It’s not always easy to take a leap of faith into the unknown. But it’s that jump that sets us off on an endless journey toward exploring new opportunities, pushing back the boundaries of where the mind can go, and setting a trend that could outlive us.
Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap, has already embarked on a thrilling adventure into a world of infinite possibilities called virtual reality (VR).
Along with his passionate co-founder and CTO Hossein Jalali, he is working toward a two-fold vision where we can train our brain daily while having physical fun and senior citizens can enjoy a high quality of life for a prolonged period.
Located in Lisbon with a US-based parent company, Virtuleap is a VR startup that is taking cognitive assessment and training to “the next level” and has already proved to be a force to reckon with.
It was started in January 2018 in Portugal and pivoted into VR brain training as of May 2019. The company was chosen as the “breakthrough startup” by the venture arm of Web Summit and invited to pitch on center stage in November 2019.
Virtuleap provides a variety of reporting and data tools allowing organizations to use the collected user data for the maximum cognitive benefit.
“We think our solutions together is the intersection of games, virtual reality, education, and healthcare—all in one,” Amir told Via News Agency in an exclusive interview.
With the help of a group of professional scientists, developers, and 3D artists, Virtuleap has introduced two products to the market, which the company believes can add real value to the lives of individuals, organizations, students, the elderly, and even caregivers.
Virtuleap’s CEO says they have developed a business-to-consumer (B2C) app, which is called Enhance.
“It’s an app that offers a series of brain training games that are all designed in 3D dimensions in virtual reality,” he said, adding that they might also venture into the field of augmented reality (AR) in the future.
The VR app offers a growing library of brain training games that are meant to test and train cognitive skills like memory and problem solving as well as less cognitive skills that are more about speed, flexibility, and task switching.
As they are in virtual reality, they involve motor skills, spatial orientation, and spatial-audio awareness as well.
Echoing a consensus expressed by scientists and neuroscientists, Amir said brain training will work if the entire body is triggered into believing that the experience is real.
He explained that virtual reality is the first digital format to offer such a natural cognitive environment and can help people not only get better at the game but become better at remembering their grocery lists.
Not ‘Too Enjoyable’
React, Memory Wall, and Hide & Seek are the games currently available on the app, and their names already promise a fun-filled experience.
However, Virtuleap’s co-founder says they are supposed to be “enjoyable” but not “too enjoyable”.
He likens mental VR brain training to going to the gym as it might not seem very exciting at some points but is necessary for mental fitness. “And we just want you to play 10 minutes (max) a day. It’s like brushing your teeth or going out for exercise.”
This ambitious startup has a very distinctive feature as it says it is “the first” to implement auditory science.
“It’s a type of technology that’s very validated now where you create and compose music that affects the attentional network through rhythms. The brain is so adapted that when it hears rhythms in a certain way, it causes this technique called phase-locking and it allows you to concentrate more when you’re playing the game.”
Virtuleap’s second product, which serves as the “backbone” of its business model, is a client dashboard and admin panel that provides a variety of reporting and data tools that will allow organizations to shape, modify, and analyze the collected user data for the maximum cognitive benefit of their members, employees, and students.
“For sure one thing we do really well right now that doesn’t need validation is we can assess you cognitively speaking using these games. It’s a much more easy way than going to the doctor and having an examination or writing out a long survey for 45 minutes,” Amir explained, saying that getting a cognitive health report is just a click away with Enhance.
The data recorded in Virtuleap’s dashboard can also be used by senior care centers, which are a major target group for the company.
“Any organization would have access to our data dashboard, and they would be able to pay based on the number of users they want to be able to track—be it a senior living community, a hospital, a clinic, or a public school board that wants to help their children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or people who are having concentration difficulties.”
Virtuleap is creating a new digital health marker or biomarker for the early detection of cognitive illnesses such as dementia by mining gameplay patterns over time using machine learning.
Virtuleap is intent on leaving a legacy for the elderly and is deeply concerned about official reports that say someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds.
That is why they are creating a new digital health marker or biomarker for the early detection of cognitive illnesses such as dementia by mining gameplay patterns over time using machine learning.
