Helping People

How technology is helping those on the autism spectrum master the job interview

What happens when you partner up one of South Florida’s most respected charitable foundations with a hot technology startup? A growing number of new ways to help people with autism find jobs and live independently.

As Kyle Engelmann and Kenneth Daniels get ready to put on Magic Leap One headsets for their job interview training, Dan Marino Foundation Director of Creative Technology Santiago Bolivar explains what they are about to experience. These students at the Broward Marino Campus of the foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps young people with autism and other developmental disabilities, will get help with job interviewing.

While people on the autism spectrum excel at many kinds of jobs, one of the steps to employment that is the most difficult for them is the face-to-face interview.

“Is it holographic? Oh my God,” said Daniels, his voice rising with excitement.

Through the headsets, Engelmann and Daniels experience for the first time technology created by Magic Leap, a Plantation-based technology company developing “spatial computing” — technology that combines the real and virtual worlds. With it, they will converse with a human-like avatar, a job interviewer, Bolivar explains.

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Director of creative technology at the Dan Marino Foundation, Santiago Bolivar, demonstrates how to use the Magic Leap virtual reality headset to Kyle Engelmann, 19, at the Dan Marino Foundation Marino Campus in Fort Lauderdale. The headset provides a virtual interview with a human-like avatar for those on the autism spectrum, thus eliminating the face-to-face interview.

The Dan Marino Foundation was founded in 1992 by Dan and Claire Marino, motivated by experiences in raising their son Michael, who was diagnosed with autism. Over the years, the foundation has raised more than $72 million to create the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Outpatient Center, the Marino Autism Research Institute and its Marino Campus, an intensive 10-month post-secondary educational program in Miami-Dade and Broward to help young adults with autism or other developmental disabilities bridge the gap between high school and employment.

In the last few years, the foundation has dedicated considerable resources — now a quarter to a third of its budget — to technological initiatives. It believes technology innovations will super-charge its impact.

“In order to best serve our students and even that playing field, it’s all about technology. Technology is the tool set to do everything we are doing. We see it as a game changer,” said Mary Partin, CEO of the foundation.

That need is real: Nationally, some 80% of adults with autism are unemployed and most are never able to live independently. Through its programs, Dan Marino’s success rate has been impressive: Over the past four years, about 72% of its Marino Campus students have found employment.

But it is constantly working on ways to reach more young people, with the help of technology. Magic Leap also believes its technology could be a game-changer in the area of independent living – like a digital helper as you go about your day.

In addition to its work with Magic Leap, Dan Marino Foundation has been supercharging its tech education and initiatives, such as offering post-secondary certifications in tech skills, adding SmartBoards to classrooms to further engage students, and providing Microsoft Office certification test preparation software. Indeed, some of its Marino Campus classrooms look more like a technology school.

Magic Leap was founded in 2011 by Rony Abovitz, a University of Miami bio-engineering alum and co-founder of a successful robotics company, Mako Surgical, in his garage. Magic Leap has raised $2.6 billion in venture capital and employs thousands of people working to bring its new spatial computing technology to the world, with applications developing for healthcare, social impact, education, entertainment and other sectors. Its first consumer product is on the market: Magic Leap One.

The Dan Marino Foundationhas been working with Magic Leap for a couple of years, but this is part of a larger initiative. The Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies, through a 2015 Impact Challenge Grant from Google, developed an award-winning solution called ViTA (Virtual Interactive Training Agent) for interview training.

ViTA, developed in 2016, can simulate six interview situations with friendly to hostile interviewers. While giving the students practice interviewing in a safe setting, the Marino Campus can track their progress on responses, eye contact, body language, engagement and other interviewing skills.

DMF has taken the original ViTA to local schools to use, but the system needs a lot of computing capacity to run that most schools do not have.

Now the foundation is doubling down to advance the technology and broaden accessibility. Magic Leap is partnering with the foundation and USC to bring ViTA to the Magic Leap One headsets, while another local technology company, Very Big Things, was recently brought on to bring ViTA to the web so that it can be used on tablets, laptops and phones. The initial version of the web ViTA should be out in coming months.

“This project just spoke to us for a number of reasons. The social good aspect and also the team at Dan Marino Foundation is so amazing,” said Chris Stegner, CEO of Very Big Things.

The foundation believes these technology initiatives can make a lot of impact because there are a number of jobs, including in technology, where people with autism thrive. But because social skills are a challenge for those on the spectrum, many of them cannot get through the face-to-face interview.

So far, ViTA is getting good reviews. Students enjoy using technology for the practice sessions, and with this population, they tell you what they think, Bolivar said. That’s a good thing because both Magic Leap and Very Big Things will be constantly updating and improving their technologies based on feedback they get from users.

You can count on Engelmann and Daniels, the Marino Campus students, for that.

In their Magic Leap session, the avatar was virtually sitting across the table from them in a typical office setting, asking questions about their skills, experience and where they see themselves in five years. When asked for feedback, the students said the experience seemed too scripted – it should be more natural, “like you and me,” Daniels said.

Indeed, he tried to ask the avatar interviewer a question about the job opening — a good interview practice — but the avatar wasn’t able to answer it.

Yet.

That’s because that kind of natural back and forth you expect during an interview will likely come in later versions as Magic Leap adds artificial intelligence technology, said Jennifer Esposito, vice president of health for Magic Leap. In the future, the experience should be more like interacting with a digital human rather than an avatar.

“The digital human can be responsive to the inputs they are getting from the person who is using the solution and more adaptive in real time. It can learn as it goes and also learn from prior interactions that happen with others,” Esposito said.

“It’s not just that we have spatial computing now, it is this convergence of lots of other technologies that are happening at the same time,” she added. “Things that we have been dreaming about and talking about for a long time are more possible than ever before.”

For instance, the Magic Leap team and Dan Marino Foundation believe the Magic Leap technology can make independent living a reality for more people with autism.

“There are a lot of conversations around coaching in the sense that you could have like an angel on your shoulder giving you feedback on what you could do next or how you can improve,” Esposito said.

For the Dan Marino Foundation, the potential impact is huge. “As a foundation, it is important that whatever we develop we are able to get it out into the world so that others can use it,” Partin said.

She also believes as the teams develop the technology further, there will be other commercial applications and those dollars will come back to fuel the foundation’s mission.

“I know the kids, I know what the issues are and what they need. What they [Magic Leap’s team] do is develop beautiful tools to help people achieve. It’s great team work,” Partin said. “I can’t tell you how it works, I can’t tell you all the science behind it -- but we have magic.”

Dan Marino Foundation’s Tech Transformation

Here are some ways the Dan Marino Foundation is using technology to supercharge its mission of helping young people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

ViTA – DMF: An interview-preparation tool developed with the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies, through a social impact grant from Google.

ViTA ML: Bringing the ViTA tool to Magic Leap headsets, through a Magic Leap Spotlight grant. This partnership could lead to potentially developing technology to help people with autism, such as in independent living situations.

ViTA Online: Bringing ViTA to the web, including laptops, tablets and phones, through a partnership with Fort Lauderdale-based technology company, Very Big Things.

The Marino Campus uses technologies such as SmartBoards to bring interaction in the classroom.

Certification practice systems such as Ceritport Gmetrix help the students to prepare for Microsoft Office Certifications.

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