Future of Work Podcast, Episode 27.
Assistive Technology Specialists Chris Baumgart and Meagan Little of Imagine! Colorado discuss how they have worked with employers to create successful virtual reality (VR) workplace training programs for people with disabilities.
This podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of PEAT’s Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.
Intro: [00:00:00.15] Welcome to the Workology podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.12] One of my favorite emerging trends right now is the topic of virtual reality and its application and use for the workplace, specifically in the areas of employee training, development and learning. This year, Walmart is expected to train more than one million employees, all with virtual reality. In their virtual world, cashiers are taught to show greater empathy, mechanics learn to repair planes and retail workers experience how to deal with armed robbery. But VR isn’t just limited to employee training. There is so much potential in other areas, including skill development. I wanted to highlight how VR is being used in this area, specifically in providing job training and skill development for people with disabilities. This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series and is powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Chris Baumgart and Meagan Little.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:40.67] Chris is an assistive technology specialist. He has worked in the community for people with disabilities for over 14 years. Chris has been working to provide services for people with intellectual developmental disabilities with Imagine since 2006. While working as a DSP and later in management, Chris established himself as an innovator for developing age appropriate content for adults using augmentative and alternative communication devices before transitioning into the role of a system technology specialist in 2011. Since then, he has continued to work to provide assistive technology solutions that allow people increased independence and agency through multiple environments in their daily lives. Specifically, he focuses on providing people the tools they need in their homes, at day programs, or in their vocational environments. Also joining me on this podcast episode is Meagan Little. Meagan has been working to provide services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with Imagine since 2014. In this time, Meagan Little has established herself as an innovator for developing adaptive environments for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is now the assistive technology program supervisor for Imagine and leads a team of assistive technology instructors at Imagine in their adult community and employment services.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:03.26] Welcome to the Workology podcast, Chris and Meagan.
Chris Baumgart: [00:03:06.89] Thanks so much, Jessica. It’s good to be here.
Meagan Little: [00:03:09.32] Thank you so much for having us.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:11.21] Let’s start with Chris. Tell us a little bit more about your background.
Chris Baumgart: [00:03:14.93] So I started working with a company called Imagine here in Colorado. It’s a company that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities here in Boulder and Broomfield counties. I started about 14 years ago working as a direct service provider. And as I was getting, working my way through management, I also found that there were a lot of individuals that we were serving who were using communication devices, and a lot of the content that we were seeing was actually more oriented toward children. It’s an interesting trend that we’ve been seeing in education recently. Special education, the assistive technology specifically, it’s really blossomed in the last several years, which has been tremendous for our education system. But there are a lot of adults who’ve already gone through this system that don’t have, that didn’t have access to a lot of that. And so I started modifying content to make it more adult oriented toward our adults in aging populations. And that sort of blossomed into the position that I’m in today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:06.08] What about you, Meagan? What’s your background? And tell us a little bit about Imagine Colorado.
Meagan Little: [00:04:12.2] So I am, as you said, Assistive Technology Program Supervisor. I started off as a DSP for Imagine in the Community and Employment services. And I got really interested in assistive technology when I attended one of Chris’s classes. He actually joined the class and I learned a lot from him and from there, I’ve kind of, like developed more interest in assistive technology. And because Chris was the only person within Imagine providing those services, I thought it would have been a great idea to look at creating a position within my department to support that. And so I moved forward with that and Imagine approved it. And then from there, now I supervise a team of six AT members at our Longmont and Lafayette location. And we’ve seen much success with that. In terms of Imagine, Chris kind of covered some of it. We serve a population of individuals, about 4000, between the Boulder and Broomfield Counties. We serve between adults and children within our services with individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:16.25] Well, welcome. Welcome. I’m excited to dive more into this topic. We have had several podcasts on, podcast episodes on the Workology podcast that have talked about virtual reality or VR and how they can be used in the workplace. Can you talk to us about the applications for virtual reality and maybe how you guys work within those?
