Turning a Game Engine into a Training Experience, with PIXO VR’s Sean Hurwitz

Today’s guest Sean Hurwitz started his journey to the XR field in the realm of game development. But as the years went on, more and more he saw the value of putting game engines to work training professionals instead of hunting zombies. He talks about how PIXO VR achieves this.

Alan: Hey, everyone, it’s Alan Smithson here with the XR for Business podcast. Today we’re speaking with Sean Hurwitz, founder and CEO of PIXO VR, a Detroit based company focused on VR software for training on processes, safety, and emergency response. Much like myself, Sean believes that extended reality — or XR — technologies can unlock human potential, and realize limitless possibilities. He’s assembled an all-star team of game changing VR and AR engineers, and we’re going to talk about how this translates directly into safety and training across all different industries. All that and more on the XR for Business podcast.

Sean, welcome to the show, my friend.

Sean: Hi, Alan. Thanks for having me.

Alan: It’s my absolute pleasure. I’m really, really excited. I’ve been kind of using your VR training video that you did. It was in a basement, and you’re training gas meter people on how to how to — I guess –use a gas meter. But I’ve been using that video to show the diverse range of things that can be done within VR. Tell us about that. Tell us about PIXO VR.

Sean: Yes, I am definitely onboard with the way that XR and training will definitely change the ecosystem, make people’s lives safer and more effective, and hopefully make more money too, at the end. So yeah, the example that you give is a replication of a basement, where technicians were in the traditional way of training, driving around, mirroring or shadowing older technicians as the evolving workforce and the younger generation coming in. And they were training the new employees, the new trainees, and they were looking for a way to do this training that would be close to real life, rather than drive around for weeks or months on end. And they couldn’t show– the problem was they couldn’t really identify or show all the variances in the gas meters in these basements. So we did a multi-user randomized scenario of millions of different setups and scenarios of what these gas meters would look like, and really expedited the training timeline. So PIXO, that’s sort of the– using your video as an example. But we started as a traditional console video game company, moving quickly into mobile and enterprise, and then even quicker in 2016 into getting the first Oculus DK and starting to build enterprise VR training, from that point forward.

Going from making games, because I just interviewed Arash Keshmirian from Extality, and he was doing the same thing. They were making virtual or augmented reality games for phones. And now they’re making enterprise solutions. How did you make that shift from going to making games to enterprise? And was it simply a way of making money or just– what is the precipitating factor of going from making games to basements full of gas fitting technology?

Sean: Well, money certainly plays a role, but really the mission to make people’s lives better, to help improve the planet that we live on, being able to utilize the skill set that we’ve spent combined dozens of years, used the same skill set, even the same game engine as to develop interactive games — which is really what this training is — to be able to replicate things that you either were too expensive to do otherwise or just too risky to do. So, once we figured out that we were able to create the scenarios in the field — or in a basement, like you said earlier — and then actually make money doing it served the purpose and the mission, and also getting paid for solving problems rather than developing games and hoping someone will download it or purchase it.

Alan: It’s definitely one of those things that you can do a lot more good with these things. Now, what kind of elements have you taken from the game production side — or days — and brought them in? Have you gamified these things? Is there like, a hidden thing where I can pull out a sword and start cutting things in half? Do you guys have any hidden Easter eggs in there?

Sean: Maybe not Easter eggs, but something along those lines would be the randomization engine that we have. So every time you enter into an environment where applicable — which for us is the vast majority — where we randomize different hazards or defects or different things that you have to learn. As an example, we developed the fall protection module for mostly the construction industry where you have to pick– you’re up on an 80 storey building — again, utilizing all environments, 3D modelling scenarios that you would build in a video game — and you put someone 80 storeys above the ground on scaffolding, and they have to pick the right harness. So when the harnesses are randomized every time, you really have that decision making utilized there. We use a lot of game level design as well. And if you pick the wrong harness, obviously, you fall to your death — really — on this 80 storey building. Good news is it’s all virtual, so you learn your lesson, one way or the other. So we utilize, really, all game development techniques for that module and everything that we build, whether it be the design, whether it be the game level, whether it be the data analytics and reporting from the user management. And understanding not only how to optimize these applications, but how did you do, it could be used at a competitive basis where you can compete against your previous training, the previous time that you went in, or against other co-workers. So many, many different game aspects used.

Alan: Interesting. What are some of the data points you’re collecting about users and learners, and how are you measuring success with this type of technology, versus just a standard classroom or on the job training? What’s the measurement of success?

