You may be anywhere—sitting or standing, at work or at home—but when you put on the headset, you're transported to a whole different world. Virtual reality (VR) simulators are commonly known for providing life-like experiences of things like amusement park rides and trips to extravagant lands. But what about its more practical uses?
"When I first started, I would joke about how I was having too much fun at work," says Melissa Schmitz '18. As the VR technical lead at The Raymond Corporation in Greene, N.Y, one of the key areas of her responsibility has been testing out new features on the company's award-winning VR simulator. The project recently earned them a slot among Fast Company's 2019 Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in VR/AR.
The simulator, manufactured and sold by The Raymond Corporation, is intended to familiarize people on how to drive forklift trucks and accelerate the training process through structured lessons. In order to best replicate the actual experience of driving a forklift, trainees use the VR simulator on real lift trucks equipped with the patent-pending Simulation Port (sPort) technology, which disables all truck movement using a combination of hardware and software blocks. And this is all accomplished in a large virtual warehouse environment using only the physical footprint of a single lift truck.
Schmitz, who graduated from Le Moyne with dual degrees in physics and chemistry and a minor in mathematics, writes technical specifications for upcoming software features, performs validation testing on those new features once they're implemented, builds initial prototypes in Unity 3D, and oversees research for the future direction of Raymond VR and AR (augmented reality) products.
"It's really exciting to see this immersive technology (VR) being utilized more and more in enterprise environments," says Schmitz. "Our VR simulator is a cutting edge tool that helps develop more confident, efficient forklift operators with real-time feedback.”
Alongside her duties with the VR simulator, she is crunching data collected from field tests using Python and machine learning models. She works directly with a data scientist and is gaining valuable experience in data science, one of her main fields of interest. Her position at The Raymond Corporation affords her the opportunity to utilize her existing skills, as well as giving her the chance to cultivate new ones. "I get to use the skills that I already had in research while simultaneously supporting the skills that I want to develop for my career," explains Schmitz.
The route Schmitz took to discover her passion for emerging technologies required patience, deep reflection and a great deal of exploration. "I had many changing interests in college, but Le
Moyne was a great place to explore them," she says. Schmitz began college as a biochemistry major with the goal of becoming a research physician. But physics courses taught by David Craig, Ph.D, and physical chemistry courses taught by Carmen Giunta, Ph.D, in particular ignited her passions for deeper discovery in theoretical quantum physics, the eventual subject of her senior physics capstone project.
However, after graduating from Le Moyne, she decided to take a short break, which included getting engaged and spending a few months living with her fiancée's family in Europe. "I needed the time to put together all the experiences that I had in college and to discover what I actually wanted to do," she says. "Whether it's exploring different subject areas or working internships, you can't know for sure until you try something."
Schmitz says her interest in tech began as she started coding later on in her college experience. During her senior year, Schmitz attended her first hackathon in downtown Syracuse called Hack Upstate with fellow Le Moyne graduate Kristine Carlsen '19. Their team ended up winning first prize, which she notes was a pivotal moment in her career as she went on to attend, and win, further competitions. “That was the first time I got the experience of seeing a complex project go from just an idea to completion,” says Schmitz, “especially with such a supportive community."
Schmitz found that the communication skills she learned at Le Moyne were especially crucial when it came time to apply for jobs. "Science majors don't typically expose themselves to these opportunities to the same degree as humanities majors," says Schmitz, who was a writer and editor for The Dolphin and Brain Juice Magazine at Le Moyne. "But we're all better off given that Le Moyne encourages you to have that well-rounded education. We become better scientists and better human beings."
In her career, Schmitz not only draws on the academic and technical skills she gained from her science classes, but also the interpersonal skills she gained from the Le Moyne community, saying, "While I certainly did learn the diverse subject matter of the courses that I took at Le Moyne, I also learned how to work with people. I found friends and mentors for life.