This Startup Made a VR Experience to Reduce Chronic Pain

Breanna De Vera

Breanna de Vera is dot.LA's editorial intern. She is currently a senior at the University of Southern California, studying journalism and English literature. She previously reported for the campus publications The Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media.

This Startup Made a VR Experience to Reduce Chronic Pain

Josh Sackman, co-founder and president of AppliedVR, was born with congenital joint ligament abnormalities that left him with weak joints and introduced him early on to the world of health care.

The chronic pain sent him to hospital and doctors offices over the years. His surgeries and treatments often left him stressed and feeling isolated.


"Chronic pain is something that impacts 100 million Americans, just in the U.S. alone," said Sackman. "And [it affects] 1.5 billion people worldwide, costing $635 billion more than heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined."

Sackman recalls his eight-year-old self coming out of surgery in pain. He has had reconstructive surgery on his shoulders three times and several other related surgeries. His experiences inspired him to build a company that will lessen and make the chronic pain more manageable for others. He has had reconstructive surgery on his shoulder three times and several other related surgeries.

AppliedVR's products use virtual reality to take patients through mental exercises that help them cope. It's an option that could appeal, especially for those seeking alternatives to heavy drugs. The startup raised $29 million to continue developing products that help patients alleviate chronic pain, postoperative pain and anxiety. It's competing against companies like San Francisco-based Karuna Labs and Massachusetts-based XR Labs, which are also looking to treat chronic pain with virtual reality solutions.

"The pandemic was really disruptive [for health care]," Sackman said. "The typical care patients receive for chronic pain includes physical therapy visits with their doctors, often [also] injections, implants, surgical procedures and a number of other things that were just off access… We are addressing their quality of life, making fundamental improvements to how they're able to live their life, especially when dealing with pain, stress and isolation, more than ever."

Sackman and his co-founders Matthew Stoudt and David Sackman launched the Los Angeles-based company at the start of 2015. They had a shared interest in VR, but from a variety of perspectives. Stoudt's background was in advertising technology, and after watching a TedX talk on virtual reality, he saw a future in which screens in hospitals could do so much more than advertise. David Sackman previously worked at Lieberman Research, where he learned that VR has the ability to change behavior and build empathy.

"Virtual reality has so much promise and potential through all the studies and research we're seeing, but there were limitations around the hardware in terms of the form factor and pricing and usability," Josh Sackman said. "Our vision kind of came from translating concepts and design principles that have been proven in academic labs and translating them into real world applications."

After launching, the three got to work on their first product, SootheVR. It's already on the market, used by hospitals as a general wellness tool to help patients relax and be distracted from their pain. AppliedVR is expecting FDA approval for another version of SootheVR by the end of the year.

AppliedVR plans on using the Series A funding to further develop EaseVRx, the first virtual reality prescription treatment granted a "breakthrough device designation" by the FDA. This designation provides it closer access to the FDA, and could also mean it is covered by Medicare.

EaseVRx is a daily program that targets chronic low back pain. Patients put on the VR set and participate in an eight-week program that teaches different positive habits and coping skills to approach their pain management. The company will also double their team in the next year across all teams, including engineering and product marketing, said Josh Sackman.

The round includes investors F-Prime Capital, JAZZ Venture Partners, Sway Ventures, GSR Ventures, Magnetic Ventures and Cedars-Sinai. Many of these funds have other investments in the health care field, and it brings a diverse perspective to AppliedVR's decisions, Josh Sackman said.

"People very rarely think of the board, or their investor base, as part of their team," Josh Sackman said. "We try to, and really think through the same criteria of who we would hire, would bring into the business."

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

Cadence

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

Read moreShow less

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

Read moreShow less

Hollywood Decentralized: Meet the Artists Using AI To Dethrone Tinseltown

Andrew Fiouzi
Andrew Fiouzi is a freelance writer. He was previously a features writer at MEL Magazine where he covered masculinity, tech and true crime. His work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Long Reads and Vice, among other publications.
Hollywood Decentralized: Meet the Artists Using AI To Dethrone Tinseltown

When I first spoke to Jamil Mehdaoui, an architect and former Oculus employee, he’d just returned to Paris from a weeklong pilgrimage into the future of movie making. Mehdaoui describes his work as “a collaborative process” between himself and the artificial intelligence that brings dream worlds to life with just a few key words. On Zoom, he occasionally appeared frustrated. Eager. Unsure. Hopeful.

Like millions across the world, Mehdaoui is experimenting with Midjourney, a text to image program that generates images from a repository of data that spans the entire history of art and human existence as it’s cached online. Unlike millions, Mehdaoui is attempting to use this tool to make the first ever AI-generated feature film. And appropriately, he’s chosen to remake Pinocchio — the story of the first ever artificial boy.

Like the more well-known text to image AI tool — DALL-E — Midjourney’s output depends on art that’s already been made and photos already taken. But since Midjourney can’t read Mehdaoui’s mind (yet), it takes time to find the right levers to pull in order to get the AI to do what he wants it to.

