Virtual Sapiens Wants to Help Professionals Improve Their Zoom Game

The Boston startup uses AI to provide feedback on a user’s lighting, eye contact and body language.
Written by Jeff Rumage
November 3, 2022Updated: November 15, 2022
Rachel Cossar, co-founder and CEO of Virtual Sapiens, poses for a photo
Rachel Cossar is the co-founder and CEO of Virtual Sapiens. | Photo: Virtual Sapiens

Sure the latest initiatives from the Teslas, Apples and Googles of the industry tend to dominate the tech news space — and with good reason. Still, the tech titans aren’t the only ones bringing innovation to the sector.

In an effort to highlight up-and-coming startups, Built In has launched The Future 5 across eight major U.S. tech hubs. Each quarter, we will feature five tech startups, nonprofits or entrepreneurs in each of these hubs who just might be working on the next big thing. Read our round-up of Boston’s rising startups from last quarter here.

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The way you present yourself in business meetings can be sort of like ballet — and not just when youre dancing around a delicate topic.

Rachel Cossar, who pirouetted and pliéed across the world with the Boston Ballet for 10 years, was surprised by what she had intuitively learned from ballet, like how an open hand gesture indicated openness or honesty, and how her innate nonverbal communication skills would help her in fundraising positions at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music.

“It was that drastic shift between this world on stage — which was all rooted in nonverbal communication — to this office job that I noticed how much of what I had learned and honed as a dancer was still relevant to this new world of work for me,” Cossar said.

Cossar found that people in the professional world would often talk about how excited they were about a new initiative, but their vocal intonation and body language would say otherwise.

“There was a disconnect,” Cossar said. “I thought if we had a little more self-awareness, if we knew how we were showing up and we knew some of our postures of comfort — and how maybe they weren’t serving us necessarily — how could we then intentionally make decisions to show up in a different way? Or in a way that’s more aligned with our own goals?”

She went on to learn more about nonverbal communication and formed her own consulting firm to help professionals be more effective in their presence and body language. Cossar also became a facilitator for Mobius Executive Leadership and Ariel Group. 

When the pandemic turned video calls into the default method of business communication, Cossar saw an opportunity to capture the body language of more people and share her expertise in a scalable fashion.

In 2020, she launched Virtual Sapiens, which takes the lessons Cossar learned over the years, as well as research provided by behavior analysis expert Abbie Marono, to develop an artificial intelligence tool that can detect a user’s posture, facial expressions and hand movements.

“We look at things like, if you’re the active speaker, where are you anchoring your gaze? If you’re speaking, are you effectively using your hand gestures? How is your framing? How is your lighting? What’s your body posture,” Cossar said. “Basically, how dynamic are you as a human being on video?”

A screenashot shows how Virtual Sapien's Sidekick product provides real-time feedback about a user's body language.
Virtual Sapiens’ Sidekick product provides real-time feedback about a user's body language. | Photo: Virtual Sapiens

Virtual Sapiens offers a free assessment in which its AI technology evaluates a user’s body language in a five-minute video session. At the end of the assessment, Virtual Sapiens gives the user a comprehensive breakdown of their meeting presence.

Clients who sign up for the paid Virtual Sapiens platform are then introduced to its Sidekick software, which can be installed as a Chrome extension onto any video platform. The software analyzes a user’s video presence in real time, showing the user what they are doing wrong and displaying “nudges,” or on-screen emoticons, that tell the user how to improve their body presence. 

An eye icon, for example, reminds the user to look directly into the lens. An ear icon reminds them to show signs of active listening.

Virtual Sapiens tries to keep the in-call reminders manageable by only showing two nudges at a time.

“We’re not here to just give you more noise,” Cossar said. “We really want people to come out of it being like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that not having my hands in the frame could actually reduce the opportunity to build trust quickly on video.’”

Virtual Sapiens has raised $250,000 and has three full-time employees, including CTO and co-founder Neal Kaiser. The company was a finalist in the MassChallenge entrepreneurship competition last year and is currently participating in the Roux Institute Techstars Accelerator in Maine.

Cossar said she expects to refine Virtual Sapiens’ messaging and branding through Techstars. Then she expects to start generating more traction, as video calls have moved from a temporary alternative to business meetings to an established medium for business communications.

“One of the big next steps for us is, how do we engage in partnerships with the video platforms and with the other conversational AI platforms to add our insights to complete the picture in a way that is so easy and convenient for people that it becomes a no-brainer,” Cossar said.

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