Sean: Well, like I said before, the ability to really have someone do something and interact in an environment through an active learning process. One of the best uses that we found for VR currently is in assessment. So let’s just stick with this fall protection. How would you assess if somebody really understood what to do when they were up on this scaffold? This is a way to really test their skill set, and if they fail, they’re able to fail at a low cost and at a low risk scenario. So that’s not something that you can do in a classroom. You can take a test, as you know, PowerPoint. We’ve used in the past. You can you can take a three ring binder and study it, go through it, do a test. But it’s not like actually doing it. So we track all the points, what they pick first, what they pick second, what they look at, where they go. All the data points that make up the story about whether that trainee actually knows what they’re doing. And as you know, with VR — and XR, really — with biometrics coming on to the scene here, in the near future, you’ll be able to track cognitive load and how their body actually responds to those different training scenarios.

Alan: Are things like biometrics becoming part of this, or is this kind of a future plan? Because I would think that being 80 storeys up is kind of terrifying. People’s heart rate must be going through the roof.

Sean: Oh, it sure is. Yeah, I definitely think that biometrics is going to play a huge role in all of XR, specifically in this VR training because you could use it then as an assessment tool. Not only on the individual trainee and the potential employee early on, it could be used at a interview process early on in the cycle or later on. And did they get better? Are they more comfortable in these different situations? As well as to optimize the experience. So is it too much training? We recently developed a emergency response natural gas leak scenario, where you’re in the middle of a subdivision — and again — utilizing multi-user, some AI components and a technician is faced with a potentially very serious gas leak that they have to eventually turn that gas off. Now, the training not only tells you about the individual, but it could also tell you about is this just too much for an individual? Does it require two people? It could influence the real life training thereafter.

Alan: So how do you measure that then? Like, how do you know whether somebody is ready?

Sean: Well, we’re currently not using any biometrics right now, but once the new hardware comes onto the scene with sensors in it, that will track that person’s cognitive load and body temperature, those kind of things. The results of that would tell you if this person’s suited for that kind of role or not.

Alan: The amount of data we can collect from this and share is incredible. It’s not just about trying to sell people more things, but if this data can be used to deliver training in a more efficient, effective way, I think this is the ultimate goal.

Sean: It sure is. And really the still being in that early adopter, early majority phase and having yet crossed that chasm to the later, mid later majority efficacy from this training — I think — will mean everything, will be where it becomes commonplace. So we found that we were over the years, got good traction with the early adopters that we’re most likely going to adopt and integrate early technology no matter what. I think we’re moving into a little bit of that early majority, but I think for the late majority to really catch on, you’re going to need real efficacy where it’s– you can prove it’s saving lives, it’s improved training, you’ve saved a lot of money. And I think 2020 is a big year for that. I think we’re at that crossroad.

Alan: Yeah, I really, truly agree with that. So you guys have been working diligently on building out these scenarios and everything. What are some of the other ones you’ve talked about? Fall protection, emergency response, gas fitting. What are some of the other ones that you guys are working on?

Well, in the very near future, where we got some nice press coming out soon with some of the ones that we’re going to release, we have a first responder operations for hazmat, where we have a spilled over gas tanker for firefighters. Now, the way that we developed these, Alan, is, for instance, our hazard recognition. We have hazard recognition, which are like OSHA standards that would be in a warehouse, but because we’ve productized that application, we could put hazard recognition on a construction site, or in a hospital, or in a steel factory, or an automotive factory. So we’ve productized the actual learning objective behind it and then can very easily flip the environments to be address most industries. So when I say we have hazard recognition, it’s really across multiple recognitions. We have the natural gas leak emergency response that I spoke of already, fall protection, the inside meter inspection that we spoke about already. Now, just to back up for one second. The way that our platform works is our business model is we go to market and distribute the content through VARs, or Value Added Resellers. We’ve also developed on the front-end a content curation side of the platform, that will allow other developers to monetize their content through our reseller network. So through– if you can imagine that all the amazing content that’s been developed and great developers out there that don’t have the sales side of things, our library — if you will — our content side is going to increase rapidly, as we bring these other developers on.

Alan: Amazing. That seems like a scalable way to do it.

Sean: It is. I mean, we– earlier on — when I say earlier on, meaning the last couple of years — we learned that we had a hard time selling to first responders or the construction companies or oil and gas company, because we didn’t know what the pain points were for that training. So partnering with these resellers — who understand the pain points — are much better at selling this training content into their industries. So that’s why on the sales side. And then we’re obviously automating all that through the platform.

Alan: Incredible. Where can people find you? It’s pixovr.com?

Sean: Yep, pixovr.com. We tend to have presence at most of these different trade shows that we go to, but pixovr.com is definitely the place.

