As LITE moves toward self-sufficiency ahead of an expected end to state funding in the next fiscal year, Lafayette’s destination technology center is exploring new sources for revenue.
Like its parking lot.
There’s nothing cutting edge about the parking lot at the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise on Cajundome Boulevard. But when LITE’s 12-member staff took turns charging the public $10 to park in the 186-space lot during Ragin’ Cajuns football games last year, LITE earned about $9,000 in profit.
That’s an iota compared to LITE’s budgeted $2.1 million in expenditures this year, said Chief Operating Officer Erin Marietta.
“But what it’s going to do is give the team the tools they need to develop small-scale products that may be risky — but also may be life-changing,” Marietta said.
LITE operates on a budget that’s decreased by more than half since its $4.7 million budget in 2010. Its dozens of employees have been downsized to 12 since the center opened in 2006. And the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — which has reduced its funding of LITE from $1.8 million in 2013-14 to $755,000 this year — will discontinue that funding in the next fiscal year as the university struggles with its own budget constraints.
Meanwhile, the enterprise’s oil and gas clientele — LITE’s developers make customized products for the industry, like virtual training programs — has entered its own phase of financial woe as a global overabundance of oil has knocked prices to their lowest levels in almost six years.
“What’s happening in the current economy creates a contingency for our continued production of products for them,” says Paula Carson, Ph.D., LITE’s interim CEO and assistant vice president of institutional planning and development at UL-Lafayette.
LITE also makes money by leasing offices and its multiple venues and visualization facilities — including the Total Immersion Space, the six-sided virtual reality cave housed inside a colorful glass egg. But its 5,000-square-foot data center, where businesses can rent server space for their digital operations, has maintenance costs that total almost a quarter of LITE’s total budget.
The enterprise is looking to outsource that operation. In December, LITE issued a request for interest to fish for larger companies that may be interested in overseeing and maintaining the data center, which could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars to make up for the loss in state funding.
All this financial uncertainty makes the kind of risk-taking common for innovative tech firms more difficult for LITE, