techniques and the future of VR.

Q&A

Congratulations on your recent partnership with The American College of Chest Physicians. What does this mean for you and your company?

We established Dark Slope as a spatial computing company 2.5 years ago. At that time, we were focused on building the technology to power multi-user free-roaming VR and AR experiences for entertainment venues globally. From the outset we were expecting to move toward learning and enterprise applications of these technologies as the hardware evolved and the market demand increased. In the second half of last year we started to accelerate our move toward immersive learning. This year, with COVID-19 driving a new level of interest in training remote workers, our pivot accelerated once again.  

In many ways this announcement with the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) marks the completion of our pivot to immersive learning. It is validation, from a globally renown medical association, of our technology roadmap and of the world class team of developers and learning advisors we have assembled.  

The partnership is giving Dark Slope the incredible opportunity to finish the initial development of our core product hand-in-hand with a subject matter expert and client. By the end of this year we will have doctors and therapists being trained remotely using Involve XR, our virtual training platform. This will enable us to collect incredibly powerful data and user feedback and will allow us to enter 2021 as a uniquely competitive leader in immersive learning technologies. 

What are the benefits of virtual learning techniques, and how should companies be leveraging this method especially now during the pandemic?

Humans learn by doing, it is how we are made to develop skills. Any other method of learning spatial skill is simply not as effective from both an aptitude and recall point of view. This has been proven time and time again, is scientifically validated, and is the reason so many professions already train in simulators or in simulated environments. This is particularly true for healthcare workers, first responders, field technicians, and operators of dangerous equipment.  

Today simulation training is very expensive to run (often requiring hiring actors), is hard to set up (often requiring expensive equipment or environments to be replicated), hard to deploy (requiring travel to a simulation centres) and is not an effective way to train a workforce quickly and at scale. Virtual technologies solve all of these challenges. Virtual immersive learning is much more cost effective at scale, is easily deployed remotely, can be updated and evolved in real time, and can be used to deploy new skills to a workforce within hours or days of being needed, not months. The low-cost headsets used can also be taken home allowing workers to practice and improve on skills at their leisure, something simulation centres cannot do.  

Virtual learning technologies go far beyond replacing or augmenting existing simulation centres for hard skill training. Because of their low cost to deploy, the effectiveness of scenario training is now available to all manner of skill development needs. For example, immersive scenario training is a more effective way to teach soft skills, such as de-escalation, interviewing or firing techniques. It is also a better way to train leaders on creating more inclusive workplaces through empathy building, unconscious bias and anti-racism training. We believe we are just at the very beginning of the immersive learning revolution, and that, in fact, the future of learning is immersive. 

What are the learning statistics of VR learning? How does it impact student comprehension and testing? 

There are a lot of great stats on the power of immersive learning. Today, in our view, the best use cases are full virtual reality immersion. Over time, as hardware evolves, mixed or augmented reality will enable the opportunity to learn on the go, or on the job.  

PWC released a useful report recently, where they showed a 275% increase in confidence in applying skills post VR training. Other results include Walmart associates seeing a 40% improvement in customer service scores after immersive learning. Common among use cases is at least a 40% reduction in “time to train” new employees or re-skill existing employees, or to teach school students spatial skills. 

On top of stats like this, VR training has been shown to have a massively positive impact on recall and on “emotional connection” to the skill being learned. These aspects improve and extend the beneficial impacts of training. 

A key factor, that is just beginning to be explored, is the power of immersive technologies to provide more useful, actionable data-driven feedback to learners, in real time and based on their spatial aptitude for a particular skill. This is an area of our product that we are particularly excited about developing, particularly with the use of AI and other ways of extracting insights from spatial data. 

How do you see VR learning becoming a more integrated part of society? 

We strongly believe that immersive technologies are the future of most learning. The hardware is already affordable and is getting simpler and lighter every day. Learning platforms, like ours, will provide the tools for instructors of any skill to create and easily deploy remote scenario training.  

I think in the future job seekers will come to an interview having already practiced and demonstrated an aptitude for the role they are seeking, whether that is a store clerk or an HR manager.

I believe that, within 5 years, on-boarding, up-skilling and re-skilling for most roles will involve some sort of immersive scenario learning. 

In the near-term I think any industry that already does scenario training with augment their current offerings with immersive learning courses.

