#1229: XR for Career Exploration with Accessibility in Mind with Transfr’s Mark Steelman

Mark Steelman is a XR Access Working Group Member and Senior Unity Engineer at Transfr, which uses virtual reality to “train people for well-paying careers available now in high-demand fields.” Steelman was at XR Access showing off some of the accessibility features of their VR training software that includes captions, height adjustments, spatial audio, and arrows as audio cues or a way to direct attention. He was soliciting feedback from XR Access attendees to add even more features to ensure that people of all abilities are able to get employed. He also facilitated a group discussion about the potential of using virtual reality for career exploration explicitly for folks who have a variety of different disabilities to be able to explore whether or not certain jobs would be accessible to them, as well as the potential future where VR training or practice-based embodied experiences could help assess someone’s ability to do a job that would allow some folks with disabilities to demonstrate their competency without having to disclose their disability and potentially face discrimination. Steelman also shares some of the feedback and insights from the XR Access break-out session on using XR for career exploration that he moderated.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So this is the episode 8 out of 15 of the XR accessibility series that I'm doing looking at accessibility within XR. So today's episode is with Mark Steelman. He's a senior Unity engineer at Transfer, and so he's looking at the topic of career exploration and job training within XR. So he was giving a demo showing some of the different applications where you can go into XR and get a sense of what some of these different jobs are. So this is for both career exploration, but also just to see if you like some of these different potential jobs as folks who are trying to see what they may want to do with their lives. Now, there's this other dimension, which is, how is accessibility starting to come into play? Is XR going to provide new opportunities for folks to have a more equitable shot at getting one of these jobs, or to actually demonstrate that they have the skills necessary to execute the job, rather than doing an interview where some of their disabilities may be disclosed and they may get discriminated against? Lots of stuff to explore of career exploration and job training experiences. How XR can start to be an intermediary when it comes to job training, as well as helping folks get jobs. So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Mark happened on Thursday, June 15th, 2023 at the XR axis symposium in New York city, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:44.605] Mark Steelman: I'm Mark Steelman. I'm a senior Unity engineer at Transfer. And I'm also a XR Access working group member. I've been interested in how XR can help people learn new skills. And I get to work on that every day by building our career exploration and job training experiences at Transfer.

[00:02:06.180] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you can give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this space.

[00:02:10.792] Mark Steelman: Sure. I got into this space about six years ago when I got my first HTC Vive, had that mind-blowing VR moment. And from there I saw, you know, XR as the future of computing. And at the time I was a college student, so I really wanted to understand how could this help me learn because I was learning so much at that time. And I've always just been interested in how technology can have an impact on people's lives and how I can have as much impact to help the world out. So, yeah, I really saw XR as just this amazing opportunity to help people along in their lives in various different ways because it offers so many new ways to take in information as well as to give input in different forms.

[00:02:59.552] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context to the company that you're working for called Transfer.

[00:03:03.962] Mark Steelman: Sure. So Transfer, we've been around for about five years now. You know, the mission of the company is to help people get jobs and to put people on well paying career paths. And, you know, there are a lot of people out there that do not go to a four year college. but they obviously of course are trying to get a career that not only that can support them but also that's something that they like and so we focus on trying to help people understand what types of careers are out there that pay well. There are many of them that actually do pay quite well that don't require four-year degrees so making people aware of those jobs that are out there, and making the training for those jobs a lot more accessible so that you don't have to go to physical facilities or use as many physical resources in order to learn the skills to get different jobs.

[00:03:59.213] Kent Bye: We're here at the XR Access Symposium, and you were showing a demo upstairs during the break. Maybe you could give a bit more context for what you were showing there.

[00:04:07.212] Mark Steelman: Sure. So we were showing the career exploration product that we have, which you can think of as a VR career fair. So if you have ever been to a career fair, you've probably walked by a booth, a bunch of different booths, gotten a pamphlet and talk to someone what a job is like, but you still don't really know what that job is like because you haven't been on the job. So the idea is we have these short five minute long experiences where you can be on that job, and very quickly get an understanding of what it's like to work in a particular career, and importantly, whether or not you're interested in it. A lot of people will think they like a job, and then in their first week, they realize, oh, wow, this is not what I thought it was. And so we want to try to alleviate that by letting people realistically explore what careers are available.

[00:04:56.796] Kent Bye: And what were some of the accessibility-specific features that you're also showing off here?

[00:05:01.465] Mark Steelman: Sure, yeah. So we want to try to make sure that people of all abilities are able to get employed. So most recently we've developed a captioning feature. We also have a attention director feature. So if you're not entirely sure where you should be interacting, let's say you need to pick up a wrench and you're not actually looking at the wrench and you're confused, especially if you're new to VR. There's so many things going on. Where and what should you be doing? Our attention director will use spatial audio and arrows that will direct you to where you need to go. And we also have reminders to make sure that if you missed a voiceover line, that that gets repeated so that you always know what you should be doing at a given time. We also have things like controller tool tips to make sure that if you need to be pressing a button, that that button on your particular device, this is cross-platform compatible, will show you what button on that device you need to be pressing. We also have height adjustment so a lot of the times you might be in a scenario where you have to be reaching up and you're working underneath a truck. Well we want to make sure to adjust the base of the truck so that that's at an appropriate height where you can still reach it but it's also not clipping into your head. So those are some of the features that we currently have. Some of the things that we've talked about potentially adding are labels for our different experiences, like what experiences can be done with one hands versus two hands, seated versus standing. And we're just eagerly trying to gather feedback from the community to see what features in accessibility that we could add to make sure that more and more people can explore different careers and get job training.