“So basically if we track 10,000 people playing games and some of those people indicate the onset or affect of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any type of condition, then that would be represented in their data in their gameplay patterns. And if we see that same pattern begin early in someone else who starts to play in that pattern, we can be able to pinpoint what’s happening with the help of machine learning and give them a warning so that they can proactively address that,” Amir noted.
He added that it is still not clear how to stop cognitive illnesses but the period of life where they do not happen can be prolonged by having healthy measures in life. “One of the healthy measures is us we think… But we have to be very careful and not create pretenses of knowing what we are doing has any effect more than it is. At the same time, we can share our ambition.”
“I think physical location and monetary spend shouldn’t be factors for your quality of life. I think that’s criminal”Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap
The VR brain training and data dashboard offered by Virtuleap enables users to better understand themselves, their strengths, and weaknesses.
“We’re right now exploring a relationship with universities…so that we can validate the technology,” Amir said. “We have assessment and training. These are two separate things. We can do an assessment very well even now. Training is our vision of what we want to be able to say we can do.”
He believes that the solutions offered by his startup might be able to engage troubled children in a certain way and make them more proactive in their educational interests.
These children may not be responding well to the educational system as it is and may feel bored and disengaged because they may have a misperception about their skills, he added.
“Maybe a child thinks that they’re dumb. Well, dumb in what way? Maybe you’re not great with word memory. But maybe you’re great with visuals. Maybe you’re great with abstractions. Maybe you’re good with art. Maybe you’re good with crafting. We’ve lost this in our systems.”
Amir says the VR technology can be useful for children above 13. “We think there should be an age limit…because we don’t think children at a certain age are developed yet enough to be influenced by technology that manipulates reality.”
On the other hand, there has not been much research done on the health side of prolonged exposure, he added.
All organizations with a human performance program can contact Virtuleap to get a licensed model for access to be able to monitor and manage the cognitive performance of their staff at scale.
“We were (recently) contacted by a Fortune 500 company, and they were interested in implementing our technology for their VR program so they can use it to offer their employees a way to assess their cognitive skills. You know it’s one of those benefits that you have in big companies now. They can see how people are, how good they are, and why they may be having frustrations in this job. And maybe they can give them games to develop on those sides.”
Asked about Virtuleap’s journey toward slowing down cognitive and physical decline and the response to their products, Amir said, “We’re raising our seed round right now, which means we are raising a certain sum of money to be able to scale up with investors’ help, get more team members, and have more period of time where we’re not stressed out about making money.”
According to him, they have managed to get around 1.3K users so far. “They’ve given us really encouraging reviews. They just want more games, which is good criticism.”
Instead of spending money on marketing, which Amir does not believe in, Virtuleap is trying to make connections with organizations to make sure they can implement pilot projects.
“Right now we’re very focused on finding groups like hospitals, clinics, senior living communities, and some very specialized schools. I had a call with an organization in Toronto, and they’re focused on using technology for engaging children in a much more effective way.”
The company is also partnering with a senior living community organization in the United States.
Virtuleap plans to expand its games library to over 20 titles by the end of 2020. “We have a new version coming out. We have two games that will be coming out in February. It will only accelerate the gaming development. One game per month is probably going to be the aim,” Amir said.
He added that their app will have been officially released on Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC in China by 2020.
“Those who are interested to work in the VR industry can take advantage of opportunities that the business-to-business (B2B) model offers”Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap
On whether Virtuleap intends to offer multi-player brain training experiences, Amir said they plan to do so but it is not in their initial roadmap.
“As we build our first initial library of at least 30 games, we’ll be focusing on single-player experiences so that if you want to play once a day for 10 minutes, you would play different games… We don’t want any of the games to get tedious.”
He also said Virtuleap can always prioritize multi-player games “if an organization comes to us that wants to work with us and requests that. If it’s a priority for them, we might be flexible for that.”
When asked if VR training can one day completely replace traditional training, Amir said, “I wouldn’t want it to. I believe the real world is much more important.”
He says part of him is very “anti-technologist” while adding that he thinks technology can be used very potently in certain ways that “transcend our limitations.”
In the VR world, people can have access to the “highest level of education, the highest level of healthcare, the highest level of everything,” Virtuleap’s CEO added.
