Category Archives: Startup

Startup Positron Hopes to Change Way We Watch VR

The first Virtual Reality chair designed for communal theater settings is here.

Created by Los Angeles based startup Positron, the Voyager cinematic VR chair is a full-motion chair featuring a computer-controlled base that tilts and spins the chair in concert with what’s happening on screen.

At first glance, Voyager looks like a modern pod chair that you might find in any high-end furniture show room, requires little set up – and that’s exactly the point.

“You start with something familiar [the chair],” explains Positron CEO Jeffrey Travis, a software engineer with a film degree.

The egg-shaped chair dubbed “Voyager” is designed for seated VR (without the hassles of setting up bulky goggles). The white pod, red velvet lined chair uses audio embedded in the chair for an immersive VR experience. The chair’s relatively quiet motors deliver motorized robotic rotation and reclining.

With Voyager, CEO Travis says the goal is to provide a cinematic experience, and a familiar gateway to VR.

A key feature is Voyager’s ability to provide 360 degrees of unlimited yaw motion and 35 degrees of pitch motion.

“One of the things that we’re addressing is the motion sickness,” explains Travis. “Twenty percent of people get motion sickness watching VR. This has to do with the brain seeing visual images that indicate that you’re moving, but you’re not.”

“We’ve found by adding a little bit of movement, the motion sickness is two percent.”

Voyager also features scent technology, specialized seating for motion-synchronized theatres, and will work with either the Samsung Odyssey ant Oculus Rift headsets.

Tom Cruise in Zero-G
In January 2017 Voyager premiered at the Sundance film festival held in Park City, Utah. Positron’s team of engineers created a virtual cinema theatre, consisting of twenty motion synchronized Voyager chairs.

Viewers were immersed in a twenty-minute VR experience narrated by Tom Cruise that took them behind the scenes of Universal Studio’s blockbuster film The Mummy.

During the VR experience, Tom Cruise and co-star Annabelle Wallis are sent tumbling around in “zero gravity” inside an air freighter as it drops out of the sky during a crash. As the plane goes through zero gravity, the chair tilts up and down to give audience members the feeling of floating in Zero-G.

Will VR Create Social Isolation?
Looking ahead to the future of VR, Travis acknowledges the concern that VR will be just one more screen addiction in our future.

“Today people grapple with screen addiction and feeling tethered to their smartphones. And I think about that,” he says.

But at a Positron event held at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, he and his team observed another side to VR. Attendees were taking their headsets off, gathering at the bar, and wanting to talk about their VR experience afterwards.

“One of the things we found was that having the chairs synchronized,” says Travis “and having the experience start at the same time creates community and a social experience.”

VR and Treating PTSD
Asked about potential applications of VR in mental health, he has high hopes for the future.

“One of the anticipated uses of this is treating PTSD, and anxiety disorders and I think having biometrics and that real-time feedback will be exciting,” explains Travis, who says that Positron is looking into integrate biometrics into the chairs’s built-in PC. “I’m excited to see what happens with VR in mental health.”

In regards to opportunities for VR applications beyond movies, Stanford University Professor and VR expert Jeremy Bailenson seems to agree.

In his book Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How it Works, and What It Can Do Professor Bailenson says studies in the lab have shown that VR is an experience that feels real to the brain. Because it feels so immersive, early studies indicate that VR can improve our ability to recover from trauma, to communicate, and to learn.

Explaining how VR is fundamentally different Bailenson says,“Virtual Reality is not a media experience, it’s an actual experience.”

According to Bailenson Hollywood’s excitement over VR aside, the “killer app” or best uses of VR may not be those that leap to mind immediately. Training athletes, healing mental health issues, and even using VR to create empathy for societal issues like climate change, are some of the VR studies his lab is diving into.

Positron’s CEO admits that perhaps the “holy grail” of VR content that inspires has yet to be created. But he sees VR as a new technology that has evolved since the 1990s when bulky VR headsets and graphics with very low polygon count were the norm.

“When you put the headsets on [in the next two to three years] you may not be able to tell the difference between Virtual Reality and reality,” according to Travis.

“It is still the dawn and in four or five years, this will be a huge industry for telling VR stories that matter.”

Positron closed a $1.4 Million seed funding deal in January 2018, provided by Lazar Ventures. The company says that Voyager VR chairs will be coming to cinemas, VR centers, hotels, museums and airports later this year.

Caltech Expert Explains What’s Next in Robots

In the blockbuster sci-fi movie Elysium the main character Max (Matt Damon) is fitted with an exoskeleton, a sort of body armor that augments his strength.

“Things like the Elysium exoskeleton is closer than we think,” says Aaron D. Ames, PhD and Bren Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California just outside Los Angeles.

“Robotic assistive devices that help you walk,” according to Dr. Ames who is Caltech University’s resident robot authority, ”or give you a workout, or help do your job better might be something in the future.”

