We started by spending 4 hours scanning PDI’s offices and most of their warehouse, where individuals set to work each week. We moved slow and steadily, using an app called Canvas to scan each area in 3D from top to bottom, side to side. Abe Rafi, Senior Director of Technology Strategy & Programs at The Arc, guided us remotely through the entire process. We then sent our scans to the development team at The Arc upon completion, and they got to work stitching them together and assembling the virtual layout of PDI.
Meanwhile, Lori-Ann Hoberman, MARC’s Director of Employment, and Jenny Bishop, Employment Manager, produced a list of 13 individuals employed through our program to test the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset and Vuzix Smart Blade Glasses. Kevin, Tomas, Anthony, and the other 10 participants expressed excitement as Lori-Ann and Jenny told them about the project.
Once the equipment arrived, we took time with Abe to set up each piece and have a few staff take them for a test run. For many of us, this was our first time in both a virtual headset and smart glasses, and we knew it would also be the first time for the 13 individuals eager to try it.
The Oculus Quest 2 VR headset is a fully immersive experience and can be disorienting for a first-time user. Some participants found it “made [them] dizzy,” and that “the buttons were hard to use” on the controllers. However, we experienced a breakthrough that day with one of the young men, Kevin. “[He] verbally expressed himself much more than normal – he was able to find the words to describe the virtual environment. This is normally a struggle for Kevin, so it was great to witness,” stated Jenny. It’s not every day that someone with I/DD unexpectedly overcomes a barrier. This celebratory moment gave us high hopes for more breakthroughs with this new technology.
The Vuzix Smart Blade Glasses were a very different experience. Instead of being in a virtual simulation, the glasses act as regular glasses, allowing one to see their actual surroundings. But the wearer is not the only one who can see from their point of view. We used a laptop to cast the glasses’ view onto the screen, seeing everything an individual could. The glasses have a built-in microphone and speaker allowing both the job coach and individual can talk to one another. One by one, participants traveled through the building and were given a task to complete. All of them completed their specific job with ease, many of them stating that it was “nice hearing and talking to [their] job coach” along the way.
It was clear that these glasses had a positive impact on everyone, staff included. “Tomas said it was like a cool video game, and he wishes he could afford them so he could own a pair,” mentioned Jenny. We asked everyone if they thought they could learn to work a new job site faster with these glasses to talk to their job coach. 9 out of 10 people said they agreed, two of them strongly. Jenny told us that another gentleman, Anthony, “asked if we would be using the glasses again [because he] really enjoyed them and felt they would be [beneficial] to him once he starts going to work sites.” Overall, it was plain to see that the glasses were a hit.
Technology continues to prove itself invaluable to our community. This short-lived project is just the beginning of our permanent virtual reality program.
We will continue to test this technology as a supportive process for finding and retaining employment for individuals. The goal is to provide them the opportunity to explore, learn and adjust to new surroundings before starting their new job. Once they begin, we will be able to provide them remote coaching when necessary.