Interview Of The Week: Phil Chen

A physicist-turned-entrepreneur-turned investor, Phil Chen is a seed investor with San Francisco-based Presence Capital and an active investor on the Horizons Ventures Platform. He has invested in over 40 virtual reality and augmented reality companies and holds board positions in VR/AR and AI startups based in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, London and Israel. He recently spoke to The Innovator about how virtual reality will impact business.

Q: What are the most promising B2B applications for VR?

PC: Training and health. Immersive technology developed by Strivr, one of our portfolio companies, is used for training by Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams. A few months ago Strivr signed a deal with Walmart to use VR for employee customer service training. Film is also an integral part of training in sports as a supplement to on-field training. VR immerses the quarterback, for example, to get the first-person point of view rather than usual film which displays camera views for the fans. VR is a camera for the athlete.

The same technology is being used to simulate brain surgery to help surgeons practice virtually. Actually a lot of AI is using VR to train robots because robots — like humans — can learn from simulation.

Q: Why should corporations consider using VR for training?

PC: In the case of Walmart, Strivr can recreate retail situations and prepare employees for, say, the hectic Black Friday. You can imagine customer reps in many other situations where companies would want to prepare their sales team or any customer-facing situations and train them with protocols for various situations and diverse contexts.

Q: What are the health applications for VR and why should companies in the health care space pay attention?

PC: AppliedVR, another one of portfolio companies, has developed a virtual reality platform that offers patients a way of escaping pain. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles a woman going through childbirth decided to experiment with VR as a way of distracting herself from the pain. It worked. She didn’t need an epidural. This was an amazing insight. The thing about VR is that like the theater it has the power to refocus your attention. The dream of this company is to treat all sorts of pain with VR. Imagine a world in which you can treat pain without drugs. It may be possible in 20% or 30% or even 50% of cases to use powerful VR to do a direct hack into a patient’s visual cortex to focus attention away from the pain and drive behavioral change. This could be a huge disruption to healthcare and pharma.

Q: Are there other health applications for VR?

PC: Another company we have invested in called Limbix is using VR to treat phobias and anxieties. Psychotherapists use VR in sessions for fifteen minutes at a time to capture data about how patients are reacting. For example, if a person has been in a traffic accident and wants to get back on the road VR can simulate the patient driving the car and even virtually drive back to the place the accident happened in order to help them recover. Therapists aren’t just using it in sessions, they are also giving patients VR homework to help them on an outpatient basis. The technology can be used for a whole variety of phobias and anxieties, everything from fear of speaking in public to fear of crowds. It can also be used for addictions. In the case of alcoholism, VR can simulate situations in which people are coming up to a patient and asking them if want to have a drink. These simulations teach people how to cope with difficult situations. Another of our investments, a startup called Floreo, uses VR to provide immersive, repeatable, and affordable social and communication lessons to people with autism.

Q: How can traditional companies in the health care space best take advantage of VR technology?

PC: I think health care companies can view VR as a wellness device where VR becomes the tool that provides direct access to our visual cortex. Our brains are plastic and can be trained/morphed into the best wellness goals from relaxation to pain reduction to healing.