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.

"We are no longer limited by the laws of physics." Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How extended reality and the metaverse can disrupt the business world

guest column

The year is 2012. It’s your first day of a new job. You wake up extra early to get ready and drive to the office – which takes you another half hour with Houston traffic. Once you arrive, you wait in the lobby for someone to help you with badging, sit in the same room for hours while numerous facilitators click through slides, and find out your laptop won’t be available for another week or two. Not the warmest welcome or greatest impression, right?

Fast-forward to year 2022. It’s a week before you’re set to start a new job. You receive an exciting package in the mail and unbox your new joiner start kit, complete with a virtual reality headset and other company swag. You onboard completely in the metaverse, meeting and collaborating with teammates from around the world – all from the comfort of… wherever.

Especially in a time where being physically together may not be an option, extended reality has made people feel closer than ever before.

To level set, XR is the umbrella term encompassing any immersive technology that blends digital content with the real world. It covers the full spectrum of experiences ranging from augmented reality, where digital content is superimposed and simple instructions appear directly on your phone or smart glasses, to an entirely virtual world where people, places and things co-exist and interact with one another in new, computer-generated environments – also known as the metaverse.

Although XR has been around for decades, the lack of devices and standard software platforms made implementation a challenge. Now that both are widely available and affordable, the doors for innovation have been thrown wide open.

There’s been plenty of key drivers that led to XR being a hot topic right now, including:

  • The need for digitization of our lives, accelerated by the global pandemic.
  • The recent global focus on sustainability and responsible business.
  • The cross-industry commitment to customer journey, optimized employee performance, and creating new content and services.
  • The convergence of powerful advancements in technology, such as 5G, cloud, AI and blockchain.
  • The recent investment in the metaverse by companies like Microsoft and Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

Now is the time for XR.

Every industry can benefit from using immersive technology to enhance both the enterprise and consumer experience, from retail, finance and automotive to tourism, entertainment, and real estate. XR has a proven track record of increasing revenue, collaboration, and productivity and decreasing costs, safety incidents, and our carbon footprint.

By 2027 the VR gaming market size alone is projected to reach $92.31 billion, and we’re now starting to really blur the lines between gaming and training. Compared to in-person training, VR results in a 96 percent reduction in training time, 76 percent increase in learning effectiveness, 70 percent increase in productivity, and 30 to 70 percent decrease in costs.

Engineers can leverage digital twins of manufacturing facilities for product development, performance improvement and predictive maintenance.

Science classes can teleport to outer space and use haptics to feel the ice and rock that make up the rings of Saturn.

Surgeons and patients can take a three-dimensional tour of the brain before surgery, leading to better preparation, decreased operative time and reduced risk of complications.

Those suffering from dementia can recover certain motor skills or tap into old memories to trigger positive mental stimulation, aiding in both assessment and rehabilitation.

As the new fabric of life is unfolding, the metaverse is showing promise beyond its gaming roots to offer people and brands a new place to interact, create, consume and earn.

Despite spending an average of $1,300 per employee annually on training, research proves that learners forget 70 percent of the content within 24 hours and nearly 90 percent in a month. By extending reality, we engage learners with interactive, hands-on, experiences that transform one-way training into deeper learning with heightened retention.

When high-fidelity design is mixed with low latency technology enablers, XR environments intuitively engage our senses, capturing the experience as an actual memory in our brain versus something we simply read or watched.

The future is immersive technology – not only for how we work and learn but also how we exercise and have fun. XR will touch all aspects of our lives. That’s why at Accenture, we have launched a grand experiment to make enterprise virtual reality a… well, a reality. We’re currently amid the world’s largest VR deployment in history. We are deploying over 60,000 VR headsets to our people to experiment, innovate, and learn with VR.

We as a company have over 650,000 employees and have over 200,000 new joiners annually. About one third of those people joined the company during the pandemic – over 50,000 this past quarter alone. That means a good portion of our people have never set foot in our offices, let alone met any of their teammates in person.

Through the power of VR, we now have a consistent and scalable new joiner experience that inspires our people, aligns with our purpose, and equips them to learn, live and love Accenture from day one. VR gives us the opportunity to make meaningful connections and share a sense of belonging. Our people can now head to the “Nth Floor” to meet new people from all over the world and have those natural water cooler moments – even while working remotely.

In a time where live events are facing a standstill, platforms like AltspaceVR are hosting live events for everything from Burning Man and Diplo concerts to church and AA meetings. The spatial recognition offered by VR makes it a great medium to have one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many interactions.

Accessibility is key too. That’s why many applications offer experiences in both VR headset and 2D on PCs.

We are no longer limited by the laws of physics.

Extended reality creates a powerful sense of presence that we as a collective society have been missing these past two years. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that human connection is key to mental wellness and innovation.

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Krista L. Taylor is the immersive learning lead at Accenture.

