Mursion (a foreshortened form of Immersion) is used as an immersive VR training and development tool that enables executives, health care professionals, classroom teachers, and customer service representatives to practice interpersonal skills with a wide range of personalities. It uses human simulation specialists who, as avatars, work with participants in diverse training scenarios using AI to create a whole cast of virtual characters a specialist can use in the simulations. Thanks to a convergence of motion capture, computer vision, GP-3 natural language processing, AI assisted body language, and voice morphing, the company is able to put humans in the tech stack.
Used in combination with artificial intelligence and actors Mursion can deliver powerful and personalized simulations. Sessions can be run by one of Mursion’s eighty simulation specialists, or by the client themselves (trained by Mursion, of course). The demo on my laptop was led by “Michael,” a virtual host, who explained the situation in the simulation. As you can see from the photo, Michael is decidedly not photorealistic, but rather resembles a character from The Sims. Michael explained the scenario we were going to role play. I was to be an executive who had to counsel a high-performing employee, “Lisa,” who has lately been so impatient with colleagues, and dismissive of others in meetings, that several of her co-workers complained. Unknown to me, Michael was not a real executive. She – or he – is a Mursion simulation specialist, working through an interface that allows them to play any age, and any gender.
My conversation with Lisa was hard. I had an uncomfortable flashback to these sorts of human resources tasks managers must do even if, like me, they have no training or practice in doing so. I said a lot of wrong things that hurt and misled people. Mursion could solve that. Great job by Michael playing Lisa. Or was Lisa playing Michael? I was also treated to a classroom of six “gifted elementary school students,” also run by my invisible sim specialist, who did an excellent job asking questions about my work at Disney without really listening to the answers.
“There is so much nuance to interpersonal communication especially in stressful circumstances,” Co-founder and CEO Mark Atkinson said in a recent interview. “At some point we may not need humans, but for theforeseeable future we’re depending on our simulation specialists to deliver the cognition and empathy that AI can’t do..” I was surprised at first that I was working with an avatar on my 2D computer screen, like a video game. Except this is no simple avatar. There’s eye contact. They breathe. And they deliver a personalized performance so convincing the cartooniness fades away and becomes a heightened reality. It felt like I was there. Technology augmented the actor, giving them superpowers.
I have said many times in this column that VR is going to be an important source of employment for actors all over the world. I was introduced to Sarah French, an actor based in Central Florida, who heartily agreed with the proposition. She is a conservatory trained member of Actor’s Equity Association who performs at theme parks, in theaters, film and television who’s been working with Mursion from its beginning as a research project. Now, she hires and trains all the new sim specialists. “We want to make it the learner’s show,” she told me. “The actor is not the star. When they show up with costumes asking for sides, they’re performing in the old way. In the new way, you’re acting with a game controller in your hand.”
Simulation specialists are not psychologists, nor are they trained human resources professionals. French says they don’t have to be. “I like to ask a lot of questions. I use my acting tools to be the employee or the customer.” Although there is no script, French and the other sim specialists do interview the subjects in advance to learn about their jobs and the kind of interpersonal challenges they face. There are many scenarios that are common to many businesses, for example the problems facing classroom teachers.
More often than not, Mursion’s AI assisted sim specialists are internal to the client, e.g. provided by the company itself, which licenses the full front and back end for internal use. Often clients work with Mursion specialists to prepare a program that they can deploy at scale on their own.
Mursion is based on research done by co-founder Arjun Nagendran when he was post-doctoral researcher at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. It was there he began to study VR and robotics, later going on to become a research assistant professor at the Institute for Simulation. Over his six years there, his research yielded patents and helped secure funding for the program and, ultimately, for the new company. In 2015, he partnered with serial entrepreneur Atkinson. Prior to launching Mursion, Atkinson served as a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and an executive in residence at the New Schools Venture Fund. Mark previously co-founded Teachscape, serving as chairman and CEO for 12 years. At Teachscape, Mark served as an advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project.
Mursion has raised more than $35 million, with investments from Leeds Illuminate, Juvo Ventures, Figure 8 Investments, Zoma Capital, New Markets Venture Fund, and the New School Venture Fund. The San Francisco based company now has 95 full-time employees and an additional 85 part-time simulation specialists.