Meagan Little: [00:05:39.14] We have, I guess society has always seen VR as a gaming purpose and Imagine really took the opportunity once we started a partnership with Reality Garage in Boulder, Colorado, to look at the other side of things and kind of use virtual reality as more of a learning opportunity and to support individuals in problem solving, job development skills and just building educational learning skills. And so from there, we started creating a class on Tuesdays with Reality Garage where individuals would go and utilize virtual reality equipment and test it out and kind of work on mainly Oculus equipment. And then from there, we talked to them about our interest in really expanding it and kind of looking into how we can relate this to one of our current job work sites. And so we talked about our Left Hand Brewery that we work out of, and we had a partnership with them for about 20 years now, and how we thought it would be a great opportunity to start implementing virtual reality to support job training. And so from there, we brainstormed with them to create this virtual reality so that individuals could learn the tasks before actually going to the work site and see that’s something that’s beneficial for them to do. And if not, then how can we support them with better job training and getting used to the environment before actually going there?
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:04.88] Let’s talk through a little bit of this in more detail. You’re using virtual reality to help individuals develop job skills. What does that look like for the individual? And kind of how does that work?
Chris Baumgart: [00:07:17.99] So there are a lot of interesting aspects to this. One of the things that we ran into, even before we started looking into VR as an application for teaching, and I’ll let Meagan talk a little bit later about some of the trials that she’s experienced in teaching. But one of the things that we see a lot of in this industry is there’s always a staffing shortage, right? There are always more people in need of services than there are people available to provide those services. So when teaching, if you’re teaching someone one on one, it’s very easy to see whether or not they’re demonstrating successful completion or a successful acquisition of a new skill. The moment that you start removing that one on one element, you know, you start looking at video tutorials or photographs, picture prompting and things like that. Those are all very effective and useful tools. The challenge is there’s no way to essentially gauge whether or not someone is demonstrating the ability to learn a new skill. A great example I use is if I set you up with an iPad and I’ve got pictures or videos of how to perform a task like brushing your teeth, just as an example, there’s no feedback mechanism to determine whether or not that person actually brushed his or her teeth.
Chris Baumgart: [00:08:29.63] For all we know, that person just went Play, Skip, Skip, Skip, Skip, Skip, went through the whole thing. Of course. All done. One of the great things about virtual reality is you actually have that mechanism built in for someone to demonstrate that skill in real time. So we thought that we would take that a step further and start looking at vocational skills. And so what we ended up doing is, we’ve basically, I say we, and I mean a big shout out to Reality Garage because they did all the hard part. They actually built for us a virtual Left Hand Brewing company, which is one of our business partners that employs a number of individuals with disabilities. And so in that, they actually can perform the actual task of what that job would entail. And as Meagan had mentioned, even before they get to the job site. So it gives them an opportunity to get a feel for what the job looks like. And it also gives us an opportunity to gauge how prepared they’ll be for the job and whether or not they’ll need more support before they get to the job site.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:30.49] Awesome. Well, what are some things that you guys are seeing in terms of making VR accessible? I know this is the challenge right now, and we’ve talked about it a lot in our other podcast episodes. But what’s working for you guys?
Meagan Little: [00:09:43.47] So one of the things that we found really beneficial is using the Oculus Quest. The reason why we went with Oculus Quest is because the controllers are easier to hold for individuals. We have had some troubles with the buttons. But overall, it’s wireless and it supports our individuals in a better setting. The headset fits really well. So that’s been one thing that we found to be very beneficial for a lot of our guys. And then we’ve also been using CoPlay on SideQuest to help with accessibility and so that we can see what they’re doing and support them in the training experience. And then lastly, we’ve been kind of working on the hands-free kind of controllers and the, the beta testing for that. And I actually signed up for being one of the individuals to test out the hands-free equipment and give feedback to Oculus on it. We have been using some of the SideQuest preloaded games to experience, you know, playing a piano or something like that and testing out how the hands-free works with individuals, or like pressing play on a game or something like that. And that’s been successful. But there’s still quite a barrier there in terms of supporting our individuals. We’ve also had some individuals only use one controller because they have limited mobility in their other hand, and they’re actually still able to do the task, which also demonstrates that they’re able to do the job at the actual work environment, too, which was something that was kind of not seen before and they kind of were left behind. We didn’t think that they were able to do that job task, but because we were able to demonstrate it with the VR first, this is giving them the opportunity to actually work there.