Alan: I think this is something that people will be listening, and the goal of this podcast is really to educate business owners and business communities to invest and start using this technology. So what would be the path for a new customer? So let’s say, for example, somebody is in — I don’t know — trucking, and they want to develop a trucking training. What is the path for them to go from reaching out on your website, to having the full thing delivered? What does that look like?

Sean: We would start by having a conversation. First of all, is do we have the content that they’re looking for? Are there other developers that may have already the content that they’re looking for? And then we would most likely pair them up with one of our resellers, that would know– have much more knowledge and education in in the trucking space — in this scenario — to really help integrate. Because as you know, these business owners are finding the value of VR and XR pretty quickly. It’s easy to put on a headset and go up 80 storeys and look over the edge and say, “Wow, this is very impactful. This is game changing.” to actually integrating it into their business. So how does it fit into their business model? Where do they put it? Who does the training? Who trains? How many headsets? And through our resellers, we answer a lot of those questions, because they’ve already done it, they already know where to put it, they already know who maintains it, what category it goes under. So we would be able to help not only on the content side, but also on the integration side.

Alan: Integration side is actually becoming one of those challenges that people– it used to be a technology problem. “Can we make this technology work? OK, now it works. Can we can we make it do something we want? Okay, that works. How do we get it out and how do we scale it in a reasonable way?” That’s the next step of it.

Sean: Over the years, we’ve been faced with multiple problems, really just problem solving and creating a product market fit, and integration sort of rose to the top. The hardware is getting better. The people that [make] VR and the knowledge of VR — and XR — is becoming more available. And then without real strong efficacy, you can’t have integration before efficacy. So you have to integrate it. You have to start using it. And so I think those problems — like we said before — will be addressed. Not fully, but I think 2020 is looking bright.

Alan: Interesting. I agree with you. I think now people are beyond that kind of shiny object syndrome of VR at the beginning, and they’re looking for real solutions. And it’s funny, because I’ve got your webpage open here and it’s just a video playing in the background. But you’ve got everything from a warehouse fall, and fire trucks, and everything. It’s really incredible, the work you guys have done. And I think in 2020 companies are starting to realize the power of It. What about numbers? When somebody says to you — from a number standpoint — this is going to cost X amount. What is my return? How do you deal with those questions?

Sean: Well, I think it’s a good question, because that means that they have a use case, or they’ve identified a pain point or a reason to use it. One of our clients works with a very large auto manufacturer — being here in Detroit, obviously, that’s in our backyard — that we’re sending engines around the world, to train on the engines, replace the timing belt or filter or something like that. So you can already see where the value of VR is. Because we took the CAD of the engine model, and replicated that and made it fully interactive and multi-participant. So they can train the trainees or the technicians all around the world, without having to send the engine out. So you could back into an ROI pretty quickly. Well, how much does an engine cost? How much does an engine cost to ship? How many were we shipping out? And then how much does a standalone headset cost, and how much did the application cost? And so you can see right there in that example of immediate ROI.

Alan: Yeah, absolutely. Something that we’ve seen is in VR, you’re creating these assets for training. But those same assets can be also used for marketing or different divisions. Are you seeing that? Because what we realized is that usually one arm doesn’t talk to the other, and there’s very little crossover there. But as you start suggesting these things that, hey, you just spent X amount by making all these models of these things for your training. Would this be something that they could do into retail or marketing?

Sean: Well, you and I both know that absolutely is possible.

Alan: The question isn’t “Can you?” It is “Do they?”

Sean: For VR/XR, all things under this umbrella, any adoption is great. So early on, anyone that was interested in it, we would work with them and try to license them some content. Yes, though. The answer is yes. At a high level, that it can be used– and we are starting to promote it, because when they look at costs for one department — or one division, depending on how large the company is — then we try to promote them that you could leverage this asset, get more out of it in different categories. Yes.

Alan: And it’s interesting. We tried to do that as well. But it’s one of those things that– they’re like, “Yeah, that’s great. But dealing with the marketing department is a whole different ball of wax.” It’s crazy.

Sean: It definitely is, yeah. And a lot of innovation departments are the ones reaching out first.

Alan: Yeah, absolutely. Though the problems you get with the innovation departments, they’re usually– they want cutting edge things. And it ends up getting stuck in pilots. They get a small budget for a pilot, and then they– there seems to be a disconnect between the innovation department of the company, and actually deploying real solutions.

Sean: That’s true. But I think as we understand integration better and as we solve those problems, we can help the innovation department. Because what we found was, we did some projects with innovation departments and we didn’t know ourselves how they would integrate it and they certainly don’t. So the more we’ve learned, the more we lean on our reseller subject matter experts, the better we’re getting and the more traction we’re getting.

