VR verified

This growing Houston startup is making training programs safer and cheaper with VR applications

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

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.