XR express

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says.

As more companies are introducing this type of technology into the workforce, there's a growing need for developers and experts to design these programs. Currently, it's rare for a company to have employees with XR expertise.

"Working on commercial accounts, I see a lot of customers who have done enterprise software — web pages and forums — but it's a very different skill set from simulations," says Jared Bienz, senior software engineer at Microsoft.

So, companies are faced with hiring developers and designers to create these training programs. Ethan LeSueur, who oversees immersive technology at ExxonMobil, says his team benefitted from the cut-throat game design industry. So many developers want to go into video game creation, but there's not enough jobs. At Exxon, developers get to create games — but for training purposes. LeSueur says he looks for a diversity of programming experience when hiring for these types of jobs.

"It's important to not have one skill set," he says. "We're looking for the people who are sort of a swiss army knife. You don't have to know everything, but if they have more than one specific skill set, that's really important."

But hiring a team might not be the only option to AR/VR development. Working with startups has been an avenue for major companies seeking out XR programs.

"People talk about digital transformation all the time, but half the time we wouldn't know what that looked like if that slapped us in the face," LeSueur says. "That's what we're asking startups to do — help slap us in the face."

LeSueur says that proving cost effectiveness is extremely important for startups looking to win big companies as clients, but so is passion. The complexity of the process as well as all the red tap of business calls for passion from a startup.

"We're trying to take a complicated physical process and digitize it," LeSueur says. "That means there's going to be a lot of back and forth."

From the startup perspective, it's not always easy working with major corporations – especially within oil and gas. Amanda, who works with construction clients and larger companies as an instructor at ITI, recommends having someone on the inside to look out for you.

"I think it's really important to have an internal champion who really owns the product and wants to see it through to its last degree of integration."

On display

Courtesy of Station Houston

After the panel, Station Houston VR companies showed off their programming.

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia