Facebook awards USC students for ‘bias-busting’ app

A team of four University of Southern California students was recently recognized by Facebook for their creation of a virtual-reality “bias-busting” app to help workers navigate gender bias the workplace.

According to a press-release put out by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, the students took third place in Facebook’s annual Global Hackathon competition, earning a $2,500 cash prize for the group and an Oculus Rift development kit for each member.

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“We wanted to tackle the issue of workplace sexism and discrimination by building a VR simulation tool that combats traditionally dry, uninteresting compliance training,” remarked Cherrie Wang, one of four students on the team.

Noting that most diversity trainings are merely “an hour long session where you click through some slides,” she explained that “we were determined to make it a more engaging and immersive experience.”

The app itself uses Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets that take viewers through various situations in which they are exposed to their biases, including one scenario that helps participants to recognize that the name “Sam” can apply to both males and females.

“Many people assume that Sam is a male, but of course the name could also apply to a female engineer,” Wang pointed out.

The broader lesson, according to USC’s press release, is to help users “confront hidden biases that could be lurking in their language.”

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While all four team members will be graduating in the near future, they plan to expand upon their work by developing additional scenarios pertaining to other hidden biases, and potentially even creating a “sentiment analysis” feature to assess whether the scenarios trigger positive or negative reactions in users.

In a video of the awards ceremony, one judge declares that “managing and understanding and recognizing bias is very important” while praising the app.

“Hearing top Facebook executives recognize the importance of moving bias training to virtual reality was really encouraging,” Wang concluded. “We were very proud of taking that idea from concept to working model in such a short time frame, and we’re really excited to see how we can take this idea forward.”

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