How Virtual Reality Can Identify Unconscious Bias in the Workplace, with Lucid Dream’s Mike McArdle

How can virtual reality (VR) be used to identify unconscious bias in the workplace?  How can it be used to enhance empathy for patients and have a better understanding of their symptoms?  Mike McArdle is the founder and Chief Product Officer of Lucid Dream VR, based in Durham NC, and today he talks about how virtual reality has gone way beyond just being an amazing experience.

Mike McArdle Lucid Dream VR Donald Thompson Podcast


Donald Thompson: Hey guys, welcome to another edition of The Donald Thomson Podcast. I have as my guest, Mike McArdle with Lucid Dream VR.

He is the cofounder of the organization and the chief product officer and Mike, welcome, and thanks for having – making some time for us.

Mike McArdle: Thank you so much. It’s great to talk to you in general.

So, being able to do it on a podcast is just a blast.

Donald Thompson: Oh, man. One of the things that we’re going to do today, and I want you to take a few minutes to just introduce yourself, let our listeners just get to know you as an individual. And then, we’re going to dive into how you created the company and then how you’re leveraging VR to impact health outcomes, how to battle racism and how to help people sell their brand better.

All of those three things matter, so I’ll let you take it away from that.

Mike McArdle: Yeah. So, I am a New Jersey native, born and raised. I spent 25 years of my life there. I love North Carolina. It’s definitely my new home. I’ve been here for about 10 years and I live here with my wife, our daughter, who is now 14 months.

It’s a very fun age. So if you hear a baby scream in delight, or in horror, in the background that’s why. And we a black lab named Rupi, not named after the Indian currency, but it does sound like it. He’s a joy as well. I really like this area. I love North Carolina. I think it’s a amazing area to not only raise a family, but to live and to work.

There’s so much going on with the three big universities in the triangle and, I’ve had a great experience living here the past decade. In terms of how I got my start, growing up in New Jersey, I was the child of a very nerdy set of parents. My dad was into 3D modeling and software, and he actually built our house in a program called Mac 3D on one of the earliest Macintosh computers, the Mac SE.

And I remember as a 5 or 6 year old looking at that on the computer and being just dumb struck with how cool it was to see my house and my room in 3D. Compared to today, that was very primitive, but it was a really – it was the beginning for me of a, kind of a, lifelong passion with three dimensional imagery, with computer graphics and kind of, eventually, virtual reality. I had, as a child, tried virtual reality.

It was a technology that was around in the nineties, some listeners may remember. It was very primitive, very different, of course, back then, but I tried it as a young lad. I went to an arcade and I had my parents pay way too much money for me to put this giant bulky thing on my head.

It was a great experience, and I remember thinking at the time, “Oh man, by the time we hit the year 2000, everyone’s going to have one of these things.” And so obviously it took a little bit longer than that, but VR really hit the ground running again in the early 20 teens, if you will.

So in 2012, 2013 with the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, and that was when I really started to explore it as a technology.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s powerful. And thanks for the introduction and bringing you and your family to North Carolina. One of the things I want to pull on a thread really quick is you’re an entrepreneur, right?

You started a business, you know, you put your dream on blast is what I like to tell people, right? You talked about it, and then you started chasing it. Why North Carolina to start a business, right? Like you could start a technology company anywhere. Why was North Carolina a great environment for you to build out your vision for Lucid Dream VR?

Mike McArdle: That’s a great question. North Carolina is unique in many ways. So we have a very educated populace. We have more PhDs per capita in the Triangle area than in many other parts of the country. It’s this combination of a lot of energy that is brought by the school system, so a lot of people come in to do their degrees. They come in from all over the place from up North, from out West, from the South or further South.

And they come up here, they do their degrees and then they stay and they get jobs in biotech or in agritech or in technology. And sometimes, they kind of move around, you know, within the area, so there’s always an influx of people coming in. There’s always people kind of shuffling around between. At the same time, the area is not over crowded yet.

And I say this from the perspective of someone who grew up, up in Northern New Jersey, with 14, 15 million people in the state and, you know, another 20 million people across the border in New York, it’s just a lot of people crammed into a very small area, and so it’s hard to stand out and it’s hard to have your voice heard.

So I think it’s a combination of things. I think from an entrepreneurial perspective, down here, the American Underground has been tremendous help from our perspective and a tremendous resource in meeting other companies that are at similar stages or earlier stages or later stages and kind of being plugged into the startup community has been a tremendous help.