Alan: I guess one thing to consider when we’re doing this. You mentioned standalone headsets. Clearly people want this. Clients are saying, “Hey, I want to move to a standalone headset.” But the tradeoff of fidelity versus that, what are you guys seeing with, let’s say the Oculus Quest, for example?

Sean: Yeah. You know, it depends also on the type of company. We work with insurance companies, where they want to take 40 headsets and put them in the trunks of 40 different agents, and have them go on site on a construction site and do this type of training. They’re just not going to take a PC tether based unit and throw it in their trunk and go set it up. So in that scenario, the standalone, the Quest or other would work very well. Where you have training facilities and you have the staff or the employees trainees coming into that facility to train, then, of course, a unit that’s stationed and you could get that higher quality. But we found that the quality on the standalone is definitely suffice and outweighs the barrier. For instance, this insurance company, they’re just not going to do the other. So the quality is definitely, definitely good enough.

Alan: Interesting. Wow. There’s so much to take in. We’ve got this this idea — both of us have thought about this a lot — of how do we use this technology as efficiently as possible. And one of the things that you mentioned — which I think is similar to our business model as well, and we’re gonna have to talk offline on how to work together on this — but distributing the content through value added resellers, and also reselling content. Because making quality VR content and AR content is expensive, and being able to share those costs across multiple companies seems like the only way to really grow the industry.

Sean: It is. That’s definitely something that’s a little newer for us. We just are finishing some of the tools within the platform that will be able to ingest other content and then monetize it. We’ve created this ecosystem of taking it from content development — that we’re not calling content curation, because it could really come in a number of different ways — all the way through an end user license. So we feel like we’ve put this ecosystem and this process together, and now just continue to automate it through the tools. So whether it’s other people’s content or we’re developing our own content– we even have tools that would expedite the content development for other developers — whether it be randomization engine, multi-user engine, or art environment packs — that we would work with other developers to help expedite the development if they didn’t have existing content.

Alan: So what would that look like from your standpoint, would there be a license fee or how would that work?

Sean: We haven’t monetized those tools yet like that. We would rather just work with the developer to help develop, because we’re after the content. So we would work with them on those licenses or even the use of those tools in order to get these applications or the content. So we have resellers and their clients that are currently looking for content. So if we would work with other developers and provide these tools to help expedite development. So in short, we don’t have a toolkit that we license out currently, but we would definitely work with other developers to use those tools.

Alan: That’s something that I think is kind of one of those things in this XR industry. It seems like everybody’s willing to help each other, and that’s an amazing thing in an industry that we’re still at the beginning. But I keep saying this over and over again. This is not a net sum game. Our industry is going to go from $10-billion to $500-billion in 10 years, creating — by PWC’s estimate — over $2-trillion in enterprise value in the next 10 years. That’s a lot of money to split, and there’s not a lot of companies working at the level of PIXO. And it’s really interesting to see that you’re so open to working with everybody. It’s great.

Sean: Yeah, thanks. I definitely think that there’s room for everybody. I’ve yet to really– when you drill down and you have more of a sophisticated XR person looking into it, I’ve really yet to find two or three companies or more that are doing exactly the same thing. I feel like we all have our little niche, a little bit here, a little bit there, and can leverage each other and those attributes. Because in my opinion, the market really needs to grow in the next year or two. Now is the time. I’d hate for all of us–

Alan: Yeah, I agree. And that is one of the reasons I started this podcast. One to learn personally, but also to inspire and educate business leaders to invest in this technology as fast as possible, because the more knowledge we get out there. And if you look at the podcast, the way it works, it’s done and it’s tagged by industry. So if somebody is interested in retail, that’s up in retail and there’s all the things for them, and for interest in the airlines, or training, or whatever it is. Unfortunately, training comes up in pretty much everyone, because that’s the killer use case of VR. But what is one problem in the world you want to see solved using XR technologies?

Sean: The one problem with 15 seconds to think about it, is I truly believe that exposing people, trainees, people learning a different skill — especially if it’s dangerous — exposing them to that environment, whether you’re a doctor, or a construction worker, or firefighter before being in that environment for real, whether it be crowd management, I think that solving that problem or allowing someone to be exposed to a scenario, before they actually have to go in it, will absolutely make the world a better place.

Alan: Well, Sean, this has been really, really a great interview and thank you. Is there any final words you want to share with anybody?

Sean: So if there are developers out there that have content — or want to develop content — are interested in monetizing that, get a hold of us. Otherwise, I really appreciate it, Alan. I look forward to following up and staying in touch.

Alan: I will hit you up in Detroit. Motor City, here we come!

Sean: Yes, sir.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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