Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Sarasota nonprofits serving people with disabilities harness virtual reality

Rise Up Cafe and Easterseals Southwest Florida have partnered with the local tech company Virtical.

A former Easterseals client uses the VR technology.
A former Easterseals client uses the VR technology.
Courtesy image
  • Sarasota
  • News
  • Share

When employees step into Rise Up Cafe for the first time, they feel right at home, said founder Beaver Shriver.

That's because new employees of the nonprofit-run operation have already visited the cafe — virtually.

The cafe's mission focuses on inclusion for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And thanks to a partnership with Virtical, a local tech company, Rise Up can introduce its team members to the challenges of a busy coffee shop with virtual reality headsets that digitally re-create Rise Up Cafe down to the layout, colors and equipment.

“Your brain registers it as a memory, not as memorizing, and it just elevates the way your brain absorbs information and keeps it and uses it,” said Tim Conway, Virtical chief creative officer.

Building a virtual cafe

Shriver said at Rise Up Cafe, the technology has helped with initial training of employees, most of whom have never had a job.

The partnership began when Conway met Shriver at the grand opening of the soundstages at Ringling College, and Conway found out Shriver was working with Easterseals to open the cafe.

At the time the VR program was created, Shriver had yet to secure the space, but Conway thought he could build it even faster thanks to VR.

“There’s no permitting on my side of the work,” he said. 

With his team, he began using the blueprints of the shop to recreate the location in a digital 3-D space, producing the first proof of concept — an exact model of one of the shop’s coffee grinders. 

Before the cafe had opened its doors, he began working with Easterseals Southwest Florida to send clients through training. The organization provides care to people with disabilities, many of whom have become Rise Up staff. 

The training process has been created with special consideration of clients' needs. Trainees work at their own pace, through a series of levels that offer increasing difficulty. 

The number of tasks rises while prompts, like a green color highlighting certain objects, begin to disappear, and an element that Shriver felt it was important to include comes into play: noise distractions.

Many of the staff who work at Rise Up Cafe have sensitivities to sound.

“Coffee shops are notoriously chaotic,” Shriver said. “People chatting and music and grinders going off and espresso steam wands making a big racket.”

When staff reach a middle level, the shop becomes louder, with background chatter, while on the advanced level, noises like the siren of an ambulance, the barking of a dog, and the crying of a baby are heard. 

Initially, the controller setup also had to be simplified to suit the needs of trainees, with buttons needing to either be disconnected or rewired to serve the same function. 

The training just requires a pair of virtual reality goggles.
Photo by Ian Swaby

The expansion of the technology eventually removed the need to modify the controllers. VR headsets began offering the ability to sync the motion of trainees' hands onscreen to their actual hand movements, reducing the reliance on buttons. 

The training even continued through COVID-19, as Easterseals would use buses, with the seats removed, as mobile VR studios. 

“It's been a really cool couple of years of progression as we just keep getting better and adding new things and, and growing it,” Conway said.

A web portal allows the progress of trainees to be tracked, providing data to verify their skills. 

Shriver said during the first sessions of in-store training, it was easy to see the impacts of the technology, including on those employees who were sensitive to noise and tended to normally wear headphones. 

“They were just comfy as soon as they walked in the door, and the headphones get dropped and they come in, and away they go. It was really, really fun to see.”

Shriver said the significance of the technology extends beyond Rise Up Cafe. 

“We have a big mission behind what we're doing, and we want to spread that as far as we can and involve as many other groups as we can, so those are the biggest bonuses behind this thing — solidifying tasks for the gang, and then the partnerships," Shriver said.

Technology for a cause

Conway came to Sarasota from Los Angeles in 2012, where he spent over 20 years in the visual effects industry, contributing to major studio films like "Titanic," "X-Men" and "Seabiscuit" and commercials for brands like Nike, McDonald's and Chevrolet.

He has worked as a visual effects supervisor and an integration supervisor, and in areas including 3D modeling and camera tracking.

He eventually realized the potential for visual effects technology extends far beyond entertainment. While working for the company BioLucid in Sarasota, he observed the company’s staff creating a model of human anatomy in VR, for use in the medical field. 

“I just thought that was really cool. It showed me something else, that you can educate people with VR, and not necessarily just use it to make a cool movie or music video,” he said.

Over the last two to three years, Conway said, VR has become increasingly common in workplace settings, such as at Walmart or McDonald's, where it can be used to teach everything from soft skills to interviewing.  

A user works with cookies in the virtual reality simulation for Rise Up Cafe.
Courtesy image

At Easterseals Southwest Florida, it is offering those skills, and more. 

Tom Waters, CEO of the nonprofit, has campaigned for and spearheaded the VR projects it has created with Conway. 

For the organization, he has created a module for restaurant greeters and a soft skills-related project for Goodwill Manasota, with a hospitality module for an Easterseals affiliate currently in progress.

"It encourages the participants, as they get better and better," Waters said of the technology. "They score better, their social skills are stronger. There are those inherent rewards in experiential learning, that strengthen an individual's ability to be happy."

The applications also cross into therapeutic and mental health-related areas, something Waters said proved vital during COVID-19, thanks to programs like Paintbrush, an art program, and Beat Saber, a music video game. 

"Both of them uplift the spirit and give you some pretty good physical therapy. You've got to move those arms and legs," Waters said. 

Conversely, peace and quiet are also benefits of the technology. 

“We would have guys and girls that would show up sometimes that were having a bad day, and knock on the door and go, can I just get in the headset, please, can I just do that meditation thing?” Conway said. 

The future of virtual reality

The potential of VR is only just beyond its infancy, according to Conway. 

“We're toddlers now,” he said. “Infancy was maybe five years ago, and now we’re learning to walk.

Today, he looks forward to a new phase that will incorporate eye tracking and facial tracking, technologies he said that have the potential to detect autism and spectrum disorders in children based on the way they respond to the stimuli in front of them. 

AI is also being integrated into services, and he said one possible use could be analyzing those diagnosed with disabilities. 

As far as the future of Easterseals, Waters envisions virtual reality continuing to add to people's well-being. He said the organization is already working with one group to offer "very appropriate, highly engaging" games for its clientele.

"The beauty for us is if we create it, then Beaver can use it, if we create it, Goodwill can use it," Waters said. "Most importantly, clients, whether they're our clients or somebody else's clients, are benefiting from the opportunity to learn, and work. And two of the most fulfilling things for people is learning and working."



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

Latest News