And honestly, I don’t know that there are other places that really have that feeling right now. It really feels like, you know, I compare it to – from what I’ve heard – what Austin was like in the early to mid 90s, it’s just this, you know, and not that Austin is now over the Hill. Austin’s great.

I love Austin, but there’s just something about this area. It’s growing so fast, and it is just filled with limitless potential. So it’s a very exciting place to start a business.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s great. I appreciate it, and I feel the same way. I mean, it’s like you have everything you need here, but then you have great infrastructure, right, to build and grow a family. If you’re into golf, if you’re into the mountains, if you’re into the beach, you’re a couple of hours away from a lot of different things to build your life. Let’s dig into the technology VR, AR and these terms. For someone that doesn’t, that’s not in the technical space, how would you describe virtual reality?

Mike McArdle: Yes. This is something that I honestly, I feel like every time I’m asked this question, I describe it differently. It’s magic in many ways. It is the ultimate expression of technology when applied to what it means to be human, and I’m saying that I realize how grand that sounds.

But, as humans, we are primarily visual creatures, and I see this kind of looking at my daughter and seeing her, kind of, look around the world and take things in, and obviously we have a tremendous number of other senses, and obviously people who are visually impaired have rich lives. But something about being able to apprehend the world in a visual way is built into our DNA, frankly, as humans.

We can walk into a new room or new building or new scene, and instantly just understand everything about it without even really having the ability to put it into words yet. So, what I like to say is I can take you to a new building. Let’s say we’re visiting a new building that just opened up in downtown Durham.

I can walk you in and have you look at it for five seconds, and tell you to close your eyes and hold out your hand, and you could probably point and describe the majors areas of that room and approximately how far away they are from you. And this comes naturally and effortlessly to you. And that’s because, as humans, as organisms, we are kind of in tune with the three dimensional world in a way that starts very early on. Ironically, and kind of somewhat tragically, the majority of the way in which we work right now, we live, we work, we understand other people, is through a two dimensional translation.

So a screen, or a book, or a painting, or a picture, or TV, or movies, and I’m not decrying or saying that these other mediums are in some way worse or inferior, but what they are is a little bit more inefficient. And sometimes, there’s magic in that inefficiency. I’m rereading the Lord of the Rings trilogy right now, and I can tell you it’s amazing to be able to create those worlds as I’m reading them with my imagination. But in terms of conveying direct experience, virtual reality is unmatched. So what it is, is it’s essentially a technology that tricks both of your eyes into thinking that you’re simply in a different place.

So it completely replaces the external world with something very different and virtual, and this could be something as simple as you in a medical room about to undergo a procedure, or you could be on the surface of Mars. You are not limited in where you can go, you’re really limited only by your imagination as well as your, obviously, your technical and artistic skill as a developer.

But that that’s really the main advantage, I would say, of virtual reality as a medium is it’s transformative and transportive, you can go anywhere.

Donald Thompson: That is powerful. And I love the idea that, you know, you can transport me to be in a different place. And the way that you describe it really shows through just the passion you have for what you’re doing.

And so I want to now drill down into how you’re taking this technology and this application and creating business value for your clients, whether it’s healthcare, whether it is equity and diverse and inclusion, those things. Give me some examples of how this technology, in practice, is helping people learn better, take out some of that inefficiency in learning that you described.

Mike McArdle: Yep. At Lucid Dream, we focus on empathy as a core part of what makes an experience powerful, so we will create experiences across a variety of different disciplines. We focus on a lot of key areas in the healthcare space, so we focus on patient education, provider education, training and simulation and scientific storytelling, but even within those, there’s a lot that we could do. The way we can use this medium by leveraging empathy is by designing it in such a way that it feels applicable to real world situations or teaches you a new thing about the real world that you would not have understood otherwise.

So, one example of that and one of our, kind of, the experiences we’ve created that I’m most proud of is an unconscious bias training simulator. So we created this for Red Hat and honestly, in conjunction with Red Hat, we worked very closely with them. Red Hat had – as many companies do, it’s not solely focused on them – but many companies have a problem with unconscious bias in the workplace, and there are a variety of different types of unconscious bias. There’s frameworks for understanding it, but it’s one thing to read about those frameworks and it’s a very different thing to be able to actually experience it. So, you know, one of our earliest projects with Red Hat was taking a couple of just conversations, which are, you know, the first one was a hiring panel where they were reviewing candidates and deciding which one to hire. One was a female candidate, one was a male candidate, and both had very similar skill sets, but there were a lot of comments throughout that conversation that show an inherent and subtle bias towards the male candidate for a sales position, for instance.