Dr. Ames is part of the team at Caltech’s new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST). Launched in October, 2017 CAST will unite over a dozen engineers and scientists from many disciplines to advance research on robotics, drones, driverless cars, and machine learning.

Ames also heads up the Advanced Mechanical Bipedal Experimental Robotics (AMBER) Lab at Caltech, in the Department of Computing and Mathematical Sciences. He has spent twenty years designing algorithms and efficiency equations, to teach robots to generate their own walking gait.

Ames specializes in research on humanoid robots, robots that walk like a human on two legs using bipedal locomotion. He developed DURUS, an ultra-efficient walking humanoid robot. The SRI DURUS prototype walks on a treadmill using a heel-toe strike much like a human, and even wears Addidas sneakers. Currently AMBER lab works with the custom built robot AMBER 3M and Cassie (built by agilityrobotics).

Professor Ames has a list of degrees including a PhD in electrical engineering and computer sciences from UC Berkeley, and post doc awards to take up a lengthy paragraph on his Caltech bio page.

But in person he doesn’t exactly fit the mold of shy mathematician. He speaks to his students in a booming voice that hardly needs a microphone to project from the stage. And standing at over six feet, with dark brown hair and beard, and buffed out bi-ceps he could pass for someone you might run into at the gym.

He is a theoretical mathematician who lectures on the Lyapunov function and unified control framework mathematical computations. But Ames is also a science fiction fan at heart. So speaking to a small group of students and alumni at Caltech recently, he referenced popular sci-fi movies to frame what the future might hold.

“The idea behind iRobot starring Will Smith, that we’ll all be living with assistive robots that take out the garbage or have feelings,” says Ames, “is not something I see near term.”

Instead according to Ames, the most immediate changes that we can expect to see from robots and artificial intelligence in the next twenty years will be appear in the realm of: how we drive, how we work, and even how we recover from injury.

Robots are getting more complex and artificial intelligence is also getting more complex. So while Ames’s research focuses on the robot platform, he says the real potential lies in understanding the connecting point between robots and AI.

The industry research seems to agree. Leading research firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is conservatively projecting that the robotics industry will reach $87 billion by 2025.

Sci-fi movie Minority Report according to Ames, is a closer depiction by Hollywood of reality. The film depicts Washington D.C as the city of the future that includes autonomous self-driving vehicles whizzing around streets. In the film’s jaw-dropping chase scene, Tom Cruise’s self-driving vehicle is constantly negotiated pathway to its target destination, while avoiding traffic jams.

This swarm technology and collision control depicted in Minority Report, is in fact something that CalTech’s new CAST center will be working on for years to come.

“In terms of the Google car,” he says “We’re not quite there yet.”

According to Ames for the immediate future there is still much work to do in building algorithms, designing efficient hardware, and integrating AI into existing robots and drones.

Today at Caltech’s new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), Professor Ames will be working with artificial intelligence and machine learning experts on this problem.

To illustrate the current obstacles facing autonomous robots and cars, he cues up a YouTube video clip of Boston Dynamics’s Atlas robot striding through the snow. The jaw-dropping clip shows a 6” tall 320 1b humanoid robot name Atlas walking in the snow using its upper limbs to negotiate the rough outdoor terrain.

“What the YouTube clip didn’t show,” says Ames, “was the person in the background using a joystick to drive the robot.”

Ames points to the video to a joystick operator casting his or her shadow in the snow, causing a few chuckles in the audience.

“Is that robot learning?”

Ames reminds his students that the Atlas robot is being fed commands (from the joystick operator), and is following functions of dynamics and control. The robot certainly looks cool, but is not a display of artificial intelligence, machine learning, or autonomy on a robot platform.

The hope is that CAST will create an environment that makes needed interdisciplinary collaboration possible – to bring together the state-of-the-art in robots and machine learning and Artificial Intelligence.

The new CAST center will focus on the study of mechanical engineering, AI and machine learning that could be applied to different platforms – exoskeletons, robots, or self-driving cars.

Ames says that is has been rare for systems designers like himself to interact with AI designers.

Could the next generation humanoid robot developed at CAST, one day hold the key to self-driving cars?

That just might be the million-dollar question.

“The Internet of Things” in 2027

Robots, machine learning, and sensors are three of the big changes that are driving the new Internet of Things (IoT).

That’s according to Microsoft Chief Economist Preston McAfee, who spoke at the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum “Startups in 2027 and Beyond” on April 22, 2017 in Pasadena, CA.

The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t all about robots taking over all of our jobs, says McAfee. But we had better adjust to some new ways of thinking about today’s workforce.

For startups in 2027 and beyond, this economist sees an emphasis on human productivity, nimble teams, and new metrics to measure worker productivity.

