Community Spotlight #1: Max Orozco

Max Orozco is a designer and creative technologist with a focus on human-centered design and clinical applications for VR. He graduated from USC with a masters in Integrated Design, Business, and Technology in 2020.

Tell us about your background.  

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where I stayed throughout my public school years until heading north for college at the University of San Francisco. I found myself falling in love with the brain during those formative undergraduate years, where I was studying both psychology and biology. I was particularly fascinated with the process our brains go through when we create and store new information. Shortly after graduating, I headed straight into academia by joining the psychology laboratories at UCSF. I was also working at a local non-profit working with children in the juvenile system, examining if clinical work would be in my future. When my time there concluded, I came back to Los Angeles to become a research associate at UCLA, where I continued my work with families and children to gather and manage data for our clinical studies.

Things took a turn when I began working with Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where I was brought onboard their Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory. Our team researched both the structural and developmental changes that occur throughout childhood using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) techniques, and it was here that my focus began to center around the topic of neuroscience and neuroimaging. This wonderful experience would end up setting the path for my work today.

From there, I came back home to East Los Angeles to USC, where I continued to study the topic of neuroimaging. One of the tools I enjoyed using during my time at CHLA was a Mock MRI scanner — a fiberglass model, play therapy,  to prepare children for a real MRI scan. As this is often an intimidating procedure for someone so young, having a way to prepare them was incredible helpful to get them accustomed to what they would experience. There was a great amount of literature and research that went into its creation, and the findings showed many benefits – reduced stress levels, decreased levels of sedation, and improved quality of scans were all among them. Given that our space here at USC made it difficult for us to have our own model to use, I was inspired to find a way to deliver it in a compact and efficient way. This became the impetus for the development of my latest project, Ready Teddy.

What sparked your interest in VR/AR?

Credit goes to my brother for getting me initiated to the world of Virtual Reality! He works as a film engineer, and owned a computer that was powerful enough to run an Oculus Developer’s Kit some years back. When he heard about the gaming capabilities of Virtual Reality, he purchased a developer’s kit and we dove in.  As one of six kids growing up with busy parents, we practically grew up on Nintendo – gaming is a big passion of ours! We were so impressed with what it could do as we got acquainted with its capabilities, and we decided to explore the use cases of the technology in healthcare.

We were especially interested in knowing what this technology could do to enrich the lives of populations that often experience decreased levels of mobility, such as the disabled and elderly. Ideas included expanded, or re-imagined experiences using virtual content, as well as the concept of reliving cherished memories in an immersive environment. We brought the very first project we worked on together to senior communities, where we volunteered to help them enjoy the use of this technology over the weekends. Their feedback helped us customize our materials to fit their needs more closely, which produced some excellent 360° videos that helped them feel more connected to the world beyond their apartments. We released this project open source so anyone could benefit from our user research.

Which of your professional accomplishments are you most excited about?

There are two projects in particular that I’ve been really excited about as of late! For starters, I’ve been very active with the annual MIT VR Hackathon, which hosts such an amazing and supportive community. Most of us who work in this field know that Virtual Reality isn’t all that lucrative, so anyone who still gives their all to the development of this medium typically does so out of their belief in the potential this technology has to change lives. This, in turn, tends to draw many dedicated creatives that are wholeheartedly driven in their pursuit to develop innovative content. This past January, I worked with a wonderful team on creating a facial detection application using a Magic Leap device, aimed for those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. We were the first development team to get facial detection working locally on a Magic Leap device and quickly published our build. The idea allowed for a number of great features to help sufferers of Alzheimer’s Disease navigate social situations as their memories became more difficult to access, such as the ability to recognize family members as well as caretakers who are new to them. Associated images and memories used for reminiscence therapy could also be displayed as faces were recognized by the application, which could help enrich the patient’s social activity for as long as possible. It was the first work of its kind to be developed, and although there were many misgivings about its potential for success, we were able to develop a working model within four or five days thanks to our belief in its usefulness. Our results have since been released to the public, and anyone is free to build upon it further. We believe very much in democratizing access to technology, so we were glad to make it available as an open source project.

My latest project – one that I have been working on diligently for the past year and a half – is called Ready Teddy, and draws from my experience with preparatory MRI procedures for children. Like the mock MRI, it gives children a preview of the sights and sounds they’ll experience to help them adjust to the real procedure – acknowledging portability, price, and feasibility that can present significant barriers to facilities around the world. Improving communication was something I set out to do with this project as well, as explaining and demonstrating exactly what to do can be a real challenge for kids. A question I’d often get from the children was whether being still meant that they were allowed to breathe or not, for example! Biofeedback mechanisms and motion sensors in the headset are able to take over where a clinician may have more trouble demonstrating the exact movements they’d need to do. All of these things help show them exactly what they need to do to get the best images possible. 

