VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

rodeo ready

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

3 things Houston entrepreneurs need to keep in mind to run a lean startup and reduce risk

Houston voices

There are few things riskier than launching a new business. You could run through a mine field and have a better chance at living than launching a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, the Harvard Business School even reported that three out of every four startups fail. Fortunately, a new process has come to light that was designed precisely to reduce the risk of starting a business. Lean startups champion trial and error over detailed planning. Customer feedback over "gut feeling." Cyclic processes of design over traditional development.

Some lean startup ideas have already gone mainstream because they've proven to be so effective. The principles of "minimum viable product" and "startup pivot" have become so engrained in modern business that even university business colleges have begun to teach them.

There are three key aspects of the lean methodology.

Educated guesses

Number one: Instead of spending a year conducting research and planning long-term, lean startup entrepreneurs go with the idea that all they have on the first day is a bunch of unproven ideas. Guesses, really. These entrepreneurs forego the traditional business plan and opt instead to give a Cliff Notes version of their big idea using a template dubbed "business model canvas." It's pretty much a diagram that shows how a business generates value not just for its consumers, but for itself.

Field work

Number two: Lean startups use an "out and about" method for testing their ideas. It's a kind of customer development. They go "out and about" and basically interview potential customers, interested people, and people on the fence about all aspects of their business. How's our pricing compared to others you've seen? Do you like our product features? What do you think of our strategy? Lean startup entrepreneurs amend their ideas based on the feedback they get from customers. That's the beauty of the lean method: it's based on your willingness to change directions based on new information. Sound familiar? Well, it should. I just described pivoting. A lean startup concept now adopted by major corporations.

Agility means stability not fragility

Number three: The software industry bore a method called agile development. Agile development cuts down on wasted time because it emphasizes the ability and willingness to change directions and adapt fast. That's what agile means. To move quickly. There's a company named RoofProtect Pro that created a chemical they thought would appeal to homeowners looking to reduce shingle rot. Turns out there wasn't really a demand for reducing shingle rot. It wasn't as big a deal as the RoofProtect Pro founders had hypothesized. However, after speaking with business owners they discovered there was a demand for something to help reduce rust and deterioration of signage. RoofProtect Pro went back to the drawing board to build and test a prototype for a chemical that reduces rust and staining on different material like concrete and metal. A year later RoofProtect Pro became SurfaceSustain and obtained over $2 million in venture capital funding.

Now that's agility!

It's no surprise, then, that in the high-stakes world of business, a methodology designed specifically to reduce risk would prove successful. Lean methods don't guarantee success, of course, but the principles it holds dear do help strip away a lot of wasted time and energy and have proven to be highly efficient. Now, if there's an antidote to riskiness, it's got to be efficiency. Efficiency tightens a business to bare bones so there is little room for big risks to hurt your venture.

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Nissan selects Houston to debut its on-demand subscription service

driving innovation

Volvo and Porsche are already doing it. Now, Nissan is getting in on the vehicle subscription service model with a new program called Nissan Switch. The service will debut in Houston.

"Nissan Switch is another way that Nissan is testing alternatives to the notion of traditional mobility, without long-term financial commitments for our customers," said Andrew Tavi, vice president, Legal, External Affairs and Business Development, Nissan North America, Inc. "This program provides more choice, convenience, and flexibility. For those who want a sedan during the week and an SUV or sports car, like the GTR, on the weekends, Nissan Switch provides the solution."

By signing up for the Nissan Switch program, subcribers can test models including the Nissan Leaf Plus, Titan, and GT-R. Nissan has recently redesigned many of the vehicles in their lineup including the Versa, Sentra, and Altima. The Frontier got a new engine for the 2020 model year and Murano, Maxima, and Titan have gotten significant updates in the past 18 months.

The program works similar to how on-demand media programming works. The price tier of the service subscribed to dictates the vehicles that can be switched out. There is no long-term contract or commitment.

For $699 per month, subscribers have access to the Altima sedan, Rogue and Pathfinder SUVs, and Frontier truck. Spending $899 per month allows for testing of the Leaf Plus electric vehicle, Maxima sedan, Murano and Armada SUVs, Titan truck, and 370Z sports car. Those wishing to test out the GT-R must elect for the $899 per month Premium service level and pay an additional $100 per day with seven-day consecutive maximum use.

Subscribers won't be driving just rental car spec base models. Each vehicle will be featured in a well-equipped trim level, some with Nissan's ProPilot Assist driver-assist technology that has features including lane centering, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.

After a $495 membership activation fee, the monthly subscription includes the vehicle (unlimited switches, as often as a new vehicle each day), delivery, cleaning, insurance, roadside assistance, and regular maintenance.

------

This article originally ran on AutomotiveMap.