[00:06:48.210] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you also were facilitating a group discussion this afternoon talking about different ways of using XR and accessible technologies to do this type of outreach and to making these job opportunities and job training more widely available to more diverse populations. And so I'd love to hear some of the big takeaways of that discussion that you helped facilitate this afternoon.

[00:07:07.997] Mark Steelman: Sure. So at the very end of the discussion, we talked about a lot of things and I can't summarize them all too quickly, but I asked at the end of the discussion what stood out to people the most. And multiple people said that our discussion about hiring and how XR can help people with disabilities in the hiring process was probably the thing that stood out the most. So When you're interviewing as someone with disabilities, it's very easy to be discriminated against. A lot of people aren't going to just necessarily even be comfortable disclosing their abilities. And sometimes, you know, you don't have a choice, right, if you're interviewing in person. or on a video call, as someone with disabilities, you might be forced into disclosing your disability. In XR, you could do things like having an XR job interview, like in VR, and you can choose how you're represented and try to remove that bias. But also, for job interviews, it's typically looking at what's on your resume, things on paper, and then what you say. But you can't necessarily demonstrate what you can do as easily in certain job interviews. And so, what we do at Transfer is we try to work with the employers and show them the results of their VR trainings because that is a much more direct representation of what they can do. Right? So if you can just go and demonstrate your abilities as opposed to what you can say and have on paper, that's just an additional way in which you can convey to employers, like, yes, I am ready for and I am capable of doing this job.

[00:08:45.766] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that you wanted to mention from your session?

[00:08:49.723] Mark Steelman: Sure, yeah. I think it's just really important that we have people from a lot of different perspectives that get involved in the talks on accessibility in XR because I think that's just a really important thing with accessibility is you need to represent all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of life. And we just need more people involved in this space. I think as Shiri mentioned at the beginning of the symposium, We want to be proactive about this and not reactive. We don't want XR for people with disabilities to be a second thought. From the ground up, if we make sure that this technology is accessible, it's not only going to be better for the world, it's going to be better for businesses too, right? Like the more people that you include, the more customers that businesses are going to have. So I just really think that it's currently an area where not enough people are involved in the XR space when it comes to accessibility. So, you know, it's just really important that we vocalize that and that people understand that it's going to help, you know, in terms of inclusion and help the bottom line for businesses.

[00:10:02.185] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and accessibility might be, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:10:11.470] Mark Steelman: To me, I think the ultimate potential of XR, and in particular for people with various abilities, is highly personalized experiences. Not only the experiences, but also the means of communicating to the computer. So, you know, by having the option to use hand tracking, eye tracking, controllers, you know, haptics, that allows people with different abilities to communicate with the computer how they want to, and it also allows them to ingest information the way they want to. And I think AI also plays an important part there. To me, not needing to conform to the existing mediums for media is really what I think XR is all about. And yeah, I think it's going to just enable people to learn and do things that they couldn't otherwise do prior to XR. So really excited to see what comes next.

[00:11:14.851] Kent Bye: Anything else left to say that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:11:20.204] Mark Steelman: I would say it is fantastic to get to come back to in-person events and that everyone in the XR community, if you have only been involved in the XR community virtually and via Twitter, VR, whatever it is, I highly encourage you to come to in-person events wherever you can find them. And if you can't find them in your local area, create them just because We do need to understand that while technology enables us to get close together from a distance, we still need to build good connections in person. And it's going to be a better way to improve this technology going forward. So yeah, I hope to see more people in person.

[00:12:09.092] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Mark, thanks for joining me today to help share a bit about what you're doing there at Transfer, but also talking about ways that XR technologies can create a more inclusive context for people getting into different jobs or just engaging with different experiences in general. So thanks again for joining me here on the podcast.

[00:12:25.682] Mark Steelman: All right. Thanks so much, Kent. I really appreciate it.

[00:12:28.920] Kent Bye: So that was Mark Steelman. He's a senior Unity engineer at Transfer, and he's a XR Access Working Group member. So I have a number of takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, just the idea that you could use XR to train folks to be able to take on some of these different jobs, but also What's it mean for them to have a new pathway to demonstrate their capabilities in a way that they may or may not need to disclose their disabilities? Or as they move forward, how can you start to tag some of these different job roles as to how open they are into a variety of different types of disabilities? So disclosure of disability is a topic that came up again and again and again that the course of this symposium and wanting to have technology works to the point where they don't need to have other humans intervene, but also they may figure out that they can do all the different aspects of the job by going through a job training like this. So this has the capability to kind of open up the whole vista of possibilities for new different types of jobs. The other aspect of just even making the experience of Transfer more and more accessible by adding different audio cues and captions and the ability to rewind and height adjustments, you know, there's a lot of things that they're doing within Transfer to make it more and more accessible. you know so whether or not some of these different experiences require one or two hands or whether or not you can do it while you're seating or standing and yeah they're just trying to get some feedback here while they're at XR Access as they're giving demos and then also with the group discussion that Mark was reporting back on right after we had this conversation here. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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