Chris Baumgart: [00:11:23.73] If I might just speak a little bit more to CoPlay and SideQuest that Meagan mentioned, just in case people aren’t aware of what those things are. So I want to back it up just a little bit. One of the big challenges with virtual reality and using it as a tool to teach people is if you’re wearing the headset, I can’t necessarily see what you’re seeing. So that can be really challenging for me. And it’s really interesting as we started this process to see how often we as facilitators would be pointing to, pointing something out to individuals. Oh, so you need to go ahead and go right there. Oh, right. You’re wearing a headset. You can’t see me, nor can I see what you’re seeing. And so this CoPlay, it’s actually, it’s a mechanism whereby you can actually open up any web browser if you have permissions, and you can actually see an unrendered version of what that person is seeing. So that as a facilitator, I can say, OK, so now what you want to do is you want to go ahead and look up, and say, to your left or to your right or wherever it is, whatever, I can describe the next target if I need to or anything like that. And that’s been a really valuable teaching tool for both us and for the people that we serve.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:39.4] I want to go back just a second and have Chris or Meagan explain to us what Oculus is. I am assuming you mean Oculus and it’s a Facebook product. Right. But for those maybe that aren’t familiar with the Oculus headset, walk us through the pieces that are involved or kind of what the feel is like.
Meagan Little: [00:13:00.89] So the Oculus Quest is developed by Oculus, which is owned by Facebook. And with Oculus Quest, it’s actually a wireless headset. So there’s no cords or anything connected to it. And the controllers are also wireless. The controllers have a circle around them and then a handle down below, and there’s buttons underneath and on the side. And what’s nice about those features is that they don’t have to use any of the buttons on the, like, interface of the controller. So like most controllers have like X, Y, A and B, and they don’t have to use any of those, at least for our experience and a lot of the experiences that we support with individuals using. They only have to use the side buttons, which is easier accessibility for them to press something or grab something in the experience that they’re kind of testing out. And in terms of the headset, it’s nice because it goes over, it can go over your glasses as well. So you don’t have to worry about taking off your glasses. It fits really well on individuals’ heads and you can tighten it as needed. And the other feature that’s really nice about Oculus Quest is you can kind of make a border of your play area and if you step outside that border, you actually are back in reality. You can see, you know, the room that you’re in, who’s standing in front of you, everything like that so that you don’t run into anything. And it takes you out of the experiment so that you’re also safe.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:32.65] Awesome. Thank, thank you for that. Because I feel like for people maybe that aren’t familiar. And I’ll try to post a photo of what you might expect and what this particular Oculus Quest system, I guess, looks like for those of you who are unfamiliar. And you can go find that over on Workology.com and we’ll have that under the podcast section for you.
Break: [00:14:55.0] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we’re talking with Chris Baumgart and Meagan Little about using VR to train and develop employees. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT. The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at Peatworks.org. That’s Peatworks.org.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:47.02] Your focus with this program has been in the hospitality industry. Why have you chosen to start there?