The task of you as the user, as you watch this, is to press your button on your remote. Basically, you’re holding a little remote, but you’re fully immersed and looking around, so you want to stop time whenever you see or sense that something was said that was biased. So, there are different types of biases that you can identify in the moment as you experienced the module.

So it could be a gender double standard bias. It could be a racial bias. It could be something that might seem more innocuous than either of those two, like a recency effect. And the recency effect is just simply the way someone acted in the last couple of weeks can color your perception of them over the past year.

So if you’re doing a biannual performance review, for instance, you might think, “Hey, for the last couple of weeks they’ve been doing, they’ve been knocking it out of the park,” but you might not take into account as much the fact that, for the prior four months, they were not doing well at all. So it was a very interesting experiment and a very natural experience to look around and just experience a conversation, but you are tasked with stopping the conversation in the moment and identifying.

Another way that we focus on empathy, and this is more recently in a medical context, is around patient education. So, we created an experience for a pharmaceutical client in the Triangle area, and they work on a rare disease and it’s a lung disease.

The symptoms of that disease resemble a variety of other afflictions, and one of them could be heart disease. So, it might be hard for patients or providers to really distinguish what’s happening to them and figure out the root cause. So, what we wanted to do is create an experience, using virtual reality, that gave people what it felt like to be a patient at a late stage of this disease.

This is a higher end VR experience, so you put on the whole getup. You put on an HTC Vibe, you have your controllers, you’re wearing a haptic vest it’s called, which is capable of moving and generating feelings within you and vibrations through motors. And, you know, you have all this gear on and you open your eyes and you’re simply in a kitchen, and your task is to put away the groceries.

So this is a, you know, a task that all of us do, but for these patients, it can be a very difficult experience. So as you continue putting away groceries, you start to feel more of the symptoms of the disease. So shortness of breath, your vision will narrow, and eventually it starts to get really bad.

You start feeling your heartbeat faster and faster, and your heart as the user is not necessarily beating faster, but you certainly are feeling it. And one of the most powerful things that that I’ve realized is, we’ve had people come through and try that experience wearing Apple watches. And we can actually see that their heart rate matched the heart rate that we have, kind of, put through their haptic vest at that portion because, through sympathy and empathy, and through the feeling of going through this, they are actually starting to get a lot more stressed out themselves, which is the whole point.

And near the end, we have a disclaimer on this experience because normally we definitely do not try to make people sick, but for this specific experience we wanted to simulate what it felt like to start to get dizzy, so we actually start moving the ground underneath your feet in a way that’s very disorienting.

And it’s a very powerful experience for people who are not familiar with the disease, they certainly are after going through it. So those are a couple of the more recent examples that come to mind.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s powerful because I think that when you can truly empathize with someone, then you’re going to think about the care that you provide to them differently, right?

The language that you use differently in an interview or different things. And so I think our challenge as business leaders, and then in terms of the value of VR and what your firm is doing, is giving tools to accelerate that empathy, right? And that’s really, really powerful. When you think about how to get VR more understood in the mainstream, because even as a technologist, when I think about virtual reality, I think of it as a technology that is maybe above what I can afford to do and bring to a project, how do you categorize the return on investment? How do you help me understand as a business leader that it makes sense because the impact is going to be so strong?

Mike McArdle: Yeah, that’s a great question. And this is something that even a couple of years ago, my answer might’ve been different, and this was something we struggled with in the early days of Lucid Dream. The hardware was powerful, but it was very expensive, and it was cumbersome, and there were lots of wires and cables.

Now, there are a variety of headsets that are on the market that are sub $500, and they can provide a full experience – what I would call the full body experience – of being able to move and look around, use your hands, some even have hand tracking. So from a business investment standpoint, I would say from a, you know, the standpoint of a business owner is very similar right now to buying, you know, another lower end laptop or maybe a mid range monitor. So, it’s something that as business leaders, people make investments like that all the time to get necessary equipment, and those aren’t seen as tremendously expensive outlays.

And what I would say is I think that your return on investment for a VR headset can be orders of magnitude more than just another monitor, for instance. So it is a – I think at this point, it’s not quite a no brainer because you definitely need to know what you would use it for, but it is getting closer and closer to a no brainer in many contexts.

