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One to Watch: Jessie Hughes

12 December 2017 at 8:32 am
Wendy Williams
Jessie Hughes is the creative director of SignVR, an interactive virtual reality platform for learning sign language. She is One to Watch.

Wendy Williams | 12 December 2017 at 8:32 am


One to Watch: Jessie Hughes
12 December 2017 at 8:32 am

Jessie Hughes is the creative director of SignVR, an interactive virtual reality platform for learning sign language. She is One to Watch.

A total of 60 of Australia’s brightest young changemakers have been selected by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) to take part in the 2017 Young Social Pioneers (YSP) program. It is Australia’s first, and only, national youth entrepreneurship incubator designed exclusively for young people leading initiatives that respond to society’s most pressing challenges. In this mini-series Pro Bono News speaks to pioneers from each of the nine categories across the program about the differences they are hoping to make.

Hughes, a 23 year creative technologist from Brisbane, has been interested in sign language since she was at school.

After being selected for Oculus’ VR For Good program and being “catapulted into the VR space”, she realised the potential technology had to change the way Auslan is taught.

SignVR is a virtual reality education platform which allows students to learn Auslan through immersive first-person embodiment teaching methods unique to VR.

The aim is to excite students into learning Auslan, bridging communication barriers nationally, weakening stigmas towards people with disabilities, and unifying Australian students for an inclusive community.

Hughes, who has previously developed innovative works for the likes of Oculus, Adobe and many international not for profits to inspire and drive social change, hopes she will be able to introduce the resource to schools.

Here she talks to Pro Bono News about her passion for sign language, building a more beautiful Australia and becoming the next Zuckerberg.

Jessie Hughes headshotWhat motivated you to start SignVR?

So I grew up in the Torres Strait Islands and hearing impairments were really prevalent in these communities and so when we sang the national anthem at school we would also sign it. I am a very excitable, animated person as it is and so I just thought it was very cool that I was able to use my body to communicate and to connect and build friendships that way. And so this sign language thing has always been at the back of my head as something I have wanted to continue into my adulthood. Then last year, I ended up being selected for Oculus’ VR For Good program and that catapulted me into the VR space and I saw the potential that this amazing technology could have. So it was a bit of the coming together of the two, where I had this passion for sign language and this curiosity for the potential that this technology could have.

How does SignVR work?

So you have a VR headset and you put a hand tracker on it, called a leap motion, and a person is able to look down at their hands within the game and they are able to see their own body interact in this virtual space.

So the whole concept behind it is that sign language is a three dimensional, visual, spatial language and so the learning tools also needs to be three dimensional, visual and spatial. And so because virtual reality gives people the ability to interact in a three dimensional world that is how it kind of has a satisfying use to it I suppose, if you imagine for instance trying to learn sign language off YouTube, it is a bit hard because your brain has to look at what it is seeing and reverse it for your own bodies, whereas if you actually look down and see a pair of gloves in front of you move into the correct formation and then put your hand into those gloves and copy that action, it gives students the ability to actually, virtually, embody their avatars, so they are able to learn through doing.

Who are you hoping to help with this?

So the target market is actually for hearing students, I want to excite people into learning sign language. So the Australian government has just introduced Australian sign language, Auslan into the national curriculum in Australia, which is incredible, and so there is this amazing opportunity for schools to enrol to teach sign language but the national curriculum itself says that they don’t have any digital materials, any digital resources, and this is a big issue when we live in a digital world. It makes access to learning quite difficult and so my target audience eventually would hopefully be schools across Australia so primary, secondary and then TAFE Queensland and pretty much anyone who is curious to learn.

What is your aim?

I think the idea is to create an inclusive Australia. That’s pretty much the overall idea. Students all across Australia are learning a language at school, schools are embracing language and teaching and learning, so why are we not connecting with Australians who are deaf, we’ve got 30,000 deaf Australians in Australia, why are we not trying to connect with these people? So I think the aim of it is to build an Australia where communication barriers no longer exist and we have an inclusive community where everyone feels heard and wanted.

Last year, you were named one of Australia’s Future Changers by FYA for your commitment to exploring digital innovation for positive social impact and this year you have been chosen as a Young Social Pioneer. How does it feel to be recognised for the work you are doing?

It is really brilliant and humbling. I have spent a lot of time in the US, because I think when I was younger I thought that was where you had to be to do exciting and innovative things and now I just look back. And I have such an appreciation for Australia and Australia’s innovation and that I don’t have to be overseas to be doing incredible things. Australia truly does have so much potential and even [with] the other people on the program, the 59 other young Australians, I was blown away, I actually have goosebumps just thinking about how phenomenal I think everyone of them is. It is just so awe inspiring that we have this much, not only talent, but drive and compassion in Australia to help others and to be building a more beautiful Australia and I suppose, world, which is really special.

What did you get out of the YSP program?

I think a thing which has really blown me away with it was the networks that were built from all over Australia, because the program really brought 60 incredibly diverse Australians together in one room. And just having that ability to connect with communities and people who represent such unseen or not typically highlighted issues and for them to go in and say “this is what I represent and this is how we’re going to improve it”, I think it was definitely the networks that I built that was the best thing that I took from that program.

How do you find leading an organisation at a relatively young age?

I think it is exciting. They talk about, when you are a toddler and you are learning to walk and you stand up and fall, but then you stand up again and fall again, and then you stand up and learn again and eventually you learn to walk. And I think all of us, being young entrepreneurs, are at that stage where you fall down a bit and then you come back up and you fall down and you come back up and through that process of learning and experimenting, you are just improving every step of the way.

And so I think to see so many of the people in the program already taking those first steps and crawling and standing and running forward, I think it is going to be very exciting what we see in the next year, even two years, what comes out from the people in this program, I think it is just  going to be crazy and really brilliant.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I used to say that I wanted to be Zuckerberg, that’s what I wanted. But now I want to be, I don’t know, Australia’s Zuckerberg instead. What I’m about to do now is start the QUT Bluebox accelerator program and so that is a three month accelerator program to help start-ups get off the ground, and so that’s what I’m doing in the next three months so I can hopefully get my social enterprise up and running.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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