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Cultivating Curiosity & Encouraging Innovation with 3D Learning, featuring AltruTec’s Olivia Wenzel

Olivia Wenzel may be Julie’s youngest guest yet, but her youth hasn’t stopped her from launching a startup — AltruTec — or teaming with Julie on the VRARA’s Parent & Student Resource, or using VR to combat dementia.

Julie: Hello, everyone, my name is Julie Smithson and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies, to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my special guest is Olivia Wenzel, a student and founder of AltruTec, developing video games for adults suffering from dementia. Thank you so much, Olivia, for joining me today on this podcast.

Olivia: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Julie: It is so great to have somebody from the next generation join me. You happen to be the youngest one of my guests. So thank you so much for being here. And I’m really excited to be able to share with everyone some of the works that we’ve been doing, since you and I have been working together for the last year and a half on the student committee with the Virtual and Augmented Reality Association, developing and building out resources for everyone. So first of all, I’d like to give you a chance to introduce yourself and then we’ll step into a little bit about some of the work that we’re doing.

Olivia: Absolutely. I just graduated from high school and I’m headed to Harvard this fall. I’m interested in studying at the intersection of health and technology. So I’m thinking computer science and neuroscience, or computer science and psychology. I’m not quite sure yet. I have a startup called AltruTec. I’m really interested in improving the quality of life for older adults. But perhaps what’s most relevant to today’s discussion is my co-leadership of the student committee with Julie. I have the great pleasure of leading this committee of students, parents, and VR and AR industry professionals with Julie, an amazing mentor. We aim to support parents, students, and schools in adopting immersive technologies and 3D learning. But let me take a step back and answer your question about how I got involved. My interest in virtual and augmented reality is actually heavily tied to AltruTec. I have a family history of dementia, and when I first started exploring other approaches to improve people with dementia’s quality of life, I ended up coming across several virtual reality applications. Long story short, they were using this immersive platform to deliver non-pharmacological therapy, such as reminiscence and music therapy. I found the mediums to be extremely promising. The early research that was coming out was so exciting. And so I ended up reaching out to some universities and companies in the area, because I really didn’t have any background in technology or virtual/augmented reality, especially at the time. And I met someone in Cleveland named Reynaldo Zabala, who was involved in the VR/AR Association. And after some further correspondences, he helped me develop my ideas some more. I ended up being introduced to the committee, and soon I was heading it up. [laughs]

Julie: [laughs] Which has been a long time coming for us, to finally put a project together that we can work on. And I think it was over a good six, seven months period of time of us just talking to each other, and then figuring out what kind of mission could we work on together, that could give back to the community. And that’s where we came up with the parent and student resource.

Olivia: Yes, yep.

Julie: So, yeah, we came up with a few ideas on how to do this, but this was kind of a zeroed-in project, and I think it was really necessary to be able to have this. And I remember talking to you last year about what we were going to do, and what your thoughts were about the state of knowledge of VR and AR. Let’s go back about a year and thinking how we approached this. What were the reasons? Obviously we know them, but what was the state of mind back then? Can you go back to a time where you think there wasn’t anything out there that was helping anybody?

Olivia: Yeah. [laughs] It’s hard to think about. But I would say that we were really inspired by this belief in the power of 3D learning, which has continued to be vetted by research. And I think what motivated us most was knowing the importance of preparing young people to be change makers in this rapidly evolving, increasingly digital workplace, which is even more so digital today. And we knew that — to speak to your question around what was actually the knowledge base — well, yes, there were less hardware, less software, because technology progresses as time goes on. There was very little awareness among students especially and parents — people who weren’t actually working in this industry — about the basics of the technology, what were the benefits of learning in an immersive environment, and how our industries were already being impacted by these technologies and would continue to be. So we felt it was increasingly important to even just provide a basic exposure to what the technologies are, what they offer, and how — for students — how their future work would be impacted by them.