“We are already at the stage where water usage is being cut in half by using sensors in the field to better understand when crops need to be watered,” McAfee told the audience of CalTech computer science students and entrepreneurs.

“A machine can examine an X-Ray better than a human Doctor,” according to the latest deep learning studies says McAfee. And when you use online support, often a chat bot is being deployed to answer your questions.

The digital transformation is about mobility, IoT, cloud and 3D printing, which are just some of the 23 technologies McAfee sees on the horizon.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Ph.D at USC Viterbi School of Engineering says he also sees cheap sensors, cheap data storage, wireless, and machine automation as the technologies behind the new digital economy.

Krishnamachari sees the day when warehouses will be operated by robots that can do more than track inventory in their line of sight. Soon robots will be able to talk to each other to coordinate inventory (that isn’t even tagged) across the entire factory floor.

“The robot of the future might be able to see inventory through a wall.”

What does this mean for today’s middle class worker? McAfee says just-in-time education and getting the right skills to the right people will be important to work success.

“It’s not just about a ‘Rise of the Robot [Overlords]’ future,” he told the audience. “Our traditional view of go to college for four years and then your done in education is out of date.”

It will take a different view of getting new skills such as using cloud computing or mobile apps, or artificial intelligence to the right people at the right time.

For example, sales teams are starting to use AI to get actionable data from large customer databases. If AI is used to predict customer needs, the hope is this data could help make a salesperson better at his or her job.

McAfee sees the questions not so much as will robots take jobs? But more about how will robots and AI, and workers be complements?

One thing is clear. To successfully embrace all of this new AI and IoT businesses will need to focus on communication, creativity, and invention.

“There are the things that only humans bring ,” explains McAfee, “like care and empathy.”

Get Ready for the Helicopter size Drone

“This drone is not delivering books,” said Janina Frankel-Yoeli, VP, Marketing, Urban Aeronautics who spoke at the recent LA Drone Summit held on March 20, 2017 in downtown Los Angeles.

A video demo of the prototype drone developed by Israeli tech firm Urban Aeronautics was one of the evening’s highlights.

Looking more like a flying car than a drone, Frankel-Yoeli says The Cormorant drone can carry a bigger payload then a helicopter (around half a ton), travels at a whopping 115 miles an hour, and can get into tight canyons for tough missions. Someday this car-size drone could be used to do a medical evacuation on the battlefield, a rescue in tight canyon where a helicopter can’t fit, and because it’s unmanned – could more safely control a fire or chemical blast.

“It goes where a helicopter can’t because it has no rotors,” explained Frankel-Yoeli.

Frankel-Yoeli also acknowledged that nothing of this size that is remotely piloted has been FAA approved. Getting FAA approval is one of several hurdles to clear before this autonomous vehicle hits the market in 2020.

Today Hollywood movies depict drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) as small missile carrying robots used for aerial attacks. In the Bourne Legacy Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent of a CIA program living in the woods is targeted by a drone strike. Cross outsmarts the drone strike by removing the radio-frequency identification implanted in his thigh and force-feeding it to a wolf who is then blown up by a missile.

But the panelists assembled at LA’s Drone Summit say Hollywood’s version of smaller size drones or autonomous swarm drones in military applications, is just one possible scenario.

Moderator Van Espahbodi, Founder of Starburst Accelerator led the evening’s talk focusing on what it will take for drone technology to take off. Panelists included Daniel Burton, Founder of DroneBase, Janina Frankel-Yoeli, VP Marketing Urban Aeronautics, William Goodwin, Head of Legal for Airmap, and Adrienne Lindren, Business Development Manager of the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In regards to autonomous flying, Daniel Burton an FAA Certified pilot and founder of DroneBase, an online platform for booking commercial drone services sees autonomy as years away still. He himself says that DroneBase isn’t necessarily working towards creating an autonomous fleet for commercial drone use.

“We see the human pilot as part of the equation,” said Burton, describing the commercial test flights that DroneBase is currently running.

Many challenges face drone technology being adopted. Noise being one of the biggest complaints about drones, was cited by Adrienne Lindren of the LA Mayor’s Office. Drones fly in airspace below 400 feet and consumers are voicing concern about the noise (caused by propellers) and also the invasion of privacy.

“Do people want a drone with a camera mounted on it flying outside their window?”, Lindren said. She cited this as just one of the questions she is getting from citizens. The Los Angeles Mayor’s office in all this debate (as with its stance toward autonomous cars) she says is trying to be less of a hindrance and promote innovation for business.

Business in Los Angeles of course means filming movies. It’s no secret that Hollywood is interested in using Drones to film movies cheaply, more safely, and to capture better aerial shots. But due to regulations some productions such as action film The Expendables for now at least, are doing their drone filming in Bulgaria where strict FAA regulations don’t apply.

