The jobs of the future are going to increasingly require people familiar with XR technologies, but developing those skills now can be a challenge, when the tech is so new and expensive. Rahel Demant from VR First explains how last year’s headsets can help develop tomorrow’s innovators.
Julie: Welcome to the XR for Learning podcast. I am your host, Julie Smithson. And today we have on the call Rahel Demant from VR First. Rahel worked in Deloitte’s Transaction Advisory Division. After a consulting job in Canada, the US and Costa Rica, she founded an event marketing agency organizing events across Germany in the arts. Fascinated by the power and possibilities of emerging tech, she joined VR First as CEO in 2016. She and her co-founder Ferhan Özkan have led the program to a network of thousands of developers in order to support the diversity of the tech scene. She has initiated the Women XR Laureate Breakthrough Oggi Award; her mission to democratize VR and AR development worldwide through VR First, various support programs, and online competitions. The newest program is the XR Boot Camp. Welcome, Rahel.
Rahel: Thank you for the invitation, Julie. And thanks for also being on our advisory board.
Julie: Yeah. It’s an exciting time. Thank you so much for asking me to be a part of the XR boot camp. I think there’s some great people that are coming together to discuss upskilling and how this industry is changing so much. So tell me a little bit more about VR First, and what you’re doing, and how you got to where you are today.
Rahel: So basically what we’ve seen three and four years ago was that the equipment for virtual reality and augmented reality was super expensive and there was a high demand from the industry to actually move forward and to actually develop more applications, more games, more serious games. And the problem was that the developers were not there, because universities were just not able to equip them with the knowledge, and also the headsets and gaming PCs, which you needed at that time. So the computer, which costs $3000, and a headset would maybe cost even $1000 to $2000. So equipping a university lab for all the students that wanted to learn was way too much and not affordable for anyone. So we decided to establish a non-for-profit approach, and to donate hundreds of headsets and computers to labs all around the world. Up to date, we have supported 52 universities and science parks with the establishment of VR/AR labs, so that they can better equip students with the resources and knowledge to actually learn VR and AR development, and to get the whole industry further as a movement.
So we’ve established partnerships based on Oculus/Facebook, Intel, AMD, with HTC, with all hardware manufacturers — and also software companies — to basically get some knowledge out there and to make it affordable. And what we were seeing is that there’s still, even though there’s a lot more of higher education now on the market, there is still a lot of demand from the industry to hire more talent, to hire more VR and AR experts into their companies. So I decided to instead of having these 3-6 years programs at universities, to really establish a very short, focused, and industry-based program which is XR bootcamps. When you join XR Bootcamp, you’re joining a three months full-time or six months part-time program where you can really learn VR/AR development, everything that’s basically demanded by the industry. So we have a really great advisory board — including you, ha ha — coming from all kinds of companies.
So, for example, we have HTC. We have Magic Leap. We have Audio Bear. We have all advisers from different industry companies which really need to hire VR/AR developers. And they actually advised us on what to put into the curriculum, which is very focused on short-term to really get the developers afterwards the job they want into the industry.
Julie: Wow. There’s so much to unpack there. Let’s start with the hardware. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in our industry today, is the community itself is pushing towards all of the content that’s starting to come out. But back in the classrooms, whether it’s university or K-12, higher education, hardware continues to be the biggest challenge. How do you deal with the evolution of the technology, the changes that are taking place so often? And I guess the expiry dates on a lot of this technology around your labs?
Rahel: Yeah, definitely. Always when there’s new devices coming out, we are contacting the hardware manufacturers and asking them to donate us the last season’s devices, actually. So, maybe in the labs, you don’t get the latest hardware, but at least you get the second-latest hardware, because obviously the older sets of hardware are not being sold that massively anymore. They really want to progress and sell the newest hardware, so that we have a chance to actually donate more equipment to the labs, which actually, if you are using the second-latest device to learn virtual reality, augmented reality, you may not need the most advanced equipment. So actually for us right now — for VR First — it’s really an advantage that the equipment was passing fast and it’s being updated very quickly because, then we get the chance to get to old equipment to donate.
Julie: I think the key here, is recycling; multi-use, as well as passing those devices on to classrooms where they may not meet the standards of enterprise today. But in the classrooms, if a student can put those headsets on and take a trip to a safari or the Great Wall of China, you’ve put them in that experience. So I really commend you on working through this program, because that’s I think that’s something we need to see more of, is how does enterprise give back to the education community? And I think some of the things that you’ve put into place are excellent when it comes to recycling this hardware that we’re going to be making so many of, and they change so often. Some of the devices that we had in late 2018 are no longer even an interest in proposing to enterprise. So what do you do with those devices? Putting those into the classrooms where the funding may not be there is obviously one of the best options.
Rahel: We really have sometimes very surprising moments. I mean, DK2s, which are like really, really old devices. I was really thinking no one would actually want them anymore. They didn’t use them anymore, and they recycled basically 20 of those and gave them to us. We could really equip a whole classroom, with these 20 DK2s. And they are really using it and learning to develop with it, which has been awesome.
Julie: It’s good to hear that, because the last thing we want to know about is a massive garbage pile of electronics that aren’t being used, when so many need them today, when it comes to understanding what this technology is about.