Meagan Little: [00:15:53.19] We’ve chosen to start with the hospitality industry because a lot of the work that we do with individuals or support individuals with, is within kind of that realm of work environment. And so we started with the Left hand Brewery company because that is one of our hardest worksites. Individuals make mountain mixers. You might see them if you’re in a store, Left-Hand Brewery mountain mixer. And they have to take four different kinds of beers and put three of each kind into a box. And then when they’re done, they put it on a conveyor belt and then it goes down. At the end of the shift, iIf there’s two of one beer and three of another beer, they have to unpackage everything and then repackage it making sure that it’s correct. It’s not an ideal process, but because of our staff ratio to client ratio, it’s hard to support every individual to make sure that they’re doing it correctly. So the reason why we went with creating the work environment here is to help with those skills and to support with errorless learning within the process. And I’ll let Chris talk more about errorless learning because he’s kind of an expert on it.
Chris Baumgart: [00:17:05.35] Sure. Thanks, Meagan. I can talk a little, I don’t know about expert, but errorless learning essentially in a nutshell, is the idea that we shift the onus of learning from the student to the teacher. So in older classical models of teaching, if you as a student failed to acquire a new skill or to learn a new, I don’t know, idea or concept, that was a failure of the student to learn. What we’re actually seeing with a lot of success, and this is after decades of research, is by shifting the onus of essentially a successful skill acquisition to the teacher, what we end up seeing is a lot more success. There’s a gentleman I like to quote. He certainly didn’t discover errorless learning, but he definitely became sort of one of the main, the primary champions of errorless learning. His name is Murray Sidman, and he states that learning may not be a trial and error process for the pupil, although it may be for the teacher. He also goes on to say, the reality of errorless learning shifts the responsibility of learning from the pupil to the teacher. So the proper study of learning becomes the study of teaching. And so we’ve seen that in the general education system, that’s also been very effective and even more so when teaching in special education or working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So one of the interesting things about errorless learning is it’s kind of novel trying to translate that into a virtual reality experience. But the essence of it is that we want to provide a supportive opportunity for people to learn skills without the frustration of doing things incorrectly. So what we did for this virtual reality experience specifically, we follow a very specific and prescribed hierarchy of prompting, going from least to most support.
Chris Baumgart: [00:18:57.97] So essentially what you see is if someone does a skill independently, of course, no prompting required, great. From there, in the virtual reality world, you’ve got environmental prompting and you’ll see this a lot. You see, you know if there is something in your view, in your experience, that you need to interact with. A cup you have to pick up, an object you have to place in a certain spot. You’ll see these little arrows that are pointing to it, or the item will illuminate in some way or you’ll see a target area. And those things are environmental problems. And they’re very common in the digital world. And from there, we escalate up to verbal prompting, if someone still needs a little extra support to complete a task. And then from there, it gets a little bit more interesting. So you’ve got pointing, modeling or gesturing prompting. In this case, in the virtual reality experience, a video pane pops up with me actually physically demonstrating the task that needs to be completed. And finally, beyond that, if you still need that level of support, you actually will experience essentially a greyed out effect of all of the items in the room, with the exception of the object that you need to interact with. What this does is it gives people the opportunity to be successful every time. They will always complete the task, and we get to gauge how much support was required. So it’s less a matter of succeeding or failing. It’s a matter of congratulations. You succeeded. It looks like right now you still require more support than would be prudent for us to introduce you to the job site. So we’ll keep working on it. Does that make sense?
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:35.11] I like that. You’re taking a customized approach that’s unique for each individual.
Chris Baumgart: Exactly.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: What are some challenges that you guys are facing or maybe that you faced working with virtual reality?
Chris Baumgart: [00:20:45.25] Well. There are a couple. And one of them that I had mentioned previously, one of the big ones that we didn’t really even anticipate, was if I can’t see what you’re seeing, I don’t know how to effectively assist you. Or also when I am pointing. Oh, yeah. You need to, oh, your headset. Right over, right over there. Oh, right. You can’t see me. That’s certainly a challenge. And there are also larger challenges and also some entertaining ones. One of the things that I have discovered over the years is I’m always, always astounded by how creative people can be at breaking the things that I build. And I mean, I don’t mean physically breaking. What I mean is cheating the system. Over the years, I have built many interactive activities to teach literacy skills and mathematics skills. And it’s always interesting to find when I go to work with individuals with disabilities and watch people smirk as they show me how they cheated my game and then I have to go back and fix it. It’s always a wonderful and creative challenge. We actually experienced this with virtual reality as well. We had one individual who figured out that it didn’t matter if he knew whether or not the next bottle was going to be correct.