Airmap, an early stage startup in Santa Monica, hopes to make drones a part of everyday lie by building the airspace services platform to let drone sfly safely. At a minimum this means building software that allows drones to detect a plane flying space and prevent crashes into larger commercial airplanes, says AirMap’s William Goodwin.

How will drones impact our lives in the next ten years?

The trends, innovations and how to predict how UAVs are going to change the way we live seems hard to say at this point.

From saving costs of search and rescue missions, delivering medical supplies, or decontaminating a chemical explosion drones have some good applications beyond warfare. But drones also face many challenges like FAA regulations, consumer privacy and safety concerns, and how to prevent an autonomous swarm fleet from falling into enemy hands – until the robotic technology takes off.

One thing the panel did make clear is that drones and new innovative prototype drones, are here today.

And more importantly, the basic software services, innovators behind design breakthroughs, and pilots to man them don’t seem to be going anywhere.


Serving Your Community, There’s an App for That: A Look at Five Forward-Thinking LA Startups

Think that the Internet is about sharing that epic GoPro surfing video of you in Costa Rica, buying designer shoes, or watching Justin Beiber YouTube videos? Think again.

There’s a new kind of entrepreneur on the scene. Startups are exploring how to use cutting-edge technology for social impact.

Today mobile apps are helping case workers work with refugee children in Africa, startups are building affordable solar powered houses in India, and a slick online campaign raised enough money to rescue 600 North Korean refugees from human trafficking. At “Beyond Yourself: Technology for Social Impact” an event hosted by Cross-Campus co-location workspace in Santa Monica on March 23, 2017 panelists discussed several different ways to use technology for good.

Here’s how five Southern California startups are making an impact:

Rise: Solving the world’s refugee crisis with a paradigm shift, using Cloud Computing App
Max Lansing from Rise says there are 65 million refugees worldwide. The problem is that the humanitarian coordination system designed to meet refugee needs is filled with outdated and inefficient tools. It takes two years on average for a refugee child to receive minimum core protective services.

Startup Rise is deploying a mobile technology platform to speed the delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid to children.

“Today we are working with a Berlin social services agency, to help them identify faster how many refugee youth are living and Berlin and who needs help,” explains Lansing the company’s lead engineer. “Social workers are spending too much time filling out paper reports, now they can use a cloud database to launch a well-organized intervention”.

Starbucks with Wi-Fi hot spots are not easy to come by in East Africa. Rise’s tools are designed to work in Internet and infrastructure poor settings, relying on portable Wi-Fi, solar device charging, and technologies common in developing countries.

Funraise: the best online fundraising tools in one powerful platform
When it comes to the back-office side of technology non-profits are not known for being cutting edge or efficient in return on investment – enter Funraise and its team of consultants. Start with a pre-built template and build your brand into every aspect of your donation campaign experience. Whether it’s crowd funding, getting and keeping re-curing donors, or doing wealth screening Funraise has helped raise over 15 million in grass roots campaigns.

A slick donation site in no time that is on-message, ties in your branding, and keeps your loyal donors? Justin Wheeler thinks better technology and his team of front end developers and digital marketing strategists could be the secret weapons to help nonprofits maximize their impact.

GivSum: Connecting individuals and charities on a single platform to change the world
GiveSum is a one-stop source for volunteers, nonprofit organizations and corporations. Shawn Wehan started GivSum in 2013 after noticing how many nonprofits had technology issues. Nonprofits were using PayPay to manage donations, or Volunteer Match, or an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of volunteers or Sales Force.

The online platform gives charities an effective tool for fundraising. But the social media component Wehan says is key, because it allows people who volunteer to be role models and inspire others to do more.

Amped Innovation: Radically Affordable Energy
The world population will add 2 billion more people in the next ten years, says Amped Innovation’s Robert Woolery,  But the existing legacy power grid will cost too much to upgrade.

Enter Amped Innovation, an early stage startup that wants to put the power grid into people’s own hands Amped Innovation is building a prototype affordable solar home for people living off the grid. Designed as a high performing, low cost solar powered home Amped Innovation says the product is getting early traction in Africa and India. Unlike ordering a Tesla, an energy efficient amped house is designed for people making four dollars a day. Customers can start by purchasing a single solar panel and add as they go.

Teens Exploring Technology (TxT)
Founder Oscar Menjivar is on a mission to give inner city youth in the rougher neighborhoods of Los Angeles early exposure to writing code and computer science.

TXT gives young Latino and black youth an opportunity to express themselves through Computer Science and Entrepreneurship. Students in the program learn about leadership skills, programming, and UX design.

Menijvar’s hope is that by exposing teens to programming and UI design early, they can uplift themselves from poverty and get on the pathway to college. President Obama acknowledged Menjivar for his work helping LA’s low-income teenagers see careers in  science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) as possible.