Student Spotlight: Susan Molnar - Using XR with Accessibility in Mind

September 21 2021

Case Studyvirtual reality

The XR Development with Unity course from Circuit Stream is a project-based 10-week live online course, where students learn the fundamentals of augmented and virtual reality development with Unity game engine.

In this segment of our Student Spotlight series, we talked with Susan Molnar — an instructional designer and extended reality (XR) enthusiast and self-proclaimed technophile. Susan was introduced to XR back in 2014 with the extremely low-tech Google Cardboard.

Meet Susan

Susan Molnar is a Senior Instructional Designer at the long-standing US services and manufacturing organization, Bell and Howell. Bell and Howell services over 80 different types of machinery. This includes autonomous robots, 3D printers, Click-and-collect solutions as well as Bell and Howell’s own heritage mailing and inserting equipment. Her work keeps her on the lookout for new technologies and ways they can be applied in training and beyond. This includes XR tools, as tools to improve her company’s efficiency and effectiveness to “Do the Right Thing” for their people and their customers.

“It’s really an interesting problem trying to figure out how we use these new technologies as tools to push things further,” said Susan. “But also understanding our audiences and how we make all the puzzles go together.”

Susan has a background in arts, and went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston/Tufts dual program where she focused on mixed media art and installation. Eventually, her interests led her to find new ways to bring technology, art, and education together. Before entering her current position at Bell and Howell, she co-founded and helped run a non-profit organization that sought to get children interested in and involved with computers, science, and technology through hands-on projects and creativity. It was ultimately her desire to spark a passion for STEM fields in children that led her to XR.

Entering the New World of XR

It was in 2014, during her time at her non-profit, that Susan first began to experiment with XR. At that time, the Google Cardboard, one of the first mainstream VR headsets, had just been released, and the general public was starting to get its first taste of XR technology.

“At that point, I was helping run a non-profit that my friend and I had started trying to get kids into all sorts of technology and physical computing.”

Her non-profit work led her to attend the Share Fair Nation, a conference focused on STEM education, where she saw an XR demonstration that ignited her passion for the field.

“I saw Visitech, actually, demonstrated their Ztech machines, and they also showed how they had integrated augmented reality with textbooks in Georgia, and my mind was completely blown...I was like, ‘I gotta do this!’”

But without a background in 3D design, Susan quickly encountered her first obstacle: “One of my friends and I were like ‘how do we do this?’”

Soon after, Susan and her friends began experimenting with Unity and AR, attempting to make virtual objects pop out of business cards and eventually trying to figure out how to move to devices other than phones.

Susan went back to school and got a Masters of Science in Education in Learning Design and Technology from Purdue University to help continue to blend these tools and create these frameworks for whatever context she found herself in and presented at Educause 2017 on the current state of XR tools for education.

Finding Structure With Circuit Stream

Susan knew that due to the nature of the technology the learning of the syntax for development around it is a continual process. Attempting to master it without the structured guidance of teachers who were already working in the field was difficult.

“We’re still in the Palm Pilot days of this,” says Susan. While trying to integrate XR into her work at Bell and Howell, she found herself asking, “how do we get from something that is a super high-level thing that only a certain people, bleeding edge, can adopt, to something that is consumer ready everywhere? And what actual things are we trying to solve with it?”

“Part of [the solution],” according to Susan, “is staying very current on how development is being done and having a structured framework to do that.”

It was these questions that led Susan to the XR Development with Unity course at Circuit Stream, from which she graduated in Winter 2020.

“I had been following Circuit Stream for a very long time...and I really liked the way that [Circuit Stream] had started putting that framework together. And I really still think that [Circuit Stream is] one of the leaders in helping that. And [Circuit Stream is] also able to evolve with the trends that are going on and keep [its] offerings current.”

Overcoming Obstacles

Overall, Susan found that the hardest part of her journey into XR has trying to make all the pieces fit together. There is a large realm of possibilities but to make something that adds values, returns on investment, and can fit into an existing educational culture can be difficult.

“The challenging part is trying to figure out what problems are you trying to solve. And how does that work into your overall ecosystem for deployment? It’s one thing to make something that’s really cool...but...then from getting that to scaling, getting those things together...I think being part of Circuit Stream, with the ongoing community, especially, helps keep that fresh and that ongoing conversation going.”

Susan has noticed that despite the growth of XR over the past years, the educational programs that are available aren’t unified in their approaches. While there are certain commonalities emerging from the many different courses out there, each one tends to be fairly specialized to a very specific use case that won’t fit everyone’s needs.

She found that Circuit Stream, however, addresses this issue by maintaining small class sizes and allowing students to pursue the avenues that are most interesting and relevant to them.

“The classes with Circuit Stream are so small and so student focused, and the instructors are so student focused, it really does help localize that for whatever your end use case might be...It was very personalized. We learned a lot of skills, and we were able to apply that to our own personal projects.”

Looking Ahead: Improving the Accessibility and Inclusivity of XR

Now that Susan has graduated from Circuit Stream, she continues to participate in the XR accessibility movement and try to use Universal Design principles in her work.

“I had a friend who was not a native English speaker trying to use the HoloLens and saying ‘next’ and being able to make those ‘T’ sounds, it doesn’t always recognize that. And we know there is a deficit in all sorts of microphone-based assistants.”

It’s experiences like these that are driving Susan to find new ways to share XR with the many people out there who may have trouble using it in its current incarnation.

“We have lots and lots of data, we have lots and lots of researchers from around the world who are doing amazing work and have been doing amazing work for the 30 years the ADA [American Disabilities Act] has been present...so how can we apply what we’ve learned for the last 30 years plus to a new medium.”

The goal of many in this area are to apply the lessons learned and make new XR incarnations accessible from the start.

Susan has been involved with the XR Access Initiative, an organization founded at Cornell that focuses on expanding XR’s accessibility and continues to lend expertise in their Business Cases working group. Susan has also been published in the Routledge press Universal Access Through Inclusive Instructional Design: International Perspectives on UDL” discussing these issues.

Susan hopes to continue her journey in her current position to find new problems to solve enterprise level issues with this information in mind.

Susan’s Big Takeaway

When Susan first encountered XR technology back in 2014, she immediately saw the potential it had to solve problems in both educational and industrial applications. However, due to the complexity of the world of 3D, she realized she needed help if she wanted to utilize XR to its fullest potential.

At Circuit Stream, Susan found the perfect balance between structured instruction and small class sizes that allowed her to experiment on her own and receive more personalized lessons that were applicable to her work.

Now, Susan hopes to bring her new skills into her work at Bell and Howell to solve problems. Alongside that, she continues to work with the XR Access Initiative to make XR more accessible to all.

Her advice to people interested in getting involved with XR?

“Just do it, just start messing with it. Just watch some of the Circuit Stream courses, just start playing with it...just go try things, go find people who are excited about it and make it happen.”


Interested in XR Unity development or learning about AR and VR?

Take a look at our course content and syllabus.

Download the XR Development with Unity Syllabus
 

REVIEWED BY

Dejan Gajsek

Head of Marketing

Receive our newsletter to stay on top of the latest virtual reality and augmented reality info.