Chris Baumgart: [00:21:59.3] All he had to do is reach toward the virtual bottles. And as soon as one highlighted, he knew that was the one that he was supposed to take. So the sequencing element of that teaching was clearly irrelevant because he was gaming the system. So challenges like that are always really fun and exciting. There is another big challenge that we run into, and it’s one that we always have to talk about because it is important. And that’s price point. Virtual reality experiences are going to be more expensive to create than, say, me shooting a two minute video on my phone. And that’s a reality that we do have to work with and address and realize that it’s a real thing. When we’re talking about price point, though, there’s something that’s interesting to note, and it’s sort of the, the economy of scale of technology. So virtual reality technology has been around for a long time. And I’m not an expert on this. I have presented with experts and I listen to them and they told me great stories. But essentially it’s been available for a long time. But prohibitively expensive. And the reason that we keep talking about Oculus is once the Oculus headset was released, it came out at two hundred dollars, which by itself, 200 dollars is still, is still money. But it’s no longer this, you know, you need this five thousand dollar specific rig. It’s a headset that’s portable, it’s reliable, it’s convenient, and it’s 200 bucks. So we see that price point consistently coming down as more people adopt. What we also see as more people adopt this technology is the sophistication in the technology and the reliability. It’s really important to note that with a lot of assistive technology solutions in general, outside of the general consumer marketplace, fail points are a lot more frequent because usually you have small teams working on something very specific, and that usually requires a lot of extra implementation of modifications to make it accessible. All those things can introduce failure, which can increase frustration for facilitators and for learners alike. So while it is expensive right now for us to build this very novel and new experience. Just like anything else, as more people begin to adopt these experiences and start sharing those resources, the more accessible both from a cost standpoint as well as a content standpoint, everything becomes.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:29.49] Can we talk about other teaching styles that you’ve used with this program? I want to give our listeners here who are employers a sense of the evolution.
Meagan Little: [00:24:39.06] So some of the equipment that we have used in the past we’re still using. We use IPads quite a bit to support with job training and everything. Like Chris said, we use visual cues or visual prompting videos, stuff like that, to support individuals. The problem with that is that we don’t see much engagement with it. So they’ll watch the video to do the task. But then when they get to the actual environment, they’re actually still at the same spot they were before they watched the video. Most individuals don’t generalize information from the video content to the actual work environment. Where when we’ve developed the virtual reality experience, we have seen a lot of individuals be able to make that generalization and to carry that over into the work experience. So that’s one that’s really developed for us. And then one of the other things for training is just our staff to client ratio. Again, you know, within this field, it’s hard to have enough staff to support each individual within the work environment. So it’s usually one to seven or one to six ratio. And the staff is also collecting data and might have to pick up a work pass within the work environment, which leaves them able to support individuals within the site. So that has kind of been how we’ve moved forward with the virtual reality and how we’ve seen, you know, where we started with how to prompt and support individuals and where we’re at now. And we do see this as being very successful in the future.
Chris Baumgart: [00:26:17.4] If I can add on to that just a little bit, when we’re talking about teaching styles specifically. One of the really interesting things that we’ve run into many times over the years is we have a lot of individuals who receive services, who have been receiving services, if not their entire lives, then most of it. And sort of relying on a human prompter, as it were, essentially relying on someone to direct them to say, OK, now it’s time for you to… this.
