Bringing a New ‘World’ to Training for Job Readiness Through Virtual Reality

/ May 17, 2022

By Carrie Brna and Keivan Stassun

Editor’s note: Many of you may know way more about today’s topic than I do because you or your children play video games or you’ve experienced other types of virtual reality. For those of us who aren’t as familiar, virtual reality is a computer-generated “world” with scenes and objects that appear to be real, and the user feels immersed in their surroundings. This “scene” or this “world” is seen and “felt” through a device known as a virtual reality headset or helmet (or on a standard computer monitor for folks who don’t tolerate the sensation of a headset). Virtual reality allows us to put ourselves in video games as if we were one of the characters. Or we can learn how to fly a plane. Or we can improve our ability to hit a golf ball. Or we can enhance our skills to handle a job interview.

Tennessee has two new, exciting developments regarding virtual reality and employment training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism. Carrie Brna, state director of Employment Innovation and Community Inclusion at the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and Keivan Stassun, director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation in Nashville, explain more about each project.

  • Tennessee’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Division of Program Innovation has recently partnered with three virtual reality developers to build customized training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • The Frist Center for Autism and Innovation in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering has also formed a partnership with one of these developers to create virtual reality tools that support autistic adults in their path to meaningful jobs.

DIDD is working with Floreo, Holopundits, and Reality Garage. While each developer brings unique skills to the table, DIDD is focusing on creating virtual reality training for transportation and travel safety, job skill development, and job exploration and discovery.

The Division of Program Innovation staff, including Carrie herself, are taking a hands-on approach to this development process. For several months now, Carrie and her team has been working closely with the three developers on all the details. They are helping design what the “avatars,” the electronic images that represent and are controlled by the computer users, will look like. The team is providing input on the order of events the person will experience in the virtual reality “world,” and they are even going out and filming 360-degree virtual reality videos inside businesses across the state.

More specifically, Floreo, in working with the Division of Program Innovation, is currently building a transportation and travel training experience to help people learn how to prepare to ride the bus. This training will include choosing which bus to take to reach a destination, learning where to stand to safely wait for the bus, and practicing asking the bus driver questions when the bus pulls up to the stop. The learner’s decisions and actions will be monitored, and the person will be able to practice the activity in a virtual “world” until they master it. The person will also have the help of a support person called a “coach.” This type of learning is called “errorless,” because there are no real-life problems involved with an incorrect choice, such as boarding the wrong bus. The person will be able to practice and master these skills before trying it in real life. The “coach” will play an important role in the Floreo VR training, which makes it unique from the other virtual reality projects.

DIDD is looking forward to wrapping up the virtual reality development process with all three partners and creating a robust and diverse catalog of training “worlds.” These projects will help people be better able to travel in their communities, to learn about different career paths, and to build the skills needed to be successful in the job of their choice. We have entered a new chapter of how we support people to achieve their vision of a good life, and we’re looking forward to sharing more about our VR developments soon!

The Frist Center for Autism & Innovation, which brings engineers, business scholars, and disabilities researchers together with experts in neuroscience and education to understand, maximize, and promote neurodiverse talent, has also formed a partnership with Floreo,  a company that has already created a virtual reality platform for people with autism or other disabilities who can benefit from learning and practicing social, behavioral, communication, and life skills scenarios in a safe environment. This partnership is led by the Frist Center’s deputy director for technology, Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical engineering, and deputy director for clinical translation, Zack Warren, who also serves as executive director of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s TRIAD, the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

The partnership with Floreo is helping the Frist Center to translate its “heavy tech”—virtual reality systems involving large computers and expensive components— into “light tech” versions that can be used easily and affordably with Floreo’s mobile app.

For example, the Frist Center has created a coaching system to let learners practice job interviews using virtual reality. This coaching system uses artificial intelligence, which is the ability of a computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks usually associated with human beings. The term is often applied to projects that show the ability to reason, generalize, or learn from past experience. This software allows individuals to experience realistic job interviews, with the software responding to different answers in appropriate ways. The Frist Center’s “heavy tech” version of this system includes hardware such as eye-gaze tracking (so that a live, in-person coach can help the person learn ways to direct their gaze in an appropriate but comfortable manner, such as looking just over the interviewer’s shoulder). The Frist Center’s version also provides an analysis of a person’s physical stress with a FitBit, a device that measures a person’s heart rate and other activity levels. (This analysis lets the system change the level of difficulty quickly based on the person’s stress). This coaching system is being used in high school transition programs, with community-based service providers, vocational rehabilitation training centers, and others.

At the same time, the Floreo app offers a “light” version. The app doesn’t have the hardware components, such as the stress analysis, but the app still has many of the software features of adaptive responses. While the app does not provide the same full clinical and educational benefits as the heavy-tech version, the app has the advantage of being able to reach many more individuals who may be using the Floreo system at home or in school.

In this era of high technology solutions, partnerships such as this one between Vanderbilt’s Frist Center and Floreo are becoming more important to make sure that these new tools have the broadest possible impact and reach.

If you are interested in learning more about Frist Center’s coaching system, contact Dave Caudel, associate director of the Frist Center, at 615-343-9535 or email him at . Dave would be happy to tell you more.


I appreciate Carrie and Keivan sharing the information about these exciting new opportunities for employment-related training being offered through virtual reality! I will admit that I don’t play video games nor have I experienced any virtual reality programs, so this all sounds very “out there” to me. But I know these highly innovative folks are experienced in technology and in serving individuals with disabilities, so I’m looking forward to seeing how these efforts can boost employment levels. Thank you! If you have questions, please email me at

Carrie Brna joined the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2019 and is currently serving as the state director of Employment Innovation and Community Inclusion. Previously, Carrie worked at the Division of TennCare on the systems transformation and innovation efforts for Long Term Services and Supports. Prior to joining the state in 2016, Carrie worked as a travel trainer, supporting people with disabilities in learning the accessibility features of the fixed route public transportation system in Chicago. Carrie received a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago in Disability Studies and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Keivan G. Stassun is the Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Professor of Computer Science, and director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation. The parent of an autistic teen, Stassun helped to establish the Frist Center in 2018, with the mission of engineering technologies and transforming the workplace, inspired by neurodiversity.

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