June 10, 2022
“Startups are full of surprises,” says Aditi Majumder, CALIT2 researcher, professor of computer science, and founder and CEO of Summit Technology Laboratory (STL). “Perseverance and optimism are the key.”
Majumder started her company in 2015. With expertise in computer graphics, visualization, and virtual reality, she developed a novel display technology that allows anyone to create collaborative reality experiences by precisely controlling the light emitted from multiple off-the-shelf projectors on objects and surfaces of any shape and size. The multiprojection mapping software creates a high-resolution, scalable plug-and-play display system and has applications in varied environments: education, trade shows, training simulations and entertainment.
With a National Science Foundation Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2017, STL was making good progress in growing its small business. It had presented collaborative reality experience displays at multiple venues, including the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture in 2018 and the Discovery Cube children’s science museum in Orange County in 2019, and began pursuing applications for tradeshows. It had grown from three employees in 2017 to nine in 2019. However, when the pandemic hit, this sector completely shut down, forcing the young company to pivot.
What could have been a serious slump for Majumder and STL turned into a fortuitous juncture. Her team had recently entered xTechSearch, a U.S. Army nationwide competition for nondefense businesses and startup technology companies to award and accelerate new technologies that could help solve Army challenges. Majumder made it to the top 50 and walked away with three free passes to the 2020 Association of the United States Army annual meeting and exhibit.
“This was a turning point for STL. We were able to explore many federal agencies and defense contractors at the conference and find the pain point for defense visualization needs,” says Majumder. Afterward, she made an important contact through LinkedIn: retired Major General Stephen Clark, who has since joined STL as chief business officer. He was impressed by the STL technology and was able to apply his own experience to understanding the possibilities of projected collaborative displays for tactical field operations or in command and control centers.
“During any crisis, be it a war or natural disaster, first responders rely on critical data in order to make lifesaving decisions,” explains Clark. “With the proliferation of sensors and data analytics, the mass amounts of information available to operators can become obfuscated by the limited format available to display it. What we can absorb and understand through a 15-inch laptop is very different than when viewed on a 150-inch display.”
Clark notes that in defense and disaster management industries, millions of dollars are invested annually in digital visualization tools that combine artificial intelligence with Internet-of-Things sensors to speed overall decision making but very little to advance how it is displayed. “Since STL’s product is ruggedized and highly portable, it is perfect for tactical units that have to pack up and change locations often, as the system sets up in under 30 minutes with two people and breaks down in about 15 minutes,” he says.
After identifying the fact that its collaborative reality technology can enhance an important function within the defense industry, STL has attained six contracts to develop products with the Department of Defense Air Force. In the past three years, they’ve received two SBIR Phase 1, two SBIR Phase 2, one SBIR Direct to Phase 2 and one Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase 1 contracts, for a total of $4.2 million in funding.
Many of these products center around transportable interactive displays that can be used to enhance situational awareness and collaborative decision making in many different applications, such as command and control, base operations, emergency response, disaster recovery and intelligence analytics.
The STL team showcased one such product, the Decision Pod, to Air Force personnel in September 2020 at an advanced battle management system exercise at Nellis Air Force Base. The Decision Pod is a portable, pack-and-go, large, high-quality interactive display that can be either flat or curved (for greater immersion). It can be deployed by two people in under 30 minutes and requires no special power or audio-visual equipment. It was used as part of the exercise to visualize and explore data analytics created by 3D remote virtual ops platform Immersive Wisdom. According to Lieutenant Colonel Adam Chitwood, who led the exercise, “The tech demonstration exceeded all expectations. The big display was easy to see and was preferred by all users over VR goggles. After a few nights of reduced sleep, we found the big display much easier to use than a laptop screen.”
In 2021 with the STTR funding, STL explored the feasibility of using a hand gesture-based interface to not only control the data projected on their collaborative display by a UAV but also to fly the UAV. “We wanted to answer the question: Could we fly a small drone with our hand, as opposed to a joystick?” says Clark.
STL is piloting the system with an electric-powered, vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. This would allow simultaneous visualization of terrain conditions and other areas observed by the UAV as its path is continuously manipulated – all controlled by the user’s hand gestures.
“This is much more lucid,” explains Clark. “As the user, from the time I see and know what I want to do, my hand is already moving there naturally. I don’t have any man-machine interfaces that cause delays. This will provide key decision-makers rapid, precise understanding of salient terrain features, spatial relationships between assets and target areas, time-and- distance challenges for logistics, in addition to air traffic density.”
Even with seven patents issued, three pending and recent funding successes, Majumder is looking toward future markets for the next growth opportunity. “Our immediate goals are to take the products we have built for the defense sector and apply them to the emergency management and disaster recovery and risk mitigation market. In the long term, we want to address other markets with the same technology,” says Majumder.
She thinks medical could be next. The team is working on a product to project surgical stencils that could be used by plastic surgeons for guidance, training and remote collaboration in underserved areas of the world. It would allow a surgeon to project guidance directly onto the body part that needs surgery, for instance a child with a cleft lip. The system projects light, conformal to the surface area, to indicate incision points rather than the current practice of inking.
Muhammad Twaha Ibrahim, a UCI graduate student in computer science, is working on the stencils as an STL intern. He’s shadowed a few surgeons to understand the current practice. “These incision points mark important facial landmarks. Ultimately, the position of these points tells the surgeon where to make the incisions and then stitch the lip so the reconstructive face looks correct. Obviously, it’s really important to get it right.”
Ibrahim says that these surgeries typically occur when children are very young, under 1 year old. Their skin is tender. The STL surgical stencils could be safer and allow for more online collaborative consultation. The company has submitted a fast track grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health for funding the project.
“Building a good team is hard and takes perseverance,” says Majumder. “It is the biggest hurdle that a startup faces. It took me years to build the solid team of 10 that we have today. A blend of experience and dynamism is what makes the magic.”
She also says that having her Visualization Lab located in the CALIT2 building is helpful, as it’s in the midst of the UCI ecosystem on campus, which is critical to fostering collaborations with researchers in other schools.
“I am forever grateful for the space that CALIT2 provided us during those early years and the connections it brought for us,” explains Majumder. “CALIT2 connected us with a vibrant student community, helping us to give back as well. We have multiple interns who are getting exposed to our new company and technology, which is a huge blessing.”
– Lori Brandt