money for the mission
Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization
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."