Mitzi Ruiz, USAA's strategic innovation director for emerging technology, presents the company's empathy lab, which uses an assortment of smart devices to detect post traumatic stress disorder events. Credit: JJ Velasquez / San Antonio Report

Walk into USAA’s new innovation and co-working space, and here’s what you’ll encounter: a disembodied “virtual assistant” voice greeting visitors, a smart mirror on a wall providing weather updates, and an internet-of-things nexus of devices showcasing the ability to detect someone’s post-traumatic stress disorder episodes by reading heart and breathing rates.

The San Antonio insurance and financial services giant has been working to draw inspiration from its members and more than 33,000 employees worldwide, and the innovation space will serve as a clearinghouse for new ideas, Chief Innovation Officer Zachary Gipson said.

“When I think about what this space means for us it’s really a celebration of our employees,” Gipson said. “Any employee can be part of innovation, and over 92 percent of our employees choose to be part of that process every year.”

USAA CEO Stuart Parker (left) and Chief Innovation Officer Zachary Gipson cut a ribbon as the new innovation exhibit and co-working space is unveiled. Credit: JJ Velasquez / San Antonio Report

The company wants to take creative ideas from members and their employees – including some 19,000 in the San Antonio area – and turn them into marketable products. Last year, their innovation teams received about 9,200 ideas from roughly 30,000 participants; they implemented 1,324 ideas from employees throughout the company nationwide, said Pablo Sandoval, employee innovation director.

A tree of gold pendants lines the wall of the innovation center at the company’s Fredericksburg Road headquarters. The plates represent the patents that USAA has filed thanks to employee’s ideas and designs.

USAA employees who submit innovative ideas accumulate points in an internal rewards system that can be redeemed for prizes, a company spokesman said.

Among the innovations the company is piloting in its new facility is a so-called “empathy lab” – a room that uses smart home technology and wearables to detect when someone has a PTSD episode. Through this, USAA wants a ground-level look at how its members – especially those with accessibility needs, such as vision and hearing impairment –live in their homes, said Mitzi Ruiz, strategic innovation director for emerging technology.

“So that’s how we came up with the idea to create several different home vignettes,” Ruiz said, adding that the connected voice-recognizing devices can help USAA members with visual impairments and other accessibility needs.

The empathy lab idea sprang from a USAA-hosted hackathon, a short-term event in which programmers cram-code new innovations.

Visitors to USAA’s innovation exhibit experience augmented reality. Credit: JJ Velasquez / San Antonio Report

“Some of our employees who were in the room had an idea and said ‘How can we use emerging home technology to help detect when a member may be going through some sort of emotional duress, and in less than 24 hours they had built a whole prototype around sensing heart rate and breathing and using that information to inform the lighting and the music and the mood in the home,” Gipson said.

A smart watch or a FitBit can monitor vital signs of someone with PTSD as they watch television. For example, if upsetting TV content triggers a traumatic physical response, the devices can pick up the elevated vital signs and automatically respond by playing calming music or lowering lights. The devices can also prompt a call to a family member or other emergency contact.

The empathy lab exhibit was part of a simulated apartment installation that showcased such technologies as the smart mirror, which featured weather updates and access to an online calendar. The apartment was also equipped with Alexa, the Amazon virtual assistant; smart lighting; and other internet-connected devices.

Also on display Friday were drones, artificial intelligence, an Alexa skill that provides financial insights via voice recognition, augmented reality that can be used to train employees, and a before-and-after interactive map deployed about 12 hours after Hurricane Harvey hit.

The free map allowed residents in the hurricane’s path to view current satellite images of their homes and assess the damage.

The new innovation space will feature co-working facilities for local and national companies that collaborate with them.

Asked when such innovations as the empathy lab could hit the market, Gipson said it is too soon to tell, but USAA will rely on its employees – and members – to improve on the product and hopefully make it commercially available.

“The worst thing you can do is keep things in labs for too long,” he said. “Innovation can’t just be about ideas in a lab; it’s got to be about creating value and getting things in [people’s] hands.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.