"The Infinite" lands in Houston for the first U.S. show. Image courtesy of Infinity Productions

High-tech virtual reality experience blasts into the Space City

to infinity and beyond

From the earliest days of our circling the planet in a tiny NASA capsule — to Elon Musk's SpaceX current commercial journeys — Houston and space travel will be forever and inexorably linked.

Fitting, then, that an unprecedented new immersive experience centered on the International Space Station (ISS) is making its U.S. debut here in Space City. "The Infinite"— a multi-sensory, interactive virtual reality experience — will zoom into Sawyer Yards on December 20 for a special, and limited, run, organizers announced.

This sprawling, 12,500-square-foot exhibition shuttles viewers into a never-before-seen perspective of life on the ISS, bringing an almost-too-real feeling of being in outer space.

Tickets are on sale now for a soft open preview period beginning on December 20; admission is $29. Tickets then jump to $36 for the full-scale limited engagement beginning on January 13, 2022.

Boasting footage shot over a period of nearly three years that created some 200 hours of high-end virtual reality scenes, the four-part immersive series documents the life of eight international astronauts inside — and outside — the International Space Station. (The outside experience promises to be an especially wild ride.) The show comes to Houston off a wildly popular Canadian run in Montreal.

Specific to this Houston launch, the show boasts new footage from the first-ever cinematic spacewalk captured in 3D — 360-degree virtual reality shot outside the International Space Station on September 12, 2021 — while offering visitors a self-directed experience aboard the ISS itself, according to a press release.

Throughout the 60-minute journey, per press materials, viewers will engage with physical objects, virtual reality, multimedia art, soundscapes, light design, and even the subtle scents of a forest, meant to evoke memories of stargazing while lying on the grass.

"The Infinite" is the brainchild of Montreal-based Infinity Experiences, a joint venture of PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios, and is an extension of the recent Primetime Emmy Award-winning immersive series, "Space Explorers: The ISS Experience," the largest production ever filmed in space, produced by Felix & Paul Studios in association with Time Studios.

That this show will run next year is also especially timely for Houston's space saga. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous moon-shot speech given at Rice University on September 12, 1962. That speech, with its now-legendary "we choose to go to the moon" line, galvanized the nation and propelled the U.S. into a space race that found Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon only seven years later.

"The exploration of space and the unknown is an endless source of fascination to us," said Félix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios and creative director of The Infinite, in a statement.

"We are thrilled to bring The Infinite to Houston — the global epicenter of human space exploration — to share this massive, fully immersive exhibition, and we look forward to virtually transporting thousands of people off the Earth to enjoy the joy and wonder of space with audiences in the U.S. This unprecedented project is made possible thanks to our partners at NASA, the ISS National Lab, international space agencies and the incredible power of virtual reality."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Virtual reality is a buzzword, but used correctly it can also be a pivotal business tool for external and internal uses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Is virtual reality just trendy tech or a viable business solution?

guest column

Due to the pandemic, various technologies have accelerated into the spotlight – one of which being virtual reality. As many begin to decipher the unique ways to connect with audiences, the question becomes: is virtual reality just a shiny toy to have, or is it a practical business opportunity?

The VR experience

Virtual Reality (VR), which most confuse with augmented reality (AR), is a digital, immersive environment a user can place themselves into as opposed to a digital reality that is based on a real-world environment. VR requires a wearable headset to immerse the user in a 3-D environment.

True VR is built digitally and to room scale. The environments people are placed in are constructed entirely in 3-D and are then brought into a program application. Once everything is entered into the system, the technology begins "talking to" the headset and sensors. These devices track where users are in relation to the environment – and allow them to interact with their digital surroundings. This VR programming "tells" the headset what it needs to show in order to trick the eyes and brain into believing a user is "there".

The role VR plays

Often times, my company, VISION Production Group, receives requests and interest from businesses inquiring about a VR project. These conversations involve a deeper dive into understanding the purpose behind the want for the technology, the target audience and the intended deployment strategy. People commonly mistake VR for other technologies or simply are interested in it for its curb appeal.

Yes, virtual reality is a buzzword, but used correctly it can also be a pivotal business tool for external and internal uses.

External facing VR not only allows companies to take advantage of VR's charm, but also creates a one of kind experience for customers. VISION was tasked by an offshore oil and gas company to create a VR experience that lives at the bottom of the sea floor. This would allow the oil and gas company's customer to see a part of the process that would otherwise be extremely difficult to facilitate. The experience took users into a guided submarine tour where they were accompanied by others using the headsets. The environment not only showcased a faraway destination but also incorporated important details such as textures of the submarine that allows it to feel like they are truly there.