Julie: And we really wanted to address the parents in these issues, to be able to have the parents share their knowledge with students, so we were kind of looking for that. What’s the best communication medium? How are we going to reach as many people as we could? And from my perspective, being a parent council member at my children’s school, I knew that the parents hold so much power to what their kids can learn, so much more than they actually think they do. Because how many parents actually just send their kids off to school and leave it to the systems to be able to educate their kids? And because there’s this time and place right now where there’s so much information, so much transformation taking place, it really is a time for exponential growth as all of this information is flooding towards us, on how to differently think when you’re using technologies to be part of what you’re doing, or learning, or working. And the whole concept of changing the way that we’re learning and teaching, it’s brand new for everyone. So we needed to start somewhere. And that’s kind of how the parent and student resource was born. I can honestly say taking a look at what we’ve done– and I’m going to add the fact that we did have a pandemic in the middle of this. There was a little bit of lull time about six months ago, where there was a few months where we weren’t quite– we didn’t have our stuff together yet. But I believe that COVID accelerated our purpose. So I think you and I together, we were like, “Yes, we definitely need to pull these resources together.” It was just the two of us at the time. And I’m referring back to the parent and student resources. And maybe you want to talk a little bit about how we kicked off issue one and what the following issues are going to look like, and maybe give an overview of the package of resources that we’re producing at this time.

Olivia: Definitely. So overall — as Julie mentioned — this is a literary resource that introduces the bare bones, the basics of virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D learning. We’ve covered a fairly diverse range of topics within those fields and have several regular sections. To answer your question around issue one, we kicked it off with sort of a glossary of sorts, of what we call tech terms. And so we have the very, very basics. What I just mentioned, virtual reality, augmented reality, head-mounted display, et cetera. We go into use cases of virtual and augmented reality training in remote collaboration. Eventually in future issues in the classroom, we offer take-away resources, so that parents and students — once through those use cases — they start to really digest and understand why it’s so pressing that they and their students understand these technologies and take hold of them. We give them those take-away resources, they can start experimenting — or just simply experiencing and better understanding — 3D VR/AR and how those can be used in learning at home. We mentioned applications like AR Maker, which helps you bring sketches and photos to a lively 3D format. And I’m getting a little ahead of your question [chuckles] but perhaps my favorite section, what we introduced in issue four — we can back out a little bit too, perhaps I could talk about that later — is tackling this issue that now with COVID, times often feel monotonous and uninspiring, quite simply. It’s very easy — as Julie and I have talked about a number of times — to spend hours behind the phone, or another screen, mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds. And we really want to fill young people with a sense of purpose and get them curious and innovating again. I won’t go too far ahead of myself on the Curiosity Project, as we wanted to talk about issue one. But it’s very exciting work. It definitely fills me with a sense of purpose. And I hope that we can get several other students across the globe curious again.

Julie: Yeah, I think the fact that we moved to this curiosity piece in issue four, I kind of wish we had done it in one. But we had to lay the foundation of reasons why parents and students need to know this information. And just so you know, if it’s– it’s not just for parents, it’s not just for students, it’s for everyone. It’s for teachers and trainers, anybody that’s just doesn’t even know anything about this technology. And I think we did a really good job in explaining how VR and AR is transforming the workplace so that the kids, the students can prepare for what work is going to be like when they graduate school. And parents don’t even know this, because it’s not like it was when they went to school and when they got out, and they got a job that was paying a full time employment salary. Where today, entrepreneurship is a little bit more of the foundation of the gig economy. So things have changed quite a bit, especially introducing all of these different technologies into every single company that’s out there, and providing those examples of how Wal-Mart’s using it for training, or Intel’s dealing with it, electrical safety training. This is really important to understand that even trades jobs are going to be impacted by this technology. And in what ways and how to understand everything from the technology itself, being inside the technology and then how it applies, and how to use it in the workforce, how to use all the tools around it to be creative and to activate. So preparing the parent and understanding– for them to understand how to prepare their child for the future of work was kind of the mission from the beginning. And that starts right on issue number one. And I like the fact that we’ve stayed with the same type of categories, always reviewing the glossary terms, too, and with different animated gifs, or designs, or things like that, just to keep engaging the reader and introducing over and over again the different ways this technology is going to be used.

Olivia: We’re currently– we’ve published issues one through four, and we’re currently finishing up issue five, and soon issue six. So if you’re interested in reading them, we’re publishing all on Medium right now, in a publication called the VR and AR Parent and Student Resource. And once this eight issue spread is finished, we’ll send them out in other channels. It’s a very powerful package. But maybe do we want to return back to the Curiosity Project?

Julie: Absolutely. Yeah.

