Virtual reality startup founded on campus brings new experiences to children’s hospitals

by Jadyn Brandt, Staff Writer

Lift Your Eyes is a virtual reality startup company formed by linguistics senior Armando Flores, accounting senior Karina Ornelas and SDSU alumnus Nicholas Ray.

Their goal is to bring experiences to people who wouldn’t normally be able to encounter them.

Flores came up with the idea of a virtual reality headset that could be used to enhance the experience of children in hospitals — inspired by his own family experiences. 

“My sister, she had cancer when we were kids, and that was the basis for the idea,” Flores said. “She was given the opportunity to go to Disney World, (but) a week before that they had to cancel the trip because her white blood cells dipped to a point where she wasn’t able to go.”

Flores said VR can be a way to bring experiences to people like his sister.

“I had always wished, as well as my family, to bring Disney World to her in some capacity,” Flores said. “Now with virtual reality, we can do that.”

Flores brought his idea to SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Platform Launchpad, where he connected with Ornelas on her first day. Flores brought the original idea and an artistic side to the project, while Ornelas focused more on the numbers. Both said that they felt supported on all ends of the project by ZIP Launchpad mentors.

“I hate finance,” Flores said. “Give me a pencil, and I’ll draw and I’ll be creative as much as possible, but I’m getting an understanding of it because of our mentors and because of (Ornelas).”

Ornelas said she felt a strong connection to the project because of her drive to help others. She saw Lift Your Eyes as a way to step outside the confines of her classes and do something to create real change.

“I was telling (my counselor) how I don’t see myself waking up every day and working in an office with a bunch of people who just care about money,” Ornelas said. “That’s just not who I am. I’d feel purposeless.” 

She also told her counselor she wanted to make a difference before being introduced to the project. 

“I was telling (my counselor) about how I want to help people and make a difference. Then I met Armando and he told me about his idea to help kids and it was kind of like what I wanted to do, we’re making a difference in someone’s life.”

Ray joined the team after meeting Flores in 2018, according to SDSU NewsCenter. Flores was looking for someone with experience in sales, and Ray accepted a position as the team’s marketing and sales director.

The project is currently running a 16-week pilot at the San Diego Airport’s Innovation Lab, in hopes of achieving a contract with the airport to fund the project in hospitals. Ornelas said they are also working to determine what kinds of content customers like best. Eventually, the team hopes to raise enough funding to create their own VR content.

“I want us to create our own content but I know we’re not there yet so we’ve just been using the Oculus and licensing out different content to see what passengers like,” Ornelas said.

The team is also looking to create content that promotes recovery among patients as well as self-efficacy and an overall concept of belief in their potential to heal, according to NewsCenter.

The team hopes to have VR devices in local children’s hospitals, Ornelas said. She also said bringing VR into the hospitals would be a way to introduce video games and relaxation in an easy, portable manner.

“We want to have (the technology) available to (hospital patients) so they can use it whenever,” Ornelas said. “There’s no risk because they don’t have to leave. We basically want to enhance their experience in the hospital through virtual reality: games, relaxation experiences, the zoo, the ocean.”

Flores said he has been hopeful throughout the entire process, yet has tried to stay realistic about the possibility of failure, although the project hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

“I never imagined it would get to this point,” Flores said. “I kept showing up saying, ‘If there’s a wall I get it, it’s not going to happen’ but I was still going to keep working on it. We never hit that wall, and we haven’t yet and it’s been amazing.”