Rahel: And if you’re out there, and you’re currently looking at how to get rid of old devices, we’ll always take them.
Julie: So you heard that: VR First will help you get rid of your old devices and put them into places where they’ll be used with great love, I’m sure.
Let’s talk about the XR boot camp advisory a little bit more. You just touched on that. But I think it’s worth discussing and I think the fact that we need to reskill so many people in this world — upskill, train, educate, and provide the lessons of how this technology will affect our education — let’s dive deeper into the foundation of what you are trying to establish a little bit more with some of the people that are even on the advisory board. There’s some great mentors that are becoming influential in this space.
Rahel: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we have Amy Peck from HTC Vive, Rene Schulte from Valorem, we you have Elizabeth Baron from Silverdraft, and Jan Pflueger from AdvisXR. You and Alan. Olivier Ghezi from Atheer. David Moreno from Virtuaware. We have I think around 19 advisors. I don’t want to talk about all of them, but all kinds of different companies which are pioneering VR/AR are there. Some from the enterprise side, which are applying VR and AR, and the development side, of course. Everyone is excited to really move education in this area forward and also to teach what they know already.
Julie: And we talk about a lot of new jobs and new roles that are taking place in industry that were never there before. How companies who were never digital before now have to become digital, and they need to build their technical teams. And what are those roles on the technical teams? How do they play within the rest of the organizations? And I think that’s where our conversations are starting to go, is how do we support these companies in building their digital teams to support whether it be 3D asset creation, web site development, or marketing applications. And I think this is a really interesting conversation for a lot of companies that don’t even know what talent they need to scale out their companies and adapt to the digital economies that we’re all entering into.
Rahel: Yeah, exactly. So that’s why we develop basically mini boot camps as well, where companies can send their innovation managers to just explore what is actually available in VR/AR, and also to analyze which kind of application could make sense for their own businesses. So it’s basically like one-to-two-day workshops, whereas they are just exploring and seeing what other companies and their industries are already doing with VR/AR. And then in addition to the innovation manager, we are also inviting project managers to see how exactly project management is working for VR/AR projects, so that then if they decide to outsource something, they can negotiate better and also know better what they actually want and what they can actually achieve. And then if they really decide to, instead of outsource to an agency, to really develop the projects in-house — which is definitely possible, because VR is actually not that complicated to learn — they can also send their engineers or their current coding team to upskill and to then form the team that’s needed inside the company to develop some prototypes or even whole projects inside the company. And that’s also nice, because instead of having to hire maybe a VR/AR engineer, which is very costly because it’s very rare right now, you can upskill your current team and you have them motivated and passionate about your own projects, and just develop projects for your own company.
Julie: That’s amazing. Having these roles and these new job descriptions defined a little bit more will certainly help enterprise adopt this technology and not be so hesitant about the moves that they need to make as a company and taking on this talent. I do know that there is a place needed to host job postings and job offers, or a place to find talent. Is that something VR First will also be doing? Hosting a job board?
Rahel: Yeah, we are already very voluntarily taking all kinds of job offers internally to distribute them of course, among our XR graduates, to connect them right away to opportunities existing, and of course also looking to establish a platform where we just post all the job offers currently on the VR/AR market.
Julie: I’ve had several people come to me that are looking for jobs, but they don’t know where their skill sets are needed. And I think this is something VR First is doing, they’re trying to make the matchmaking between the developers and enterprise, and supporting their tech teams. So I think that’s wonderful. I know you’ve done a lot of hackathons as well, and I’m sure you’ve seen some of the talent come from these hackathons, and ideas. Maybe if you can take a moment and just shares one of your best experiences with a hackathon, or an idea or a developer that you’ve seen move from the hackathon to establishing a role within enterprise. Is that something that you’ve seen?
Rahel: Yeah. I mean, there is really like amazing hackathons we’ve supported in the past. There is, for example, the Reality Virtually hackathon, which was at MIT, which we supported with our community outreach. There’s just amazing projects coming out of that hackathon. Like, for example, there is a whole orchestra which you can basically learn to direct in virtual reality. I just saw this. An amazing use case, as well and very fantastic. There’s definitely a lot of nice projects out there and we are definitely always willing to also hear about talents which are currently looking for jobs. We have actually the opposite problem. It’s basically being reached out to us to see where the talent which is actually in need for jobs. If you can connect me with the people that are looking to find some, that’s definitely a good idea. Because, yeah, for us, it’s the opposite problems; we know of a lot of open job offers, but not so many talents which could actually fill them.
Julie: Well, that’s wonderful to know. I’d like to finish off our conversation with two things. First of all is, if you were to provide a lesson to anybody listening to this podcast, what would that lesson be?
Rahel: I mean, definitely try it out. Like try, try. Maybe even this short online course about Unity development. It’s very easy. You will see and you will get excited about what you can actually do yourself in virtual reality, and then maybe check out the bootcamps.
Julie: Finally, Rahel, how can people find out more about VR First?
Rahel: Well, of course, there’s our websites, vrfirst.com, and also XRbootcamp.com. There’s all the contact opportunities there.
Julie: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Rahel, for joining me today on the XR for Learning podcast. This is your host, Julie Smithson. Thanks very much. We’ll see you next time.
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