Olivia: So I talked briefly about this previously, but we discussed the importance of curiosity. I won’t go into too much detail now because, again, you could read more about it in the resources, which you definitely should, and you should share them. But studies have shown that curiosity leads to benefits such as better team performance, more creative solutions, fewer decision making errors, and the list goes on. So after that introduction to curiosity, and we do build on that some more in future issues, but we dive into this Curiosity Project. So each issue in our eight issue spread, starting with issue four, walks the reader through a what we call a phase of developing a 3D project in the MetaVRse engine. And the prompt, which we feel is very timely and very relatable, is what concept is difficult to learn in school, and how could it be improved with 3D? And so we walk them through reviewing this prompt, unpacking it, conducting research — whether it’s on the Internet and books, or really what we want is going out and talking to people — defining their problem in their audience, the ideation, giving them different ideas for how to go about ideation, seeking feedback, planning a prototype. In issue five we dive really in-depth into specific considerations for wire framing and an immersive space. And then an upcoming issue is what we start to show the students — and parents and anyone else who wants to read — how they can actually bring these ideas that they’re producing to life in the MetaVRse Engine. We have we have a new section that introduces a mini-challenge that can keep building those skills while working toward this cumulative MetaVRse engine Curiosity Project. And I absolutely love it. I agree with Julie, I wish we would have started in issue one. But as she said, it is really important that we build that baseline knowledge first, before perhaps we dive right into the creation process.

Julie: Well, it’s been an incredible journey, because just only– I think it was about two months ago, I was connected with somebody from the Massachusetts Science Fair. The executive director, Helen Rosenfeld, reached out to me and asked if her students can be a part of our committee and learn from us. And that was– I think, for you and I, it was great to be able to have more students join in, and enthusiastic students that wanted to participate, wanted to contribute. And I think the realization for you and I was bringing our knowledge back to home base again and starting fresh, because realizing that even students today still need to start at issue one and learn about the different technologies right from the beginning. And that knowledge base is still not mainstream out there. And there’s still a lot of people that need to catch up with regards to the applications of the technology and how they can be used. So it was a little bit of an eye opener, but already we’re starting to see the acceleration. Students in my mind are — well, in everybody’s mind, I think — they’re so passionate and interested and want to be engaged, that these students that have joined us now are contributing and opening our eyes into different ways of trying to share out the Curiosity Project. So maybe share a little bit of your experience now, dealing with these students who are looking to contribute and wanting to contribute towards sharing their information and their experience.

Olivia: I think you really hit it on the nail, having different perspectives. We are lucky to have a fairly actually diverse knowledge range in our committee. Some people were pretty much brand new to the technology. Some had some limited exposure. Some had some experience tinkering in different engines. And as you said, they were really able to explore those first few issues, and point out some areas where perhaps we were a little too complicated in our language or where we weren’t super clear. I could give a basic example about who specifically are we targeting. One of the students made a great point that perhaps for these particular issues, a younger student below grade six may not totally understand just the way we had written it. So we were able to add a target audience to our previous and future issues. But the major thing is providing feedback on what we’ve already written and helping us better understand how we can be more approachable to a broader audience and really affect change, and then moving forward how we can actually keep people more engaged. So I mentioned that mini-challenge section. That was the idea of one of our amazing students on the committee. How do we actually get people working and applying what they’re learning in our resource to their real world? So it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with them and I’m so excited to have them on the committee.

Julie: And I would like to just remind people that we’re dealing with 16, 17, 18 year olds, high school students who are really interested in this technology and want to understand more. So building up this Curiosity Project, I’m certainly interested to see how it unfolds, both from just a design perspective in using– I know that they were working with Tinkercad, I know that the MetaVRse 3D Engine was also being used. But encouraging any of these students to start playing with the tools, the creator tools that are out there, to start learning and working with three dimensions and spatial presence is so important right now at this stage of learning about XR technologies, because we need to build in 3D. We need to be present in the spatial experience, and being able to understand that is first and foremost. So it’s great to have all of these students on board now and giving us their feedback. Olivia, thank you so much for your contributions, your leadership. And I want to say just the leadership that I’ve witnessed from you over the last year and a half has been incredible, to be able to pull these resources together. And now leading these students is really something that I think you should be proud of. I certainly am proud of you. So thank you very much. I’d love to just get a take on what does this fall look like for you, going back to school? It’s a little bit different, obviously, than where you left off in the fall and now you’re going to a new school. What do you think would be the best advice for students going back into the fall like yourself, into school, and obviously taking it upon themselves to learn more about this technology, so maybe you can share a little bit of thoughts there?

