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River Snapshot: Awaken wants to save billions of dollars and thousands of lives, using virtual reality


As a part of our ongoing mission to showcase the virtual reality industry’s hottest startups we headed over to River, Rothenberg Ventures’ new accelerator program for VR, for an inside look at (a ‘VR Snapshot’ if you will) each of the 13 companies (selected from a group of 200) in the program, before their big demo day.

Fatigue. You’re probably feeling a bit of it right now (Mondays, amiright?) but did you know it costs employers over $130 billion a year? (Oh yeah, that’s just in the U.S. alone.)  Fatigue is one of the great hidden costs in business, but when you look into the industries it hits hardest, it doesn’t feel that hidden.

Take the trucking industry for example, which has been implementing new rules to combat driver fatigue – which costs both billions of dollars in damages and hundreds, if not thousands of lives every year. Truckers tend to push the limits of fatigue to get as many consecutive miles on the road as possible, speed is part of the pay scale. But after 18 hours of straight driving (or 18 straight hours of being awake period) your body produces effects equivalent to being legally drunk.

“So where does virtual reality come into play with all this?”

It may be the preventative solution to the problem. Using a series of tests – each specific to the industry – Awaken (formally SDK Lab) is using VR to detect fatigue in the workplace and by doing so, they hope to save lives and billions along the way.

Imagine you are a forklift operator – you come into work Monday morning and before you put on your hard hat and hop into the machine, you grab your mobile VR based testing system and go through the tests, which take “about a minute.” You are in the virtual cockpit of your forklift, and are instructed through a series of randomized scenarios where you have to quickly look to react to the instruction. You had gotten plenty of sleep the night before so you pass the test with flying colors – your results and GPS location are sent to the company database and you are cleared for work.

Next to you, Bob is finishing up his test. Bob had been bragging about his late night out and how he had ‘almost managed to get that girl’s number’ before the bar closed. Unfortunately, this morning Bob wasn’t feeling nearly as rested – and the system noticed. He will have to rest for an hour before attempting the test again so he can get to work today. While it may suck in the moment for Bob, it is good in the long run for everyone else – and eventually it will help to teach better habits.

But Awaken isn’t just meant for labor workers, hospitals could benefit as well. Part of the life of being a surgeon is being on call, on certain nights you have to be ready to be called in for surgery at a moments notice. Awaken’s tests would let the doctor have a quick fatigue check to make sure they weren’t too tired (or hadn’t had that second glass of red wine at dinner) for surgery.

The potential impact of these tests on society is measurably massive. There would very likely be some initial backlash from unions and the like about these tests, but if they can tai-chi the political situation and prove quantifiable results, Awaken might just be a massive success.

We sat down with Awaken’s CEO, Shaun Wilson, to learn more about the company’s plans.

Who is Awaken?

Our mission is to improve health and safety in the workplace by using virtual reality for early fatigue detection.

What is the team’s background?

The team currently consists of two co-founders Christian Yves Fongang, who has 15 years experience in technical development and has worked on several first’s in Africa and myself. I have 15 years experience in the market and have worked with some of the biggest brands in Africa.

When did you guys start working in VR?

Started working in Augmented Reality in 2011 and transitioned over to VR towards the end of 2012 but really got mainstream in the middle of 2013.

Where are you guys at with you projects?

We have already completed our solution for the commercial trucking and industrial market with a successful tethered pilot using the oculus rift. We will now be rolling out a pilot of our mobile solution that works on any iPhone or Android handset using a durable HMD supplied by Merge.

Why do you feel the things you are doing important for VR?

I feel that we are providing a unique solution for a real world problem that is only addressable using VR.

Have you received any funding? If so, from whom?

We have received no funding as we have focused on clients that allow us to create solutions that help resolve day to day problems.

[What is amazing is that Awaken actually was bootstrapped out of Africa, paying their way with actual AR/VR client work.]

How can people experience your work for themselves?

Unfortunately our experience is only available for the B2B market.

Beyond the financial and life saving implications of this application, there may be a hidden benefit in this for VR as a whole. Imagine the group that this will be exposed to on a daily basis. At the risk of stereotyping, labor workers are typically not your first adopters of new technology like VR, partially because of cost but also because of lack of exposure. Awaken could expose VR, on a daily basis, to an entirely new audience of people – all of whom may have the same reaction you or I did when they first try VR. That reaction, combined with increased media attention, could lead to a more explosive growth curve for VR in that market segment – especially in affordable mobile based HMDs.

If it works and can make it past the social politics, Awaken is going to be huge. You heard it hear first.



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