And there are even cheaper or more bang-for-the-buck headsets that are out there. These are the entry level headsets that are more for experiential, so virtual travel, watching virtual 360 degree videos and movies, and those are around the, you know, the range of $130, $150. So they’re getting pretty affordable at this point, and the quality is getting better and better.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that’s powerful, and I appreciate that. So we talked about the technology, you brought us up to speed as if we were novices, which I am in this case, but I’m a big, I’m a big fan, right? What I want to understand now is any kind of video or visual construct needs a powerful story, so tell me about your firm and how you create the context of storytelling, because you can have great technology and then it looks good and is still boring, right? So how do you build out the story so that it is engaging and educational both at the same time?

Mike McArdle: Yeah, it’s a great question. The answer honestly, is a combination of it’s the alchemy of our staff I would say. You know, when you take all of our staff and, you know, double, double toil and trouble throw ’em into a big pot, at the end of the day, you create what we can do, and that’s mostly because we’ve handpicked people throughout the years that have not only a consultative layer so they’re used to working with companies and understanding their world, but also they’re very nerdy. And on the development side, they understand that the language of development and VR. And honestly, right now, VR – the language is still very much a video game creation language. So video game development environment is the way we are creating these things. We’re utilizing engines, such as Unity and Unreal, and we are using utilizing the language and the development tools of the video game industry, but we’re just not making video games. We are making fun, entertaining, and educational experiences that are engaging in the same way because they use the same tool set, but that’s really the magic is – another way of saying is I like to think all of us at Lucid Dream as the ferry people. If you’re the client, you’ll hop on the boat, and we will ferry you to the other side, and then we will show you the magical world of interactivity, of immersive training content that you can get by utilizing these technologies, but we won’t leave you too far, too long there. We want to say, “OK, go fend for yourself because it can be very scary over there. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of technology and APIs and just a lot of technology that we need to navigate and explain.” So we show you enough that you need to know to understand, but then we ferry you back to the other side to your world. Our job is to constantly you make that journey and to make sure that it’s a two way street, too. So as you experience the virtual reality content, you might have ideas. You might have ways that you can utilize this technology that even we have not thought of. So it’s based on a, you know, a series of deep partnerships. We are not very transactional as an organization, so we don’t like to work in a way where people are like, “Hey, can I get another training module?”

You know, I’ll have 50 of them, and all of them will be the same and they’ll be generic. We like to work in a deep way. That’s not to say that we don’t have repeatable frameworks, and oftentimes our clients are very interested in those from the perspective of being able to leverage the technology, you know, regardless of how we end up working with you, we work in a very consultative way.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s powerful. And so one of the things when we introduced and I asked you, you know, explain to me VR and you kind of lit up, like we all do as entrepreneurs when we hit that point of that enthusiasm, and you said, it’s magic, right? That is really cool, and I love the analogy of ferrying us to that more immersive world, right?

Because we’re really driven by experiences so that we can really retain that new content, that new information. Let’s look a little bit more macro from Lucid Dream as a firm, and then look at our macro environment. And as a business leader, as a father, as a husband, there’s a lot happening in our country.

And what is your perspective on the pandemic? How it’s affected life for you, your company, different things. What are just some of your thoughts on some of the high end things that are happening in our world today?

Mike McArdle: So first I want to start by saying that I’m very privileged in many ways, not only like race in the way I present myself to the world, but also, you know, from the perspective of the industry I work in. You know, we are information workers. At Lucid Dream, we were able to rapidly pivot to complete work from home.

And we were able to do that in a way that does not substantially impact our ability to deliver on our experiences or sell or any of  that. So, we are very fortunate. You know, that being said, it’s still, of course, it’s very hard. It’s a hard thing for us to go through as a society, and I feel like a lot of people, you know, myself as a business leader included, are looking for guidance in a world with so much, seemingly so much chaos and pandemonium. I keep coming back to the basics, right? So, you know, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You can’t worry about things like fulfillment and life goals and philosophical musings until you get the basics.

So you need food, you need water, you need shelter and safety for you and your family. And so, I just want to focus on, you know, trying to make sure that, obviously, my basics are taken care of and those of my friends and family, so we’re doing more things like my wife and I will shop for my dad who his birthday was yesterday.

And we had a social distance barbecue in his backyard. He just turned 77 and he’s going strong as ever, but he’s definitely in a higher risk category. So, we will food and grocery shop for them, and then we will drop it off contactless delivery style so that they can kind of do that. We’ll set up that every couple of weeks.