For example, in Venice, Mehdaoui was focused on prompting the AI to generate images of a boy fashioned from gnarled, raw wood. The troubles were myriad. First, Mehdaoui says, “The moment you ask the AI for Pinocchio, you lose control. It puts you in Disney’s hands.” Meaning the images the AI generated were often too familiar. Too recognizable. The other issue was getting the AI to see or rather interpret beyond such a generic descriptor as “boy that looks like a log.” So, for days, Mehdaoui tinkered with his prompts until his fragmented vision, the one cradled only in his mind, came to life, authored by artificial intelligence.

As the director of the movie, Mehdaoui has full creative control over his AI-generated Pinocchio. But there’s no studio backing his project. Instead, he’s one of 750 artists, architects, AI engineers, storytellers, animators, game designers, interoperability explorers and business folks who have joined together to dethrone Hollywood.

The Culture DAO is a “metaverse guild” assembled by Edward Saatchi, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Fable, an artificial intelligence-powered virtual being company, and the founder of Oculus Story Studio. Members of the DAO include current and former storytellers from Pixar, Lucasilm and Oculus, many of whom are currently working on an amuse-bouche of fairy tales, horror flicks, animations and live-action shorts.

Saatchi assembled the guild out of a concern that the most zealous artists interested in AI might waste too much time playing around with new features. “You could go two years, making very small demos and creating nothing substantial that’s going to last for 100 years,” he says. And since Saatchi believes AI-generated media is the beginning of a new art form, it was important, he says, to “encourage artists to find personal stories they want to tell that are empowered by AI.”

One of those artists is Scott Lighthiser — a VFX artist who studied production in college and has been experimenting with filmmaking techniques ever since. “But when Stable Diffusion [another AI powered text to image model] was released I could generate super realistic cinematic images,” he says.

Unlike Mehdaoui, who’s using AI text to image programs to animate a feature film, Lighthiser is working iteratively on developing short live-action clips. He’s posted a few of these videos on Twitter. The response has largely been one of shock. It seems few people expected the AI to be this good, this quickly. The first video shows how Stable Diffusion can add a layer that further immerses Lighthiser’s own face into a purple-skinned character. The second flaunts Stable Diffusion’s ability to quickly disguise Lighthiser’s body, rendering variations of a hissing monster. That Lighthiser was able to create these short clips on his own, a week apart, is part and parcel of how the Culture DAO plans to take on Hollywood.

“Being able to make animated movies not in seven years but in several weeks or being able to make live-action, effect heavy, content not in several years with hundreds of millions of dollars but in several weeks and with thousands of dollars, I think is going to massively democratize what’s possible,” says Edward Saatchi.Their recent progress aside, Saatchi’s proposition to decentralize Hollywood by democratizing access to the resources of a studio is still in its infancy. The Culture DAO’s current slate of content is mainly focused on horror and animation. Horror because audience expectations around having stars and a big budget are lower and the AI program offers some really creepy effects. And animation because the output is more technically suited to AI text-to-image programs.


AI Pinnochio movie poster Image courtesy of Jamil Mehdaoui

But even in this time of great daydreams and ambition, not everything is going according to the plan. Since our initial conversation, Mehdaoui has already had to parcel his concept for the first feature length AI film into seven serialized episodes. And though Lighthiser’s short clips suggest a light at the end of the tunnel, they’re far from a finished product. “If we're talking about shooting an empty room and processing it to look like a 19th century Victorian mansion, I don't think we're there yet but probably pretty close,” says Lighthiser. “I think using AI in conjunction with LED Volume technology has the potential to be extremely powerful. But eventually you'd want to be able to take your phone out, point your camera at a barn and say ‘turn the barn into a spaceship’ and it renders it in real time.”

Naturally, there will always be detractors who argue any AI-generated art is merely “visual gibberish.” In fairness, much of what appears on Twitter does appear that way. Others critics have genuine ethics and copyright concerns. Like—what happens if everyone’s AI art steals from the same artist?

But Saatchi says these concerns are the growing pains at the frontier of a new artform. This moment, he says, is like the early days of Pixar. Back when the technology company failed to sell computer hardware and pivoted toward creating computer-animated shorts.

If even half of what the Culture DAO is promising becomes reality, Hollywood’s place as the entertainment capital of the world is imperiled. Most of the members of the DAO are spread all across the world. To some degree, this reckoning is already underway: In August Belfast-based composer and computer artist Glenn Marshall won the Jury Award at the Cannes Short Film Festival for his AI film “The Crow.”

More recently, Fabian Seltzer, co-founder of the Culture DAO along with Saatchi, was in the news for his AI-generated, choose-your-own-adventure movie fashioned after 70s-era sci-fi films. Both projects were essentially created out of an individual's home office.

“What I saw at Pixar—what I see in VFX— is that brilliant people who might not be entrepreneurial enough to start up their own studio, are being crushed in their creativity because it’s such a factory system,” says Saatchi. “It’s shifted to being about cost management and the creativity has gone down and these projects require so many people and so many resources.”

With AI, however, the number of people it takes and the amount of money required to make a Pixar-quality film doesn’t just have the potential to be cut in half, it might well be a fraction of the $200 million budgeted to produce many of these movies.

Saatchi’s message to the folks in Hollywood? “It’s time to get out and develop your own project.”

RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS
LA TECH JOBS
interchangeLA
Trending