SIMmersion recently celebrated 20 years of delivering virtual role-play training systems. There were reasons why we beat the odds and were successful.
Starting a New Technology Company
In 1995, I was working for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) (https://www.jhuapl.edu/). At the time, APL was heavily focused on supporting the missions of the Department of Defense (DOD) and NASA. Additionally, the organization was expanding to support other government agencies. As a result, I was given the opportunity to lecture at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to see if APL’s military or space technology could support the FBI’s law enforcement and counterintelligence mission. This lecture led to a series of exploratory discussions with the FBI’s senior leadership. As part of this process, I asked the FBI leadership to identify some challenges facing the agency. After giving it some thought, they identified that they had a challenge training new agents to successfully conduct investigative interviews and ask if I could help.
In 1997 APL successfully obtained a contract to develop an investigative interview training system for the FBI. The first product was delivered in 1998. The FBI wanted a virtual role-player so that their new agents could practice interviewing a person of interest. (See Figure 1) My goal was to make this virtual character as realistic as possible. The role-player, called Mike Simmen, was suspected of stealing from a bank. When learners used the system, they would discover that he was guilty half of the time. Learners had to determine if he was guilty by watching his body language and listening to what he said. Initially, the system was designed for new agents, however, it was quickly determined that there was a broader application for the system Throughout the Bureau and the U.S. law enforcement community. (https://www.ojp.gov/ncjirtual-library/abstracts/interview-challenge-mike-simmen-versus-fbi) Upon completion of the FBI contract, the APL received 3 patents, and we developed role-player systems for the Army, Marines, DEA, and U.S. Customs. The positive response and early success of the role-player training systems raised a new question in my mind. Was there enough of an opportunity to justify leaving a good career and starting a new company?
The Market Needed Role-Players
Communication skills are difficult to teach with a slide deck. The FBI provided an example of this challenge while teaching interview skills to a highly gifted group of new agents in their “boot camp.” Practice is needed to build these skills and at that time, the only way to practice was with live role-plays. When training conversational skills, classroom students are sometimes used as role-players, but these sessions are often ineffective because practice time was limited, and student role-players lacked realism. Alternatively, actors can be hired and trained, but this often resulted in high costs, and they do not provide enough practice time. Virtual role-players would provide sufficient and effective practice, reduce overall costs, and provide a realistic training experience.
Should I Launch a New Company?
Before launching a new company, I needed to think about how I would get started. I carefully considered venture capital and angel investments, but bootstrapping the company seemed like the best idea. With 90% of startups failing, and without outside funding, I knew the odds were against our survival. There was a market, but would my products be good enough to make people want to buy them? Could they supplement or replace people as role-players?
There was evidence that they could, as demonstrated by the success of the products I had developed and already shared. When I demonstrated our suicide prevention role-play, people would sometimes tear up as the role-player seemed so real. Other role-players would draw people in like an addictive game. This happened for several reasons. We used video to make the virtual role-players appear real. Since developing relationships is an important part of conversational skills, our role-players needed to have and display realistic emotions. They needed to be able to “call out” user’s inconsistencies, so they needed memory. Like real people, they needed to be unpredictable, so each role-player starts with one of several different randomly selected personalities. To make practice interesting, no two role-play experiences are ever the same. We called the technology PeopleSim®. Since the experiences we provided seemed real, and the market seemed to want our technology, I decided to launch a company.
In 2002, I launched SIMmersion LLC as a spin out of APL. In the next few years, we developed five systems for the FBI, and more than 50 more over the next 20 years covering a variety of critical communication skills from performance coaching to suicide intervention.
Figure 2 Role Player Gabe Turner Drinks to Much Since the technology was developed in 1997, it has continually improved. We have listened closely to our customers’ feedback and requests and have consistently met or exceeded, their expectations. Our role-players are incorporated in comprehensive training systems with integrated e-learning and are now available online around the world. There is a long list of technology improvements that allow for customization of training and improve development efficiency including Monte Carlo testing, improved authoring software, APIs, and video processing support software. Perhaps, the new technology users find most needed is our comprehensive learning management system that provides administrative control over the delivery of the systems along with detailed tracking and reporting.
Twenty Years Later
SIMmersion’s success is measured by the number of lives improved and saved. Our suicide prevention training systems instills evidenced-based methodology in service providers, our addiction counseling trainings help counselors better serve their clients, our job interview training tools help young people with disabilities find competitive employment, our gender affirmative care systems help to improve healthcare delivery for the LGBTQ+ community. Ultimately, each of our role-player training systems are developed to help improve people’s lives and when they do, we truly consider our company a success.