General Services Administration’s DigitalGov University hosted a virtual reality and artificial intelligence-themed workshop in early December with innovators from government and industry exploring the possibilities of the two technologies. The event came on the heels of the launch of two new governmentwide communities that work with the private sector to evaluate, develop and administer artificial intelligence and virtual/augmented reality services for citizens.
“There’s a need everywhere. There’s opportunity everywhere,” said Justin Herman, artificial intelligence and virtual reality communities lead at GSA. “That’s why people are so excited, and that’s why we’re so excited to be able to work with agencies and industries to get on that path forward.”
Federal attendants from agencies like Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security and NASA brought to the event ideas on how their organizations could adopt an AI or VR/AR program, while companies demoed how one could virtually travel into the human bloodstream, float around the planets or have AI identify their facial expressions.
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“Not five years into the future, but five months into the future,” Herman said of their use.
One of the participating vendors, EolianVR CEO Michael McCormack, sat down with Nextgov to talk about AI and VR as a business opportunity and how these emerging technologies could solve not only real-world problems such as bias and sexism but ultimately, save lives. The comments below has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: Tell me a little bit about the company and what made you come here today.
Michael McCormack: We are a startup and we’ve been in business for just under a year. We launched our business because we saw the cost of virtual reality and augmented reality devices dropping from $50,000 per unit and $100,000 per unit to $500 with the computer maybe $3,000 or $4,000 per unit.
With that, we realized that there were many situations and processes that are done in the government with this old technology that is very expensive, very wasteful and ineffective; specifically in use of force training, law enforcement, and de-escalation.
Nextgov: Which are all obviously topics that have been in the headlines.
Michael McCormack: Yes, absolutely, and plus racial bias. These things are currently addressed through expensive, human-based training. You come in as an instructor and you act out a situation, you pretend that you are a perpetrator or a black person doing this and I have to react. The trainer says if you either pass or fail. That’s very expensive and time-consuming. The alternative is these projector maps. Have you ever been inside one of these projector rooms where they have simulators for law enforcement on how to deal with that?
Nextgov: No, but I’ve seen it.
Michael McCormack: These projectors and their huge screens—they cost $400,000. They work and they are very good and they are effective, but they are too expensive. Virtual reality and augmented reality being so inexpensive now makes it possible for these simulators and these training methods to be scalable.
One example: in the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia, there are approximately 2,000 troops or federal officers that go through this facility every month. They have two of these simulators for 2,000 people.
We’re trying to figure out how to solve that problem better and for a lot less money. We believe that using augmented reality and many of the other technologies that exist—biometrics, advanced data analytics, facial expression recognition, emotion recognition, tone recognition—that a law enforcement officer or even a teacher could be given much better training than was ever before possible.
The last piece of it is: In a typical test, you have “did they pass or did they fail” and in the future, you will have a test that says, “at one second, his heart rate rose, at two seconds, he got a smirk on his face, at three seconds, he smiled, at four seconds, he shot his gun, at five seconds, the person died.”
Nextgov: So walk me through your actual product.
Michael McCormack: This is going to allow human-delivered training in situational simulations to be done more cost effectively and faster because even if you can afford it, it still takes a year to send 4,000 people through one unit or to send one cop across the country to go talk to everyone. We want to reduce the cost and increase the rate.
Our technology is an end-to-end platform that enables for training to be delivered in a way that is more cost-effective and faster. That platform addresses the actual library of content—so the people or the characters and what they are doing, it addresses the devices and support. It is end to end. You come to us. We have the system, we install it and tomorrow you can begin training. It is focused on three industries: health care, education—training teachers—and military/law enforcement.
Nextgov: Talk about the makeup of Eolian.
Michael McCormack: I have two partners now; one is a woman based in California named Dulce [Baerga], who is a phenomenal artist in augmented reality. She has been building augmented reality apps for the cellphone for approximately eight years. She worked for Macromedia Flash back in the day—the original QuickTime VR. She is young, but an old-timer and also a woman, which in this space is huge.
Dulce is a huge proponent of women’s involvement. She believes that the reason women aren’t developers in software or that there is a smaller rate of women getting into this than there are men has to do with the businesses that market games and computers.
There was a period from 1990 to 2000 where technology was for boys and because of that … she felt disenfranchised and none of the games were for her, none of the computers were for her, none of the applications were for her, so of course you aren’t going to get into the developing for it, why would you?
Now, one of my intriguing questions is not how to get women involved in VR but how to get women to address the problems that they encounter and solving them with VR. That’s where Dulce is really trying to think and there are so many use cases, but there is so much potential too, right?
There is a racial bias, but there is also a sexual bias. If you could find a way to make an employer less biased toward women or HR departments less biased toward women using some sort of biometric data and some kind of testing procedure, why wouldn’t you?
Instead of just hiring a bunch of women developers, I want women who want to solve their life problems. What’s bothering them—being cat-called their whole life—how do you solve that problem using VR?
Nextgov: How is it to be in this space? You’re in New York and you want to do business with the government. Have you taken steps toward that process?
Michael McCormack: Ninety-nine percent of our business, we would like to be with the government. The road to getting there, I know is not easy. I’ve run my own business. I’ve gotten government contracts through other firms and I know how hard it is, especially as a startup. I was enthralled when Justin [Herman] put this group together.
We want to deal directly with the people that have the problems because otherwise, we don’t know what their problems are. It would be like a doctor prescribing medicine without knowing what [patients] need. So this is our chance to give our clients a physical, so to speak.
Nextgov: What do you foresee being the biggest challenges for your company in this particular space and doing business with the government? How are you planning on overcoming them?
Michael McCormack: The key to our success will be solving the right problems at the right time—like any business. The biggest obstacle has been figuring out what needs to be built. … Our biggest risk is frankly solving the wrong problem.
An event like this is really the only way we can solve that problem for ourselves. The only way we can overcome that roadblock is by sitting in the same room as these people and listening to what they, as a group, are talking about and the outcome of those group breakouts and the one-on-ones.
Nextgov: What is your six- to 12-month plan for the company?
Michael McCormack: We have a plan to begin testing our version of these simulators as it compares to the old way by the second quarter of 2017. The aim is to prove that our simulators and our technology are less expensive and more effective.
Our VR competitors are solving the same problem, but we are talking about the projectors and the 6-foot walls that have to be aligned and they cost $400,000. One of them even has an electric belt that shocks you when you get shot to train the cop. That piece alone costs $27,000—for the belt. We are talking about an entire end-to-end system with the electric belt that costs $10,000. That is our goal—to get it under $10,000 per unit.
Nextgov: And longer term? Where do you want the company to go?
Michael McCormack: We want to become one of the government’s prime contractor for developing augmented reality applications and virtual reality applications that solve real government missions and that add real value—things that are saving lives.
The one commonality between all of the simulators that people are willing to pay $400,000 for is that they are dealing with life-or-death issues. They are maternity-ward simulators. They are cop de-escalations. They are school shootings. Literally, you go through this so that you don’t die. If it costs $400,000 and we have a way to do it for $10,000, we are saving lives.