So, you know, that’s what, some of the things that we’ve been trying to do from a personal and nuclear family perspective, and then, you know, more recently, you know, with the activism and the protests and the very important messages that have been circulating and reverberating around the country.

You know, we have a 14 month old daughter, so, you know, I myself will not, you know, we are not personally attending the peaceful protests, but that being said, we’re trying to do all we can to support them both on – from a visibility standpoint on social media, supporting those messages, but also from a donation and charity perspective, to try to make sure that the people who are doing the most good are getting the resources and the money they need. That’s been kind of a big focus at Lucid Dream as well, as like, how can we give back to this community that has been so good to us, honestly? Durham has been incredible, and the Triangle in general. It’s a complicated situation, obviously, it’s a complicated answer.

I think that, you know, my focus as a business owner is trying to make sure that we have a safe and healthy workplace for our employees to return to, and we have a place that everyone’s proud to continue to work at. And we have a place that doesn’t put anyone at risk. And I do feel like, you know, we are in a position to make that happen.

And it has been, obviously, challenging times to try to navigate the waters to try to make that happen, but you know, we’re doing all we can so far.

Donald Thompson: No, it makes sense. And that’s a, it’s a powerful answer. I think that, you know, one of the things, whether it’s the pandemic or a lot of the protests that are going on and the racial inequities that are going on in our country, I do feel optimistic in that there are more and more people that are trying to understand and want to activate.

Mike McArdle: Yes.

Donald Thompson: And there’s lots of ways to activate, right? You mentioned it, right? Some people in their life experience, in their motivation, protesting is what they would like to do, and they feel super passionate about it. Others are fine with researching and putting their money into organizations that are doing work for, whether it’s people of color, whether it’s people that have food shortages because of the pandemic, all of those different things.

And then obviously as a business leader, you can then ensure that the way that you look at hiring and growing your company, right, has all those values in place. So I appreciate your answer, and thanks for we’re speaking on that ’cause everybody’s kind of working through a lot.

Mike McArdle: Yeah, it’s a lot going on.

Donald Thompson: There’s a lot going on, right.

As we end our time together, ’cause I always enjoy chatting and I’m super excited. We’re going to find some ways to coordinate our efforts on some things. Is there anything else you’d like to share on the topics that we discussed or anything that we missed before we kind of wrap things up for today?

Mike McArdle: Yeah. I mean, so, from my perspective, I think this is a, this is an inflection point. A lot of things are coming to a head. There’s an analogy that I quite like, but it’s, you know, I read it somewhere that if someone who didn’t have any context were to witness a human birth, they might think that something had gone horribly wrong, at least for part of the process, right? And having witnessed that firsthand, there’s a lot there. At the end of the day, though, it’s a beautiful process. And if you take the wider view, it can seem, you know, it definitely in the case a birth is worth it in the end. So I think that we are, as a society, working through a lot, but I’m an eternal optimist.

And I just hope that – and it’s – some part of me knows that good things happen at inflection points. It’s like Mr. Rogers used to say, look for the helpers. In any time of crisis, look for the people helping. There are people helping. There are people doing good, and there’s a lot of them now across the entire country doing the same thing with the same message at the same time, which is incredible to see and honestly, very, very uplifting. And so I would just, I try to focus on the positives, but obviously being cognizant of the complications of the world we live in, but I think virtual reality, honestly, and this is even apart from you don’t have to buy anything we make ever again, but I think virtual reality, even in a world where Lucid Dream did not exist, I truly believe it will be a part of the solution because not only does it enable you to reconnect or connect with people when you can’t physically go there in times like this, but it also gives you the ability to experience things as another type of person. So I think of, you know, the I am a man experience that Derek Han over in Raleigh created. You know, I think of the, you know, the giving to Columbia experience where, you know, there was a virtual reality simulation of what it feels like to experience, you know, racial prejudice from the perspective of a black man, and that is very important for people who might not be, you know, well versed in that to experience, and virtual reality could be a part of that solution.

It has to be done in a way that it’s not gimmicky, but I do feel like it is a part of the future that we will all find or selves in, and I am fundamentally an optimistic person.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome. Listen, I’m a firm believer that when something is well said, you give kudos to that and you wind it down.

Thanks for speaking from your heart, both about your company, but also about some of the things that we’re facing, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with you, and thank you for sharing with our audience.

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The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit

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