From VR to real life: A Rowan engineer interviews potential customers for trade-skill innovation  

Written by
Garrett Williams, Rowan University graduate student
Feb. 21, 2023

In my engineering research, I’ve been shy. As a graduate student and virtual reality research engineer at Rowan University, I’ve had plenty of chances to “get out of the building” and experience new people, places and ideas, but I tend to pass these opportunities off. Thanks to the encouragement and support of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Northeast Hub, I left my comfort zone in a unique and exciting way.

During the winter of 2022, I participated in the Hub’s four-week Propelus program, which helps researchers develop the skills necessary to take their innovations to market. Our team consisted of myself along with George Lecakes, associate director of virtual reality at the Machine & Artificial Intelligence Virtual Reality Center (MAVRC) at Rowan University, and Felicia Veneri, a mechanical engineering undergraduate at Rowan. A large part of the program involves conducting interviews with potential customers and asking questions to gain insights about the target market for our innovation.

Our idea is to create a virtual reality (VR) application to teach trade skills like leather-working and textile-making. We are primarily targeting hobbyists, one type of hobbyist being cosplayers. These are people interested in making their own elaborate costumes for cosplay, a popular social activity in which fans dress up as their favorite imaginary characters.

After completing the Propelus four-week program and conducting 15 interviews, we’ve learned a lot about our potential customers. We gained some great insights from our interviews with VR experts, gamers and trade skill workers. However, I still felt like there were more people we could learn from.

The I-Corps program provides each regional team a $3,000 budget for customer discovery. At the end of our four weeks, our team still had remaining funds. In my search for potential interview subjects, I found the Holiday Matsuri convention in Orlando, Florida, where cosplayers, gamers and artists come together to share their passions.

Mark DeGuzman, program coordinator of the Northeast I-Corps Hub and manager of New Ventures in Rutgers University's Office for Research, Innovation Ventures, suggested that I dress up as a character myself to help make the interviewing process a bit warmer. I loved the idea. After rummaging through my closet and making a few Amazon orders, I became Garrett, the Half-Life Scientist.

As I walked up to the doors of the convention in my costume, I was nervous. Alone, in a new environment, I hoped my introverted self could muster up the courage to talk to people. That nervousness quickly turned into excitement once, to my surprise, people realized I was playing a character and asked to take pictures. I had never been to a convention like this before and found the people to be very accepting and genuine in their responses.

Now loosened up a bit, I started to approach people (and get approached) to ask questions for our customer discovery interviews. Armed with a clipboard, I went through questions about cosplayers' motives when it came to crafting their costumes. I interviewed 10 people and noticed trends pertaining to equipment costs, pricing and skills used to create their costumes.

The interviews led to some amazing insights from our end-user market. As our team looks toward the next steps, this information will be valuable. And, on a personal note, I feel much more confident with the customer discovery process—and I found a new love for cosplaying!

I’m very glad Dr. Nidhal Bouaynaya, associate dean for research & graduate studies and professor of electrical & computer engineering, and the I-Corps Northeast Hub faculty lead at Rowan, and Dr. Yatin Karpe, Rowan director of technology commercialization, invited us to represent Rowan in the I-Corps program. I encourage other students to talk with their faculty about their innovative ideas and get involved in the I-Corps training program as early as possible in the development process.

Thanks to this experience, I’ve expanded my skills as an entrepreneur, communicator and person. We are now deciding the next steps for our innovation and I’m very excited to see what future opportunities might result from my research. I’ll have to “get out of the building” again.

Garrett Williams is a graduate student in Rowan University’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and a VR research engineer in the Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence & Virtual Reality Center (MAVRC) at Rowan University. His team was among 12 Rowan University groups to participate in the I-Corps Hub’s regional program in 2022.

To learn more about Rowan University's Office of Technology Commercialization and the I-Corps program, email Dr. Yatin Karpe at [email protected]