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.

Station Houston and Capital Factory have merged, and the conglomerate will move into The Ion when it opens next year. Courtesy of Rice University

Station Houston and Austin-based Capital Factory announced that they will be combining forces through a merger effective immediately.

Capital Factory will power all of Station Houston's membership and mentorship, including startup-focused services, as well as add its own statewide resources, which include investors, mentors, and more.

"The more high quality startups we have across a diverse range of industries, the more investors, big companies, and big government want to get involved," Gordon Daugherty, co-founder and president, says in a news release, relating the collaboration to Metcalfe's Law. "Uniting with Station Houston will see benefits run both ways."

The combined entity, referred to as "Station Houston, powered by Capital Factory," will operate out of 1301 Fannin St., where Station currently resides, before moving into the Ion when it's completed, which is slated to be early next year.

"As we continue to develop our innovation economy in Houston and prepare for the opening of the Ion in January 2021, there is no better partner than Capital Factory to serve the needs of our entrepreneurs," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion. "For years, they have demonstrated their commitment to startups across Texas, helping them build their ideas through mentorship and introducing them to venture capital from around the country."

Capital Factory was founded in Austin in 2009, and entered into the Houston market last year. Currently, The Cannon has a dedicated space for Capital Factory and its portfolio clients and employs two people in Houston. Capital Factory also has a presence in Dallas.

Station Houston was founded in 2016 and has over 200 startups, 400 members, and 130 mentors, according to the release.

"Capital Factory is one of the top startup development organizations in the country. By partnering with Station Houston and expanding their footprint into the Ion, their commitment to Houston's entrepreneurs is clear," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, in the news release.

"It's a win for Houston's startups and for our booming ecosystem," Moore continues. "Increasing bridges between Texas' major tech ecosystems has enormous synergistic value, and I am thrilled to see Houston and the Ion play a significant role in building such competitive strength."