Digital Researcher

Overcome your fear of presenting papers with virtual nerves

if you're looking for an excuse to buy Google Cardboard, a new app for practicing public speaking might be what you're looking for. But is it actually much help?

We like a gadget at AoB. Google Cardboard is almost the perfect gadget, being something you can use with your smartphone and doing stuff that looks impressive but isn’t actually useful. If you’ve not heard of it, Google Cardboard is a cheap alternative to virtual reality headsets made out of cardboard, usually. You can pay more if you like and get a plastic headset if you want. You slip your smartphone into this folded headset and two images, one for each eye, go through a couple of lenses to give a virtual reality experience.

The clever part is that the software uses the phone’s accelerometer, so that as you head moves so does the phone and your image shifts. It’s VR on the cheap. Techcrunch has a video showing an early version of the set.

There are plenty of things you can do with it. You can use YouTube to watch videos as though they’re on a big, but not very high definition, screen in front of you. More innovative is 360° video, so you can ride on a roller-coaster in Tokyo and look round and down at the drop in front of you. Or a roller-coaster in Los Angeles. Or a roller-coaster in Paris. It’s fun but it also feels like a fad. However, there might be an app that uses Cardboard that is of help to Botany students who want to practice talks.

VirtualSpeech for Android / iOS and Gear puts you in a conference room. Actually, you have a choice of rooms, but the one most relevant to a student preparing for her first conference is probably the San Jose setting. This has around 60 people in a large room. Donning the headset puts you in the room with fidgeting people, ambient sound and a move screen with slides behind you. You can also add your slides for your talk.

With everything loaded you can practice your talk. This works for me. I cannot read and speak at the same time, so I always work from bullet points or memory. If you like to read down into your notes, you might struggle with being isolated in the headset. You will also need a comfortable strap for the headset if you’re planning to give a talk of more than a few minutes.


The biggest problem with the app at the moment is the hardware. You might have a swish hi-def phone in your hand but, when the screen is split in two and distorted, that high definition is suddenly a lot smaller. The feel of the headset itself is also going to be a problem. That could be why VirtualSpeech’s business seems to be based on hiring headsets. On the other hand, the app itself works well with what it has got. It makes a change from practicing by talking to the wall.

I think the biggest difference anyone can make to the quality of their talk is simply to practice so that you know your lines, cues and get the timing right. The app isn’t going to replace practice, but if it helps people find the time and space to run through their talks then it’ll be a help.

1 comment

  1. I tried talking to such a ‘virtual audience’ with a head-mounted screen a couple of years ago. I was surprised but after a couple of minutes you forgot it was virtual. A minute later, the audience started nodding off disconcertingly realistically!

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