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

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

The majority of McCarthy Building Companies' projects now include some sort of virtual or augmented reality technology. Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

Houston-area construction team utilizes technology to solve problems

Reality real estate

In recent years, the construction industry has begun embraced advancements in reality technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. While it has yet to reach critical mass in the industry, several contracting companies in the Houston region like McCarthy Building Companies are embracing the technology and blazing the trail for the construction industry.

Chris Patton, virtual design and construction manager for McCarthy's southern region, says many construction companies are consistently looking for ways to improve processes and procedures through reality technology.

"We really saw the potential and use cases for [VR] really early on, and it was really just a matter of the hardware and the software catching up to being something usable, consumable, deployable and cost effective on our projects," Patton says. "We were sitting there waiting for it and ready to go when it was."

Patton says these visualization tools have changed the way contractors display projects and have helped the partners on these projects — such as the design team, building owner and subcontractors — make better informed decisions earlier, more quickly and sometimes at a cheaper price point.

Before AR and VR technology entered the construction industry, companies either had to work with two-dimensional construction drawings or build very expensive, three-dimensional models, or mock ups, of construction sites that allowed clients to physically walk through a building space to interact with its features. Patton says the entire mock-up building process used to cost roughly $1 million — depending on the project size.

However, now this costly and time-consuming process is a thing of the past, as construction companies have found a way to utilize AR and VR technology to bring clients into a computer-generated environment. By putting on an AR or VR helmet, clients can immerse themselves and engage in a virtual environment that shows them all of the project's details and allows them to move about a virtual construction site the same way they would in a 3D model.

McCarthy's Houston division began utilizing reality technology in early 2015, with some of its other markets integrating the technology into their practices in late 2014. Since then, the company's use of AR and VR technology has grown exponentially, Patton says.

"When we first started evaluating and looking at virtual reality and augmented reality, [we] might have [used it on] one or two projects a year, and that was probably three years ago," Patton says. "Today, I'd say almost 60-75 percent of our projects—at some point in design or construction — utilize virtual reality or augmented reality or a combination of both."

Although McCarthy has been around since 1864, the general contracting company made its Texas debut in Dallas in 1981. Since then McCarthy expanded to create a Houston office in 2011, building a portfolio of renowned Houston clients such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas Children's Hospital as well as the recent completion of Houston ISD's Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

A notable project McCarthy's Houston Division took on was phase one the MFAH's master plan that included building The Glassell School of Art. The company also continues its work on phase two, which includes new developments for the MFAH for which McCarthy's virtual design and construction group created VR and AR models for the museum.

By using software like HoloLive and Fuzor for AR technology and Fuzor for VR technology, McCarthy's VDC group can visualize and combine digital creations with the real world, Patton says. With the growing number of projects utilizing the technology, Patton says McCarthy has invested greatly in personnel who will help grow the VDC group and continue to look for advancements in the construction industry.

"Some of the folks that we have those [VDC] positions in our company, some of them come from construction technology backgrounds and construction management backgrounds but others come from graphical design and have like a gaming background, some come from architectural backgrounds," Patton says. "[Reality technology] really kind of opened the door to a new opportunity for people to get engaged with the construction industry that we hadn't seen in the past."

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston company has sight set on AR solutions for industrial construction

Visual aid

When Lori-Lee Emshey got her first oil and gas construction job in Australia, she was carrying around a backpack full of papers.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She realized that it wasn't just that site or the company she was working for — this was a problem across the industry. So, she came up with a solution. Houston-based Future Sight AR is an augmented reality technology to more efficient work on industrial construction sites. Workers can use a smart device in the field, point it at a problem on site, log the issue, and see the steps needed to fix it.

Constructing a company
Emshey realized the potential for a company in January 2016. Since then, she's partnered up with her co-founders, Sofia Lazaro and Veena Somareddy, attended accelerators and conferences across the country, completed a proof of concept, until finally incorporated this year.

It was a well-paced start for the company because they got to prove time and time again there was a need for the company. Emshey says she never wanted to start a company just to start a company. They worked tirelessly at the beginning to ensure there was no one out there already doing this in the way they were doing it.

"I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs now become an entrepreneur because it's trendy and cool, and you want to put it in your Instagram bio," she says. "The three of us aren't like that. We did this because we had to. It wasn't going to get done another way, and we couldn't let this giant opportunity float on by."

Once they got a firm footing, one of the challenges they faced was communicating the company's market need and how the technology works to individuals outside the industry. For Emshey, this was particularly annoying.

"I came from a journalism background, and it's storytelling," she says. "I thought, 'I should be able to do this.'"

Something eventually just clicked, and Emshey stopped seeing confused faces in response to her presentation, and she started seeing more head nodding. However, another challenge she says she occasionally faces is how she looks.

"It is tough. I'm pitching this industrial construction startup, and I show up and I'm a 5-foot-5 blond woman," she says. "And some people don't care, and some people would prefer I looked a different way."

Foreseeing the company's future
Raising capital has been the latest focus for Future Sight AR. Aside from some grants and accelerator money, the company hasn't raised much. They've only just started meeting with investors and have a plan to launch a round of fundraising next year. Emshey also says they are looking to partner with three companies to conduct a few pilots early next year.

It's a great time in technology for Future Sight AR as more and more people are using AR and virtual reality. People use AR or VR often — in SnapChat filters or through Pokemon Go!

Emshey says she thinks VR will grow first in gaming, while AR will take off through enterprise.

"Unlike VR when you're completely immersed, in AR, you're seeing your actual environment and one of the places you have to do that is at work," Emshey says.

Whether it's through being acquired or growing the company on its own, Emshey says she wants Future Sight AR to evolve the industry as a whole.

"If we could permanently change the way that we build projects — oil and gas or another industry — and move it toward something more efficient, safer, more productive, and a better experience for workers, and accomplish that in a permanent way in a permanent way, then we're successful," she says. "We really built this for me — I was the worker out in the field trying to do things, and it was unnecessarily difficult."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.