The Massachusetts VR initiative works to “gamify” work skills

The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) supports a pilot program with several technology partners that will bring virtual reality to vocational rehabilitation training for people with disabilities or who are at a disadvantage.

The company, called Project (VR) ², will combine the experience of Viability Inc., Bodyswaps, Link To VR and Cleanbox Technology to provide a safe way to virtually improve job interview skills.

The use of virtual reality for training has gained strength in the space of emergency medical services, and its potential for specialized training has been tested. Its value in supporting people with disabilities also becomes more evident. For example, researchers have begun to explore the impacts of virtual reality on children with ADHD.


The project, announced last spring, was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Kristin Rotas, director of the Viability program. The shift to e-learning and the growing use of video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, have had a bearing on the overall participation of the program, he explained.

When MRC offered funding for additional technology, Rotas thought virtual reality would be an innovative method to reactivate that commitment. The funds were used to buy four Oculus Quest 2 headphones to enhance job readiness training, in addition to 30 iPads to create an alternative option.

PROJECT EXPERIENCE (VR) ²

For starters, the pilot’s focus will be on younger people between the ages of 14 and 22, but older adults will also be able to participate. The experience begins with a virtual reality demonstration to familiarize participants with the technology. Participants then sit in front of an avatar in a virtual space, during which they will interact and answer the kind of questions a job seeker may encounter during an interview.

The computer will notice if specific keywords have been used in the participant’s responses; then participants can complete the training again to try to include additional keywords.

Progress is assessed in several ways. Participants complete an assessment before and after the module, in which they answer questions about their comfort level, Rotas explained. A facilitator can also see on a TV what the participant sees in the headphones, which Rotas added is a useful tool if guidance or support is needed.

COLLABORATIVE DEVELOPMENT

MRC’s involvement in the partnership was consolidated after Viability shared its vision on the potential of virtual reality and the agency agreed it was a worthwhile initiative, said Joan Phillips, deputy commissioner for vocational rehabilitation and workforce development.

Bodyswaps, a company that had been developing programs and modules to help people learn job skills, partnered in the effort to help design and develop the modules that people would use. Link To VR was started to act as a consultant to support the deployment. The final collaborator was Cleanbox Technology, which ensured that the equipment could be used safely with COVID-19 protocols.

“Vocational rehabilitation helps people with disabilities get and keep jobs,” Phillips said. “Time, [with] the funding we provide to any organization should focus on that population and help them access the workforce. “

INDIVIDUAL IMPACT

Technology is a tool that can help people with disabilities be able to live and work independently, Phillips said. He added that virtual reality can increase young people’s engagement because “this generation was born with technology embedded in their DNA.”

He explained that people who participate in this program may have anxiety about being interviewed because they don’t know it yet.

“By participating in this virtual reality, it is an opportunity for these people to go through an interview process, get feedback on that process, and get help to address some of the issues that are identified in a way that gamifies them,” Phillips said. “It eliminates anxiety by making it so much more fun.”

Phillips explained that this technology can help people with autism, for example, who may have difficulty having consistent eye contact. With the VR module, participants can practice multiple times while receiving valuable feedback to increase confidence and familiarity with the interview process.

Rotas noted that Bodyswaps wants to create additional avatars with bodies with different abilities in the future to offer more representation to the people who will participate in this program.

Julia Edinger is a writer for Government Technology staff. She has a degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. It is currently located in Southern California.

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