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

Houston's fund of funds announces 2 new investments

money moves

The HX Venture Fund, which invests in out-of-town venture capital funds that have their eyes on Houston startups, has grown its portfolio.

The fund of funds now has a portfolio of 10 VCs from across the country, across industries, and across startup stages. According to a recent announcement, the HX Venture Fund has invested in New York-based Greycroft Venture Partners and Washington D.C.-based Revolution Ventures. The announcement also included Boston-based Material Impact and San Francisco-based venBio Global Strategic Fund, however those had been previously reported by InnovationMap.

"We are delighted to partner with the general partners of Greycroft Venture Partners, Material Impact, Revolution Ventures, and venBio Global Strategic Fund," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release. "With their proven expertise and exceptional track records, we are excited to integrate them into Houston networks and not only give them access to the Fund's innovative corporate limited partners, but also harness their knowledge to empower Houston entrepreneurs."

These four VC funds join six others that HXVF has invested in: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, and Boston-based .406 Ventures and OpenView Venture Partners.

"The receptivity of the HX Venture Fund model has exceeded all our expectations. Since early 2019, over 217 venture capital funds across the U.S. have expressed definitive interest in participating in our model," says Guillermo Borda, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release.

"It is especially noteworthy that collectively, the ten funds selected for HX Venture Fund's portfolio have $3.7 billion in committed capital in their funds to be invested with Houston on their investment radar," Borda adds. "This is at a time that provides compelling investment opportunities in the economic cycle. This is an exciting time for Houston entrepreneurs and our innovation ecosystem."

Guitar previously told InnovationMap that she's looking to curate a portfolio of VCs that is diverse in industries and stage. Additionally, before investing in a VC, the HX Venture Fund looks for an interest in investing into Houston startups. The hope is that, while not required, the HXVF portfolio funds invest in a Houston startup down the road. Earlier this year, Houston-based Liongard became the fund of funds' first example of that.

"The innovation and talent in Houston are best-in-class; we want to be investing there," says Tige Savage, managing partner at Revolution Ventures, in the release.

Rice University rises to top of Texas schools in prestigious U.S. News & World Report ranking

Head of class

Rice University continues to rise in national surveys. The latest: U.S. News & World Report's 2021 Best Colleges, released September 14, anoints Rice as the best university in Texas. The prestigious Houston school — dubbed the "Ivy League of the South" — ranks No. 16 among national universities, up one spot from last year.

This is in step with last year's U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges list, which also named Rice the best university in Texas.

The trusted report compared more than 1,400 undergraduate institutions across 17 measures of "academic quality" this year. Acknowledging the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools, the publication made several updates to its methodology, notes a release.

For 2021, U.S. News added two new metrics to measure student debt. It also increased the weight of the outcome category, which measures graduation rates, retention rates, and social mobility, and reduced the weights for standardized test scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving. And, for the very first time, the report ranks test-blind schools (those that don't require an SAT or ACT score for admission).

"The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote," said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer, in a release. "Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them."

Now, on to the rankings. Here's how Rice scores in the prestigious report:

  • No. 6 in Best Undergraduate Teaching
  • No. 8 in Best Value Schools
  • No. 18 in Most Innovative Schools (tie)
  • No. 224 in Top Performers on Social Mobility (tie)
  • No. 19 in Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs (tie)

For 2021, the University of Texas at Austin ranks No. 42 nationally, up a significant six spots from 2020. It's also the school's highest ranking on the report since 1985, touts a news release from the university. Among the country's public universities, UT Austin climbed four spots from the previous year, landing at No. 13.

As for Texas' other top schools, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University are tied at No. 66 nationwide, while Baylor University and Texas Christian University rank No. 76 and No. 80, respectively.

The lofty U.S. News & World Report ranking is just the latest in accolades for the Owls. Rice was recently named the seventh best college in the U.S. and the best college in Texas by Niche.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Trusted Houston bank identifies 4 coronavirus-related scams you need to know

On Your Side

As the COVID-19 pandemic has grown, so has the confidence of fraudsters who are hoping to scam people out of money. A large portion of our everyday lives have moved online and onto our phones, so it's more important than ever that you know what common tricks to watch out for.

Texas Citizens Bank continually looks out for its customers, creating tip sheets that help everyone become more educated about different types of fraud, from email scammers to debit and credit card crooks.

Here, they outline four common COVID-19 schemes that are making the rounds:

1. Fake offers of info, supplies, or payments
If it sounds official and mentions COVID-19 or the CARES Act, it must be legit, right? Wrong. These websites, mobile apps, and emails with links or attachments are entirely fake. Do not open, click, or download anything sent to you — instead, go directly to the official website on your own to find the info.

2. Someone posing as a doctor or ill family member
If you get a call claiming that someone you love is ill with coronavirus — and too ill to come to the phone, at that — and needs money for treatment, don't believe it. Hang up immediately and call that family member yourself.

3. Claims that your Social Security benefits are suspended
If you receive a letter or email, no matter how official-looking, that says your SSA benefits have been suspended due to COVID-19, know that it's not true. The SSA has not suspended or reduced any benefits, pandemic or not. Be sure to report this scam to the government here.

4. Offers of COVID-19 tests and vaccines
If someone is claiming they can send coronavirus tests directly to your house, they're lying. If they claim they can do the same with a vaccine, they're really lying. You can only obtain tests at hospitals, urgent care facilities, and your doctor's office, and we're still waiting on a reliable vaccine to be approved. Until then, be extra careful about who you believe.

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Texas Citizens Bank is an independently owned, FDIC-insured bank that specializes in Houston's small and medium-sized business owners. If you have questions about financial options during coronavirus or how to keep your money safe, contact a TCB banker today at 713-948-5700.