How will the VR Intubation program be conducted? 

We are deploying our first trials in the US and Canada this fall in partnership with CHEST. For phase one we are putting about 200 doctors and therapists through a virtual scenario “class”, and our plan is to begin the commercial roll out of this product (our Critical Care ICU product) early next year. 

The actual program, from a learner perspective, is very simple. They get a low-cost headset (about $500) either lent to them or purchased by them, and they attend a scheduled class. The class is in VR and is led by a real instructor. The learner will be in the simulation with other learners, and as a team (all joining remotely), they will be guided through various intubation scenarios in a simulated ICU environment with a virtual patient. The instructor is armed with a robust set of tools allowing them to change variables, create challenges, change decision trees and pathways, and to track individual performance. 

The result is very similar to doing a live simulation scenario with an instructor, but, in this case, you, your fellow learners, and the instructor are all remote. The instructor has more control over the scenario then they would have in a live simulation centre, and there is more data-driven feedback provided to the learner. 

Our tools don’t actually include the curriculum content, that content is provided by our clients and their instructors.  Our platform, Involve XR, simply enables them to create and deploy their existing training programs virtually with more flexibility, at a lower cost, and resulting in better data and learner insights. 

As time progresses many reports are commenting on the need for more trained health care professionals.  How can this method fill this gap with little risk?
Virtual technologies can pre-qualify potential healthcare workers, can re-skill or up-skill existing healthcare workers quickly and remotely, all with low cost and low risk. One of the key use cases in healthcare is to be able to train a large workforce, for example all the nurses in Ontario, quickly on new protocols or procedures.  Many of these new procedures are best learned via scenario training, now there is a way to deploy those new skills quickly and across a large geographic region. Once in place I have no doubt this type of just-in-time scenario training will dramatically improve patient outcomes. 

Moving to speak more about your personal career, how did your professional career progress into launching Dark Slope?

My career has always been at the nexus of technology and content. I love the spaces where new advancements in hardware and software enable new ways of engaging with information or entertainment.  At Quickplay, a company we launched pre-iPhone and that was eventually sold to AT&T, we believed people would start using their phones to consume content.  We worked with telecom operators to enhance their systems to enable content delivery, tracing, protection and billing, while also working with Hollywood on how to best think about mobile content. 

When Blue Ant Media was starting, we believed that the consumption of TV content was going to migrate to digital SVOD and AVOD platforms. That drove us to build out our own AVOD and SVOD offerings and to build one of the largest YouTube networks in the world.  

I now firmly believe that spatial computing is the next wave in computing generally, post mobile.  The “content” of spatial technologies will be wide and varied, ranging from games to smart city augmented information displays in your car, but I am most energized by the potential for spatial tech to change the way we learn.  The content of learning is the curriculums developed by subject matter experts like CHEST, while the hardware continues to be improved upon. At Dark Slope, like my previous companies, we are aiming to be the platform that connects the two.  

What do you think the tech-engineering industry needs to focus on now and where do you see it advancing to in the next 5 years? 

In Canada we have a depth of talent in AI and machine learning technologies, in telecom and in engineering broadly.  At the same time we are a net-importer of tech talent, driving a massive opportunity to build new areas of expertise.  We want to leverage our country’s existing talent pool, and our immigration policies, to help us establish Canada as a global leader in XR technologies.  We will help build this centre of excellence by investing in training (we have partnered with Sheridan and Ryerson on different aspects of this), on importing talent, and, of course, on exporting great products to the world.  

In particular I think we can be global leaders when it comes to developing XR talent from diverse communities.  As an industry we can all benefit a great deal if we pool our resources and create more opportunities in XR for women, and members of BIPOC communities. 

How do you hope your company will stimulate change and stand as an example for not only others within the industry but young minds just entering the profession? 

We are a values-driven organization trying to change the way people learn globally.  With that vision we embrace change and are fueled by the energy of new ideas and of the people that fight for them. 

Like any successful company it will all come down to our people. At Dark Slope, a young 25-person startup, we have partnered with two universities on training programs, have an aggressive diversity and inclusion hiring mandate, paid internship programs, and also employ a broad group of contract contributors, often from diverse locations across Canada and the world. All of this to usher in the next generation of leaders that will put us at the forefront of the coming immersive learning revolution.