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

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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