“I think physical location and monetary spend shouldn’t be factors for your quality of life. I think that’s criminal. And I think technology breaks the barriers because it’s so disruptive. I’m a kind of anarchist as well a little bit. And I love the idea of annoying people who like to keep the power structures in place. Because technology just breaks the ground underneath them.”
“Someone who’s very visual might suffer a lot in a classroom setting with textbooks. But in VR, it’s visual and textual, and everything. You can use the imagination in VR in magical ways. It’s like being in a fairy tale”Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and co-founder of Virtuleap
Technology As a Tool
Amir argues that technology should be used only as a tool to simplify and add value to people’s lives.
“Let me give you an example. People who have very debilitating and disabling conditions like Alzheimer’s or who can no longer even remember things or function in the world need to have either living care at facilities outside or home care, where there’s a front-line person taking care of them every day.”
He said statistics show that caregivers who deal with such people have a very high burn rate.
“There is a real problem right now of 90 percent of those staff quitting. Within 6 months or two years, they’re all gone. So they’re having a huge problem because, in the next 10 years, there’s going to be more elderly in most countries. In Japan, there’s already more elderly than children. In the U.S., there’s going to be more elderly soon. It’s going to be a huge issue all around the world…and we don’t have even enough front-line cares, and we can’t get enough front-line cares because they are not trained to even themselves.”
So VR is being used as a tool right now to give them an example of the experience that they can expect so they would have more durability when they get into the experience with the training, Amir explained.
“It’s not just textbooks. And how to do things. It’s like real-life scenarios. It’s not storytelling. It’s story living. So when you can do training in story living, it means there’s a scalable high-quality way to learn something for training.”
He maintains that VR can never fully replace traditional training because nothing can replace the quality offered by personal connections. “I just think it’s going to lighten the load of the need for training.”
Amir also said AR glasses, telesurgery, and robotics are other examples of technologies that are now at the service of humans.
A Common Startup Mistake
Virtuleap’s co-founder says it took a long road to get where they are and says finding a product/market fit for the VR technology is no easy task.
“It only looks easy when you are critiquing it. Seeing it in retrospect. When you’re really in the trenches with very little money and putting a team together and begging investors and all these things, it’s not so easy at all.”
He says the field of VR is somehow tricky to navigate because it is an emerging technology.
“Often what happens is that you create a solution and the solution is not necessarily needed in the market. It’s not critical for the market. The company tries to create something nice, and great, and maybe awesome, but the market doesn’t necessarily need it. And that’s the biggest and most common problem with startups. So with VR, it’s very common. Do people want to play VR games? Some do. But some don’t. It’s not a critical thing to play a game and be in VR.”
However, he maintains that those who are interested to work in this industry can take advantage of opportunities that the business-to-business (B2B) model offers.
“In B2B and organizational things like healthcare and education, they are finding very critical use cases, such as teaching in a way that people who can’t learn in other ways will learn here or will learn better.”
Instead of being a failure, they can succeed because VR can “approach us in ways and allow us to engage in a learning experience in ways that are much more multi-faceted”, he explained.
“So someone who’s very visual might suffer a lot in a classroom setting with textbooks. But in VR, it’s visual and textual, and everything. You can use the imagination in VR in magical ways. It’s like being in a fairy tale.”
Virtuleap’s CEO argues that the U.S. is a very “rare” market when it comes to real investors who will give startup founders a chance and work with them while meaning it.
“A lot of the investors in Europe will talk initially positively just because they want to research the market through you. They don’t care that they are wasting a startup person’s time, with their money, their lives, and their families being all on the line.”
He said some of them are just “very much comfortable bankers” who make money off of the interests of someone else’s labor and call themselves “venture capitalists”.
“They’re a banker with new branding. And all they care about is money. But there are VCs in the U.S. that are focused also on a mission, on a vision.”
Amir believes that European VCs have copied and pasted that model and try to pretend like they are that. “But whenever you copy and paste, you don’t take the soul of it with you. You just take the appearances of it. So in my opinion, European companies are best to flip to Delaware.”
Amir says virtual reality and the implementation of 5G are going to create “seamless” and “intersectional” technology that makes life much simpler.
“It would be a world where everything intersects. You can educate yourself and play games and be taking care of your health all with one shot. That’s more or less our vision.”