Olivia: First of all, thank you so much for your compliments about the leadership. I could not have done it — and cannot do it — without your mentorship. So– and of course, all of the students in the committee who are working hard, generating ideas, writing content for the issues, and the other amazing mentors we have on our team. So this fall, I’m headed to Harvard, as I mentioned before. While I will be on campus, all of my classes are online, so I’ll be learning completely remotely. I’m excited to start this new chapter of my life, but I am definitely concerned — as are, I think, most students — about what learning will look like. I’m optimistic, because I know teachers will be a little bit more prepared, for sure. And I know my professors and I’m sure all of them are working extremely hard to deliver as a seamless of a learning experience as they can. But I would say that my major concerns lie in our ability to really work collaboratively and foster relationships, to meet and work with people that will push you in terms of how you think and your preconceived notions about the world. I do think that immersive technologies — as we discuss in our issues — offer a really unique opportunity for us to build those relationships and maintain them and collaborate. We talk about a few collaborative applications in our issues that could potentially be used. But knowing the state of the platforms that will be using going in, I’m pretty sure that those won’t be employed for the most part in the classroom setting. So I’ll have to rest with that concern for now, I suppose.

Julie: School is certainly going to change in keeping us away from those classrooms, in some cases. But working together with others and collaborating especially with other students, I think is a very inspiring thing. And if more schools can start to take a look at the collaborative nature of working together and learning together, it certainly sets apart from being so alone — taking school and taking courses — and being able to learn together, I think is one of the greatest things that we can do right now, because there’s so much information to take on. Using these XR platforms to meet and collaborate is going to only enhance that communication. So I, like you, look forward to the day when some of these things can be implemented into the classroom. But until then, we come back to the parents, we come back to family, and we come back to the students actually going to be looking for these resources to help them learn. And that’s the work that you and I have been doing. So I’m really excited to be able to release these parent and student issues. And maybe, Olivia, do you want to close this off with a little bit of a learning lesson, whether it’s for a student, or a parent, or a teacher, anybody out there? Is there some advice that you would like to share with everyone?

Olivia: Oh, sure. [laughs] So I would say the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to words: ask questions. And I’ll expand on that a little bit. This gets back to what we talk about with curiosity. If you ask questions about anything and everything that sparks your curiosity, anything that inspires you, that interests you, go talk to your parents. Go talk to your teachers. Go talk to your sister, your brother, your friends, your neighbors. Reach out to an industry professional in that field. Type it in on Google. When you ask questions about anything that sparks your curiosity, you will uncover a world of possibilities and opportunities. And I think that’s the most powerful thing that you can do, is to just ask questions about anything that sparks your interest. Never be afraid to ask a question.

Julie: Also, recap on the parent and student resources issues, one through four are now available, and we’re going to put those in the link to the podcast so everybody can have access to them. I think the message that we also want is for everyone to share these resources within your communities, your organizations, schools, parent councils. Students can take them into their student councils to help bridge that knowledge gap of understanding how immersive technologies will be applied to business and education. And I would also, Olivia, like to invite you back into part two of this podcast. And what I’d like to do is do a recap of the Curiosity Project and we’ll cover off issues five through eight, which are expected to hopefully in the next couple of weeks — we’re kind of pushing our time a little bit — but over the next couple of weeks, we’ll close off with the rest of those. And I’d love to invite you back and hopefully you can find some time in your busy schedule to do another recording with me. So thank you so much for being on our podcast today, and continue the work that you’re doing. It’s so great for you to be a part of this community, and I’ve enjoyed mentoring you. My message to all of those that are listening out there is make sure you spend some time mentoring the next generation. Learn together and help each other during this time of exponential growth, where there’s so much to know, there’s so much to learn, so much to adjust to, and there’s a lot of change happening right now. Thank you, Olivia, for being here with me today.

Olivia: Thank you for having me, for being my mentor and for inviting me for part two. I can’t wait to record it.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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