The first iteration that I had created was very cold and clinical, and didn’t really hit the mark as something a child would find fun and engaging. It wasn’t until I began to incorporate human-centered design – which was my focus of my graduate degree at USC – that I could make a version that was much more palatable and approachable for kids. As my work progressed, I found that there was another practical use for the application in clinical settings with the hopes of reducing dosage rates for sedation when undergoing an MRI. The less you have to use of these powerful sedative drugs on children, the better! The rates are especially high among those of lower socio-economic status and English learners, which makes the development of a procedure that’s much more accessible to them all the more important. With the combination of cost-effectiveness, ease of use, the ability to improve outcomes, and reduce the need for sedation, there’s potential for great clinical impact with this application. Since its launch, we’ve been hearing great things from hospitals all around the world, which has been incredibly fulfilling and exciting!

Is there anything on the horizon of VR and health that you’re especially looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the day when a VR headset can be found in almost everyone’s home, making access to immersive healthcare interventions and preparatory procedures like ReadyTeddy easy to receive remotely. In our current state, this vision is hard to deploy – Google Cardboard is a cost-effective option, but performance can vary with the quality of one’s phone and would require downloading additional software as well. However, we’ve already begun to see the future of healthcare change in a way that could pave the road for this sort of future, especially during the time of COVID-19. More attention is being given to care that can be delivered in the comfort of a patient’s home, meaning that VR interventions will certainly find greater reception in the near future.

On that topic, I’ve also been very excited to see developments surrounding the work of Akili Interactive, who recently received FDA approval this spring for their game EndeavorXR as a viable treatment for ADHD. The fact that a doctor can now prescribe a game with scientifically proven benefits for treating this population is fantastic, and I’ve been so impressed with the high standards they’ve held themselves to throughout the entire development process. In the often hyped-up world of VR, we need more developments based on reliable evidence rather than unsubstantiated claims in order to bring the medium forward. Their success holds great implications for the future of ADHD and VR, not to mention an endless number of needs that could benefit from this innovative medium. In a similar vein, the work of researchers and developers such as Mel Slater, Skip Rizzo, Marientina Gotsis, and many others who have dedicated their best efforts toward novel ways to apply VR have been wonderful to watch.

What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a similar path?

I think I would emphasize the fact that what we’re doing in the intersection of Virtual Reality and healthcare is uncharted territory. Be conscious of the fact that this is an uphill battle, but a worthy one! Having clinicians buy into the idea of a treatment and type of technology they’ve never used before, and that has yet to become broadly adopted within the world of healthcare, is naturally a struggle. Within academia, things are a bit different – you’re within an environment that actively encourages the pursuit of passion and innovation, while the world outside is much more concerned with matters such as efficacy, safety, and minimizing risk. Finding people who are interested in championing new technology is key, and that’s not an easy thing to do. For this reason, developing a product that is sound in its efficacy and data-driven is one of the most important guidelines for your work. And finally, getting your work out there won’t be quite the same as selling a product using all the typical marketing strategies. You’re essentially taking on a paradigm shift in the world of healthcare, which doesn’t happen overnight. That being said, be persistent! Apply your creativity with enthusiasm, employ solid human-centered design techniques to connect with your user, and involve the input of clinicians and your target population to make the most relevant product possible.

Anything you are passionate about, aside from AR/VR?

This should be an easy question, but my life for the past year and a half has been all about the development of my latest Ready Teddy project that there hasn’t been time for much else! Personal projects like this can take nearly everything you have in the way of attention and energy, especially when there is a deep sense of passion and purpose involved. Despite that, I’m satisfied knowing that I’ve been able to make a lasting contribution with this product, which more than makes up for the sacrifices involved. In the end, I’d say that my biggest passions are still those within the space of VR and health. Having an opportunity to change medicine, healthcare, and even the way we think about interventions themselves to improve our health and well-being makes for a great mission in life.

Other interests in my down time include cooking, gardening, and staying active – especially for the health benefits, when most of your day is spent sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end! While working toward improving the lives of others, developers in our sphere should also be very intentional about caring for our own health as well!

To learn more about Max and his work, visit his website at maxorozco.com.