money for the mission

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

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

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."

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Building Houston

 
 

Progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. Photo via Pexels

Houston is often touted as the most diverse city in the country, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we are creating inclusive and equitable opportunities that reflect the communities we serve.

With the current state of our country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social and political issues, employers across the city have searched for the right thing to say and do to help their employees and customers during this time when personal feelings and beliefs impact the workplace more now than ever. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing DEI across an organization, here are a few steps and considerations companies can take to ensure DEI is a priority moving forward.

Understand your audience

It's important to understand the perspectives of those you serve. Identifying your audience will help develop a DEI strategy that addresses concerns from multiple lenses. At Houston Methodist, we focus on our patients, employees and the communities we serve. Anyone building a DEI program needs to not only be cognizant of their audience, but also understand their needs in today's climate before spending time and resources to develop initiatives that will address those needs. Ultimately, this will help shape a more impactful approach to DEI within your organization.

Define success

When developing a DEI strategy, success may seem overwhelming or lofty. But, viewing success as progress will help your organization accomplish your goals in a way that employees and other stakeholders will benefit from in the long run.

Set strategic and measurable goals that clearly state what your organization wants to achieve through its DEI efforts. These goals need not be big at the onset; make sure they are attainable. Most importantly, it's critical to revisit your goals on a regular basis and identify gaps, and be willing to pivot, if needed, along the way so your organization eventually reaches its goals. At the hospital, we've developed a DEI dashboard for all departments in our hospitals to help us with setting those measurable goals. Once measurable goals are identified, a DEI scorecard will be used to identify progress for departments and our organization year over year. When people are able to easily track and see progress or gaps, it will make it easier to reach desired goals.

An organization can't be successful with any new type of program if everyone within the organization doesn't understand the importance of DEI in their department and within the company as a whole. Progress often starts with one person. Providing training to employees about the impact that DEI can have on their day-to-day work will help them champion that within the organization. For example, we've launched something at our hospital called "Together We Grow," a training program aimed at building a foundation for what DEI is by exploring everyday scenarios employees may encounter. This program first started with leadership and is now available to all employees within the hospital system.

Establish a timeline

Once measurable goals have been established, develop a timeline for accomplishing those goals. By selecting two or three goals that can be focused on over a particular time period (i.e., six months or one year), your organization can implement targeted programs and best practices to drive the success of DEI for a more long-term plan. It's ok if not every program is up and running within the year; creating milestones along the way will give your organization time to grow its DEI efforts and aspire to something meaningful for your employees, customers or community. The need for DEI doesn't go away, so it's important to continue efforts year-round with a growth mindset.

Evaluate how DEI holistically fits into your business

A DEI department, team or individual can't be successful if the work isn't aligned with the mission of the organization. It does not help if an organization has competing priorities, so DEI goals must be embedded in your organization's business goals.

Additionally, it's also important to have leadership set the tone for the rest of the organization to follow. Executive leaders that fully commit to the organization's DEI efforts and promote transparency, feedback and accountability for those programs will yield the most meaningful and lasting results.

Recognize your ‘why’

As a business, it's important to understand why DEI is important for your organization's success. You need to both be able to understand and articulate the business case for why diversity matters in your organization. Studies like this one from Boston Consulting Group continue to show a positive correlation between workforce diversity, innovation and overall company performance. The workforce is constantly changing and becoming more diverse, so making sure your organization is adapting to those different perspectives and taking into consideration why this work is vital to your employees, customers and your community will help turn DEI ideas into action.

For many health care organizations, health equity has shaped community engagement efforts and programs. Addressing health equity for racial, ethnic and social minorities in the Greater Houston area has been a priority for Houston Methodist for nearly 30 years, and this work has also informed and strengthened our DEI efforts in the communities we serve.

In conclusion, remember progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. For these initiatives to be effective, everyone within your organization must understand that each person plays a role in shaping the success of DEI efforts.

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Arianne Dowdell is vice president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist.

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