In addition to the promising use of VR externally, VR can also be used as training tools internally. Many scenario-based onboarding tasks can be difficult to facilitate such as: active shooter trainings, offshore emergency drills, and other safety simulations. Many corporate companies are turning to VR to allow for safe, cost effective and transportable safety trainings. This is an excellent application that allows companies to create situations that would otherwise be difficult to arrange.

Understanding VR's value proposition

VR is different than most technologies. It's not something that can be shared on the web or can be downloaded on an app – it requires deployment and gear. That said, VR is a commonly misunderstood tactic that without the proper strategic thinking can be a limited investment. However, those who are able to take advantage of the distinctive characteristics of VR and apply them correctly are in an ideal position to succeed. Not only can VR create a special experience it can also be a fiscally savvy option for those not looking to take submarine trips every day to the bottom of the sea or facilitate a dangerous training scenario.

The future of VR

As mentioned, most technology has accelerated due to the pandemic, but VR has actually been limited due to the idea of sharing a headset and gathering people together for an experience. Although, the pandemic has suppressed VR's uses, the technology advancements continue to grow rapidly.

Those who can comprehend VR for what it is and see it as more than just a buzzword will have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a new reality.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

money for the mission

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope."

Known as the Oculometric Cognition Testing and Analysis in Virtual Environments (OCTAVE) approach, Z3VR's program is modeled after a system at the Visuomotor Control Lab at NASA Ames in California. In the lab, scientists can use high-frequency eye trackers to monitor 21 physiological properties that can point to early signs of mental and physical conditions. The goal is to shrink down the same trackers to fit not just on the spacecraft, but inside a VR headset.

Other VR companies have been able to implement eye tracking into their platforms for some time now — but not at this level of preciseness. Partnering engineers on the project will have to increase the image quality four fold and capture about 10 times the number of images per second in order to detect the minute eye movements Ruben and team are searching for.

Still, Ruben thinks VR is the ideal fit for this process. "When you are in a VR application, the developers have what is effectively total control of your entire sensory experience," he says. "If I am monitoring various aspects of your physiology while you're in a VR experience, I know that the way your body is reacting is directly a result of our VR experience."

Too, the team and Z3VR envisions that through their platform this type of cognitive tracking can be a passive process. While astronauts are using the devices to exercise or learn how to fix a problem on board, their program will be tracking their eye movement in the background — much like how your smart watch would track your heart rate — alerting the command center only when a problem arises.

For Ruben, this is their giant leap for mankind moment and how they can use their tool to make an impact for earth-bound individuals.

"We imagine a world where just by interacting with a game through one of these devices we are able to flag these neurological issues well before they are issues," he says.

Though their technology likely won't be put to use in space until the 2030s, the group is already in talks with academic institutions about partnering on their program for new clinical uses and is working with the FDA to bring in regulatory oversight, Ruben says.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US healthcare system."

Oculus Go is enabling users to their canceled travels with a virtual getaway. Image courtesy of Oculus Go

Virtual reality app developed in Houston allows users to escape to far away lands

there's an app for that

While rising coronavirus cases in the area have canceled so many summer vacations, not all hope of sightseeing this summer is lost. A Houston entrepreneur has created a virtual alternative.

Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere."

The project began a year ago and was completed in March — right at the start of stay-at-home orders that paralyzed everyday life before launching this month. The company's new array of Occulus Go experiences aims at easing the mind and spirits, but with the rise of coronavirus 'Escape' can also serve to calm frayed nerves.

The app is based on popular view master toys and stereoscopes from the 1800s that are reminiscent of exploration tools used over the years. There are two different experiences to choose from one named 'Escape: Roma' for its old-world inspired poolside lounge and another named 'Escape: Utopia', which brings outer space to life in front of an Oculus user's eyes.

"The app has already gotten a lot of traction in places where people are not able to go out in the world," says Armstrong. "It's so easy just to pop on your Oculus headset, open the app, and zone out or relax for a few minutes."

The local industrial design startup was founded in 2018, and it has already released a few music packs with tracks ranging from horror titles to 8-bit retro remakes for Unreal Engine projects, an advanced real-time 3D creation tool that serves as a game engine for creators to deliver interactive experiences. The music packs are a collection of audio assets made in collaboration with Epic Games.

"Our company is focused on creating engaging gamified experiences," says Armstrong. "The inspiration for our packs and now our new app came from my interest in treating PTSD and how virtual reality can help ease the symptoms of anxiety in some cases."

Armstrong, a Houston native, describes himself as a "maker of stuff," with previous experience in music production and a passion for design. According to him, his hometown is the best place to be.

"Houston really has everything you need, when it comes to new innovations and technology," says Armstrong. "I would prefer to have my business rooted in Houston rather than moving to a design startup hotspot."

Armstrong Innovations hopes to grow into new areas of the industrial design world, especially in military-driven technologies and other video game opportunities in the next year or so. Product keys for 'Escape' can be purchased online now, available worldwide for maximum relaxation.


Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.