A Houston expert shares reasons to swap screen time for extended reality. Photo via Getty Images

What does your reality look like? Look around you. What do you see? It would be safe to say (almost guarantee) that you are looking at a screen right now, correct? We are consumers of information and use screens to access, view, and create information.

But why are we spending so much of our time looking at screens?

One poll stated that the average adult will spend 34 years of their lives looking at screens. It almost feels that screens (TV, laptop, or phone) have become so ubiquitous in everyday life that they have blended into our reality and are just ‘there’. Do you think the inventor of the TV, John Logie Baird, ever fully grasped how much the fabric of society would revolve around his invention? Time and time again, incredible disruptions have always come from breaking the ‘norm’ and given the vast level of integration of screens into our everyday reality, this ‘norm’ feels long overdue for innovation. This is where the world of augmented reality and spatial computing comes into play.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented shift to even more screen time and interactions using remote video communication platforms. It was also around this time that wireless virtual reality headsets were, for the first time ever, economically accessible to the consumer due to the large push of one multinational corporation. Fast forward to 2023, there are even more companies beginning to enter the market with new extended reality (XR) headsets (i.e. virtual, mixed, and augmented reality) that offer spatial computing – the ability for computers to blend into the physical worlds (amongst other things).

Some of our innovation engineering activities at the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation, and Education (MITIE) have focused on specific use cases of XR in surgical education and training. One of our projects, the MITIEverse, is a VR-based platform focused on creating the first-ever metaverse for medical innovation. It is a fully immersive VR environment that allows the user to view 3D-rendered patient anatomies whilst watching the actual patient procedure, even offering the ability to meet the surgeon who performed the operation. It also affords the ability to give a ‘Grand Rounds’ style presentation to an audience of 50 participants.

We have looked at using augmented reality to control robotic-assisted surgery platforms. In our proof-of-concept prototype, we successfully demonstrated the manipulation of guide wires and catheters using nothing more than an augmented reality headset, illustrating the possibility of surgeons performing surgery at a distance. Houston Methodist is dedicated to transforming healthcare using the latest innovative technology including XR. The question we now need to ask – is society ready and willing to replace screens with XR headsets?

To learn more about our XR initiatives and other Houston’s cross-industry innovation collaborations, attend Pumps & Pipes Annual Event 2023, Problem Xchange: Where Solutions Converge next month at The Ion.

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Stuart Corr is the director of Innovation Systems Engineering at Houston Methodist and executive director of Pumps & Pipes.

A mixed reality lab at the University of Houston is merging the physical and digital worlds. Photo via UH.edu

UH lab using mixed reality to optimize designs for the Moon and Mars

hi, tech

University of Houston researchers and students are bringing multiple realities together to help improve the design process for crewed space missions.

Helmed by Vittorio Netti, a researcher for UH and a space architect, the university has launched an XR Lab within the University of Houston architecture building. The lab allows researchers to combine mixed reality (MR), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) to "blend the physical and digital worlds" to give designers a better understanding of life in space, according to a release from UH.

In the lab researchers can wear MY space suits and goggles, take a VR space walk, or feel what it's like to float to the International Space Station with the help of XR and a crane.

The area in which the researchers conduct this work is known as the "cage" and was developed during a six-month research and design study of lunar surface architecture sponsored by Boeing, which aimed to learn more about the design of a lunar terrain vehicle and a small lunar habitat.

The work is part of UH's Sasakawa International Center of Space Architecture (SICSA), which is led by Olga Bannova, a research associate professor and director of the space architecture graduate program at UH.

She says work like this will drastically cut down research and development time when designing space structures.

“These technologies should be harnessed to mitigate the dependency on physical prototyping of assets and help optimize the design process, drastically reducing research-and-development time and providing a higher level of immersion,” Bannova said in a statement.

Today the research team is shifting its focus on designing for a Mars landing. In the future, they aim to demonstrate and test the system for habitats designed for both lunar and Martian surfaces. They are also working with Boeing to test designs in microgravity, or zero gravity, which exists inside the International Space Station.

Mixed Reality Raising the Bar for Space Architecture on the Moon and MarsStep into this 'Cage' at the University of Houston where physical and digital worlds are merged, allowing students to see and ...

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.