Scott Community College student creates virtual reality training for local non-profit organization
Sitting behind his computer, light illuminating his face, keys clacking and mouse swirling, Chad Behal is able to flawlessly create immersive environments in virtual reality (VR).
With skills learned from the Augmented and Virtual Reality (AVR) program at Scott Community College, 3D modeling, animation and programming have become a part of his daily grind. More importantly, it’s become his passion.
This passion, and his impressive experience, is what ultimately led Behal to land an internship at EveryChild, formerly known as the Child Abuse Council of the Quad Cities. It’s an unlikely pairing — VR and child abuse prevention training — but it’s exactly why Behal was eager to get started.
“VR is a great, inexpensive tool for workforce training because you can create practically any environment, depending on your organization’s needs,” he said.
Mark Mathews, Executive Director of EveryChild, said it was for this reason the organization looked to implement VR training for their Healthy Families program, as it requires intensive home-visitor onboarding to help employees find patterns, hazards, dangers and child abuse in homes.
“To train employees, our clients have to open up their homes for role-playing exercises. That oftentimes can be uncomfortable, having so many people in their home,” said Mathews. “Our in-office role-playing exercises often fail to account for key details like a potential client’s age, race and gender, for example.”
According to EveryChild’s website, the program’s mission is to, “lead community efforts to eliminate child abuse and neglect by strengthening children and families through treatment, education and prevention.” This mission, Mathews states, is exactly why proper employee training is so vital to the future of our community.
“The end result is identifying situations where a child could be hurt or worse. It’s the difference between a child living a healthy, full life, or not.”
With guidance from Mathews, Behal got to work. His directive was to create a home environment with a provided list of 3D modeling assets. That list ultimately included common signs of things found in households that could lead to a cycle of child abuse; some, easy to identify, others, much harder.
For example, Behal’s environment included a gun leaning up against a wall, cleaning supplies in easy reach and uncovered electrical sockets. Not only this, but filled dog bowls on the floor, super glue left out and a stove pan with the handle facing outwards.
“I grew up in a pretty normal household, so recognizing the different signs of possible child abuse was a little bit harder for me,” explained Behal. “They had to describe them to me and show me different pictures of stuff. It was just not something I thought about every day.”
Behal spent the first month of the project prototyping the room, coming up with a layout, creating structure and an environment on the Engage Platform, one of many computer programs used to build AVR applications. After solidifying certain details, he then made sure the lighting, spacing and texture of each item was just right.
“The main concerns for me were having enough space and keeping the environment believable,” he said. “I used Blender to 3D model the objects, like the couch, shotgun and dog bowls, and Substance Painter to texturize them. I then imported the files into Unity to create the final scene.”
He even maximized the project budget by adding unexpected features. The first included an observation deck so others could view training sessions in progress, and the second included short descriptions of the items for employees to find or review if they’d missed them during the training session.
In a little over two months, Behal had a fully operational VR apartment space ready for testing. After EveryChild employees experienced Behal’s creation for the first time, any doubt about the platform’s ease-of-use vanished.
“Employees were more enthusiastic after going through the testing, first-hand. It was noted in the survey that any basic beginner could use this technology and benefit from it. That finding was really transformative,” said Mathews.
The VR training simulation was welcomed with open arms, and now serves as a permanent fixture of EveryChild’s employee training protocol.
For family support specialists and community doulas, being able to prepare for the situations they will encounter during real, in-person home visits makes all the difference. The platform even includes avatars that allow employees to simulate people of any background.
“Identifying concerns and practicing those difficult conversations and possible de-escalation skills ahead of time is so important,” said Mathews.
“As a strength-based program, our specialists are then able to focus on the positives, with the emphasis of being helpful and supportive for the families moving forward.”
Eventually, EveryChild hopes to share the benefits of VR training with other non-profit agencies in the area.
“With the program here at EICC, and local cutting-edge VR businesses, the Quad Cities really is at the forefront of this technology. It means big things for our community, as far as staff training, cost efficiency and employee retention. I’m just excited to see what the future holds,” Mathews said. Learn more about the Augmented and Virtual Reality program at eicc.edu/avr