Chris Baumgart: [00:26:49.05] One of the additional challenges that we found in introducing some of these digital prompting mechanisms, so your auditory problems or your videos or your photos and things like that, is a lot of people have been essentially trained to rely so heavily on human intervention that even if I’m not, oh see, if I say: OK. John, it’s time to brush your teeth. John may say, OK, no problemo. If I record my voice on a device and it’s my voice saying in the exact same way: OK John, it’s time to brush your teeth. John may very likely entirely ignore me because he’s, essentially he’s expecting the human me to say something. And so that additional disconnect can be really challenging. Although what we’ve seen, rolling it back, the entire experience is so immersive. There’s that internal consistency. So people are more likely to respond to those prompts faster than they would or they’re more likely to adopt that idea of following those prompts than they would in some of the less immersive experiences, like the IPads or, you know, photos or things like that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:01.35] As we look to the next 30 years of work, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you guys think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?
Chris Baumgart: [00:28:10.32] I have a hard time saying that I know what the next 30 years is going to look like. I know that’s what this podcast is about. One thing that I will say that I think that we’re seeing is already becoming a trend with a lot of potential is machine learning and augmented reality or smart glasses. I know we’re all aware of the big snafu of the Google glasses from years of yore. And there are a lot of people who speculate as to why they didn’t really take on the way that they did. But what we’re seeing now is with machine learning, we can actually, essentially use the tools around us to teach in real time.
Chris Baumgart: [00:28:48.82] I’m going to try to, I keep trying to visualize this and I’m clearly not accustomed to podcasts. So when I stop using my hands, I start using my words. So in a virtual reality headset, you’ve got this immersive experience, and that’s great. One of the things that is still challenging is seeing how much of that still translates into the real world. Right. For all of you geeks out there, how do we get this into meetspace? And that’s still a challenge for us. But over time, what we’re looking to see is using, say, smart glasses. If I’m in an environment where I have these virtual bottles that I have to package into a virtual mix pack and put on a virtual conveyor belt, and that doesn’t translate a hundred percent into the real world where I’ve got real bottles to package into actual mixed packs and put onto an actual conveyor belt. With machine learning and smart glasses, what we’re looking hopefully to see is that the glasses could then indicate and essentially do the same kind of highlighting as an augment to the reality that the virtual reality headset would provide in the virtual space. So you’re wearing glasses in real world and it’s actually highlighting an actual object in front of you. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing that’s going to trend. At least I hope so. I think it’s gonna be a really valuable trend if it does.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:08.73] Well, guys, Chris and Meagan, thank you so much for joining us today on the Workology podcast. I wanted to ask you where people can go to learn more about you guys and the work that you’re doing.
Chris Baumgart: [00:30:19.87] Well, Jessica, thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here. So the company that we work for, it’s called Imagine and you can feel free to visit our website anytime at www.ImagineColorado.org. We also have a YouTube page where you can see all kinds of fantastic videos, and that is Imagine Colorado. Meagan, are there other resources that we can send people to?
Meagan Little: [00:30:43.71] It would be good if you want to check out the Reality Garage website as well and kind of what they’ve done. I know they have a video on there of our Left Hand worksite to see how it’s created within the augmented reality environment.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:59.97] Awesome. We will include links to these resources and the podcast episode over on Workology.com. And we’ll have links to Reality Garage, the YouTube channel and a whole host of other resources for you to check out and learn more about how to create virtual reality workplace training programs for people with disabilities. Thanks again, Chris and Meagan. I really appreciate you taking the time.
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[00:31:50.97] I love the work that Imagine is doing and how they are leveraging VR to provide current and future employees with new skills and provide our businesses with new talent pools to tap into as our businesses and the economy shifts and changes. The potential for virtual reality is limited only to our imagination and ability to step outside those normal job training and skill training programs. These are things that we’re familiar with, and we need to look at opportunities that are different, and how we can integrate VR and the possibilities it provides for companies like Imagine and beyond. The Future of Work Series is a partnership with PEAT and it’s one of my favorites. Thank you to the PEAT team as well as our podcast sponsor Workology.