The process of trying out new augmented reality and virtual reality hardware is as personal as it gets. The bottom line is that if you can’t try these immersive devices right away, it’s hard to really understand the benefits they can bring to your life and work.
That’s why the Covid-19 pandemic is a particularly daunting challenge for the many AR / VR hardware makers around the world who want to mainstream their products in a new world where almost everyone has, understandably, become a little germaphobic.
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Rising to that challenge is Cleanbox, a Nashville-based startup led by co-founder and CEO Amy Hedrick (a new member of the NR30). If you̵
Adario Strange: I was very excited to profile you in our annual NR30 because what you do with Cleanbox is very unique to the new challenges inherent in the current pandemic. And I’m not ashamed to admit this publicly, but as a germaphobe, and especially as a journalist germaphobe, when I go to all the different conferences, be it CES or AWE in Santa Clara, wherever I go, I always get a little crazy about trying publicly used VR headsets and AR headsets. Because even if they are wiped in between, the human face collects a lot of oil, bacteria and dirt. So when I found out about your business, I was very excited. I’m pretty sure you started the business before all this pandemic madness we’ve been through over the past year, so can you give me the short story of how you got started?
Amy Hedrick: We started about six years ago because we believed in the immersive technology industry and had a vision of how we could impact not only the entertainment experiences, but real education and engagement, and distance training and so many business applications. And when we looked at that, we thought of people sharing hardware that sits on your face and head that is very sensitive in terms of electronics and how it’s built. There was a problem we saw as an entry barrier. And what we wanted to do was address the mitigation point of it, and do it in a safe, easy, and consistent and reliable way.
That’s really where Cleanbox came from, have a vision of what XR could do, possibly for businesses and industries around the world, and then think about all the problems. Hygiene was one of them. The company started with that concept, but we took that proprietary engineering and we really branched out well beyond XR as we are able to solve additional B2B business problems related to hygiene, and Covid-19 just happens to be kind of stress the importance of hygiene.
Next reality: Earlier you said you patented the Cleanbox device about six years ago, but when did you release your first piece of hardware, your first product?
Hedrick: Our first commercial product was about two and a half years ago. We spent a few years really tweaking our engineering so that we could provide hospital level [devices]Also note that for our [https://cleanboxtech.com/cx-series CX series] all of our cycle times are 60 seconds because we know it’s important for suppliers to have high throughput. And second, but equally important, you want the product to look good and not conflict with your own branding. That’s really what the look and feel of Cleanbox was about as a trusted brand.
Next reality: Were you already involved in the VR / AR space?
Hedrick: I have a background in entertainment. My co-founder (David Georgeson), our CTO, worked in gaming and I worked in film. That’s why we were very sensitive to what the entertainment process gives the end user in a way that they’ll quickly adopt, love, and want to do it again and again.
Several years ago, I wrote for a Hong Kong-based think tank about changes in technology and how they would be good enough to influence global consumer behavior and the way companies approach their own products. So I was in a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution in DC, and I had this idea … I thought immersion technology would be a brilliant answer to sharing their 155 million content objects. That’s where it started. When Cleanbox was developed it was one of many patents my co-founder and I applied for. It was a solution to a problem that, frankly, didn’t quite exist.
Next reality: With AR you have all these different solutions, waveguides, etc., the lens versions are treated in different ways. So when I heard about Cleanbox, my first question was whether the cleaning process would somehow alter or change some lenses, even in subtle ways, and how do they work?
Hedrick: We tested with several of the top three HMD manufacturers, both on the VR and AR side. And we have some anonymized wet lab test results that we have on our website, with a joint white paper on UVC [aka Ultraviolet C, a type of ultraviolet light] hygiene. What makes it so effective in decontamination is that it does not naturally occur in the atmosphere. So what it does is it disrupts the DNA and RNA strands of contaminants. But it’s a very short wavelength of light, and it has a short impact. So that’s why it’s actually pretty safe for use. So the way we do it is for the maximum impact, in terms of killing infections, and in the safest way. That’s a long way to put it [the Cleanbox process] does not affect these special lenses or electronics.
Next reality: Everyone is even more concerned about germs now. But there are no events. So I’m just curious how you and your team navigated this situation where we need your product, but the number of events and public opportunities to demonstrate what you are doing is now a bit limited due to the pandemic?
Hedrick: You’re right, there aren’t many of them [events right now]But that has not affected our business. And I think in that sense that we are lucky. And that’s because we work across multiple industries, from government to aerospace, manufacturing, entertainment and healthcare. We are very active in all of those spaces, and there are use cases of virtual and augmented reality in each of those spaces. Now they may not be as publicly visible as some of those organizations don’t necessarily share their data. I would say, without patting ourselves too much on the back, we actually helped keep many of these enterprise training programs alive during Covid-19. For example, there’s a hospital in California that has never stopped their virtual reality management program, and they treated more than 1,000 patients during the peak time of Covid-19 this past summer. With the help of Cleanbox, they were able to do it safely. And that makes me very happy.
Next reality: Again, just taking care of my own germaphobe, let’s say I’m at a conference, right? And some sweaty, greasy guy puts on a HoloLens 2, and then he takes it off. And then the display person puts it into a cleanbox device and carries out the 60 second cleaning process. If they take it out, do they still have to wipe it clean? I guess you still have to wipe off the oil, grease and moisture and all that stuff, right?
Hedrick: That’s a great question, because there is a second component to our products that we supply, namely a textile nano coating. It is a water-based hydrophobic spray that you can spray – once, once every six months – onto any soft fabric on the headset. So if, for example, you have foam or Velcro, or whatever substance, you can actually spray it on and that makes it hydrophobic. Of course, what that does is keep the moisture on the surface of that soft material, making it that much easier to dry. Our CX series also has an internal fan system that continues to blow whatever moisture is on the top of that headset, letting you know when it evaporates. We actually work with Black Box VR, a virtual gym. They also use our products with the nano coating.
Next reality: Okay, now let’s take a look at the virus everyone is thinking about: Covid-19. Has your team specifically undergone Covid-19 testing to ensure that Cleanbox fights this virus on devices?
Hedrick: We’ve done our own Covid-19 tests ourselves. It’s not easy to find a lab that could actually test for us because if you want to actually test against SARS-CoV-2, you need a biohazard level three lab, not a level two or one. So you have to go to a BL (biosafety lab) three and higher. We were lucky enough to get into a BL three lab where they had SARS-CoV-2, we submitted a few of our products, we tested against it, and we did it on N95 masks. And we did it on a few things, a regular flat surface, as well as multiple layers of N95 masks, both were inoculated with the virus, they were tested according to the protocol in place, and then they were evaluated. And so we can confidently say yes, we know that UVC light can kill a number of contaminants based on a number of factors, but we know that our Cleanbox technique kills Covid-19 on surfaces and textiles and multiple layers of masks.
Next reality: As someone who works with many of these AR and VR headset companies, I assume that you will work with some of them to some extent to meet their specifications and their needs. Did you see anything interesting on the horizon?
Hedrick: We work closely with many of these companies, and for those reasons, I don’t want to get in trouble with any of them. But let’s go back to one of your original questions: why did I get into this in the first place? Why? Because I saw XR’s power finally making up for its promise. And I keep seeing that. So I’m really excited about what I’m going to see in my new home with my next AR headset and my next VR headset.