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Nothing 'virtual' about the reality of VR technology opportunities in Buffalo

When it comes to virtual reality and augmented reality, our minds wander to the big names of new entertainment. While “VR” headsets, Google Glass and Pokémon Go dominate headlines, some of the real progress being made is being overshadowed – and some of it is right here in Buffalo.

“Our abilities and capabilities as a region around manufacturing of different materials and different kinds of products is tremendous,” said Mike Canzoneri, who co-founded Argyle Technology Group four years ago.

“There’s a huge opportunity in manufacturing and production space in the way we sort of think of things in a traditional, east coast, blue collar kind of way, but using those tools to make those processes more efficient, to make them faster, to make them more exact and precise,” Canzoneri said. “There’s definitely a lot of opportunities there.”

Argyle has developed two augmented reality, or “AR,” applications. One is an educational demo where students have to refuel a fighter jet. The other teaches students how to do an engine transmission alignment on a helicopter using a device made by a business affiliate.

“They hold the tablet and they look around the room with all the equipment there, with some cranes, an engine and a transmission, and they have to work to do that alignment,” Canzoneri said. “Which is – just doing it visually – very difficult. It’s really letting the students sort of struggle for a little while and then handing them a Heads Up device.”

This small device attaches to safety glasses. The built-in LEDs light up to let students know the positions of the cranes and engine, which are all displayed on a smart tablet.

“It’s very easy to understand, very easy to play, always a success,” Canzoneri said. “The student really gets an idea of how augmented reality can really impact a real life process.”

For Canzoneri, choosing to work with Heads Up was a no-brainer:

“Heads Up, being a local Buffalo startup, was definitely a goal of ours to incorporate them in this project,” Canzoneri said.

Heads Up Display Co-founder Clark Dever said the device was recently used by the construction firm that built the new SolarCity plant. It was just recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as one of the most innovative solutions for preventing noise-induced hearing loss in the workplace.

“It’s a product for industrial safety,” Dever said. “So we put a noise monitor on a device that attaches to safety glasses and allows workers to know when they are in a hazardous environment and when they should put hearing protection in.”

Dever believes the opportunity to expand augmented reality goes far beyond commercial markets.

“I think we’re starting to see the first set of companies come out that are focused on real problems for people at work doing their job,” Dever said. “People are starting to see the economic drivers to develop the technology further, like applications that can be used to make money as opposed to just entertainment.”

Dever also believes our region can be a hub for these industries.

“In Rochester, it’s basically the optics capital of the world. You have expert engineers that are solving the problems with Heads Up Displays. In Buffalo, you have a long history of biosciences and software development and engineering in places like UB. Those two things combined create practical applications for augmented reality.”

Credit Patrick Koster / WBFO News
Dr. Ehsan Esfahani (left) poses with PhD student assistants Amirhossein Memar (center) and Hemanth Manjunatha (right) in the Human in the Loop System Laboratory at UB's North Campus.

Professor Ehsan Esfahani is director of the Human in the Loop System Laboratory at the University at Buffalo. The lab is a controlled system that hopes to use virtual reality to help stroke patients.

“After the stroke, you may not be able to completely do those kind of fine motor movements,” Esfahani said. “Now we have a robotic system, we have a haptic system which provides some additional force and moves your hand in that specific direction that you intend.”

The lab places electrode headsets on users that provides the system with instant feedback on user engagement. Esfahani is also working on a project that intends to help UAV pilots navigate multiple drones at the same time.

Technology is blending more and more into our daily lives. Researchers and developers steer the future.

Canzoneri said his group is in the early stages of developing an app that will virtually fit medical equipment onto people.

“When you start to get into the other applications, whether it’s around cancer research, cancer therapy, whether it’s around the tremendous number of medical device and medical appliance companies that are prevalent in the Buffalo area, there’s a significant opportunity there.”

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