As Jason Hogan was finishing high school, he was torn whether his next step would be enrolling in a skilled trades program or making a run at being the first person in his family to earn a four-year degree. Both felt like good options. He loved working with his hands, was a member of his high school’s robotics team, and had a passion for fixing up old cars. If he had gone the skilled trades route, being a machinist was the likely path; for college, engineering seemed like a good fit. But then toward the end of his senior year, he got word that he’d landed a dream internship at NASA, where he’d spend the summer on a team using augmented reality to design new ways of servicing and refueling satellites in orbit. “Literally the day after graduation, I drove out to Washington, DC and started the following week at Goddard Space Flight Center,” Hogan says. “I think seeing all this work they were doing with these new technologies made me feel like I should probably just go for it and go to college.”
Hogan says UM-Dearborn was an easy choice. His family lived in Trenton, which allowed him to live at home, save money and have a short commute. And the university had a big range of engineering programs, with faculty who worked in computer engineering and robotics, two of his main passions at the time. He started off with a major in computer engineering, until, as happens to most students, he hit a subject that pushed him in a different direction. “For me, it was ECE 373. I was doing well enough, but I discovered the logic system design sections of the course were not something I enjoyed — at all,” he says with a smile. On the flip side, he never had to conjure enthusiasm for software engineering. He loved even the parts some find tedious, like documentation. So he made the switch, and found he had a particular passion for working with simulations and virtual reality. “Simulations have really become an essential design process, pretty much across industries,” Hogan explains. “It takes a lot of time and effort and money to design a physical thing. So if you can test and validate design features in a virtual environment, whether it’s in a simulation or in virtual reality, you can narrow down what works and what doesn’t. Then you’re like 20 steps ahead when it comes to creating a physical prototype.”
Even as a student, Hogan racked up all kinds of impressive, real-world experiences in this space. He completed three internships with NASA’s satellite team at Goddard. Then, to stretch his expertise, he found a co-op at the Department of Defense’s Detroit Arsenal, where he helps build simulations and models to aid in the design of ground vehicle systems. For his senior design project, his team even created a pilot virtual reality training environment for AAA, which aims to help students experience tricky driving situations before they get behind the wheel. Hogan expects applications of virtual reality for things like that could grow pretty quickly in the next few years, though he’s not quite as bullish about VR as you might expect. He says even though the hardware is advancing really fast, there are still some pretty big hurdles to making VR a fully immersive technology for gaming, social interactions or remote work. “I worked remotely for quite a few years with NASA, and would I want to strap on a VR headset for a meeting? I have to say, probably not,” Hogan says. “It just seems like an extra layer of complexity that probably isn’t necessary. But I think for design or demonstration of new technologies, the application for simulations and VR is pretty limitless.”
After graduation, Hogan plans to continue working with simulations at the Detroit Arsenal as a full-time employee. Not that he hasn’t been doing that already. Throughout his college career, he was usually working 40 hours a week and taking a full course load. And now that he’s just a few weeks away from having school off his plate, he’s pretty sure what he’ll be spending his extra time on: Finally finishing up work on the 1999 Camaro Z28 that he bought from a neighbor as a project car towards the end of high school. It’s been backburnered because of his work and school commitments, but he hopes to have the car ready for summer.
As far as the accomplishment of being the first in his family to earn a degree, Hogan seems low-key about it all. He’s proud of all the work that’s gone into it, as is his family, who’ve been among his biggest cheerleaders and show a genuine interest when he shows off his VR work — even if they don't understand all the details. His grandma seems particularly proud to have a college graduate in the family. “I actually called her when I found out graduation day was her birthday,” Hogan says. “As far as birthday gifts go, she seemed to think a college degree was a pretty good one.”
Story by Lou Blouin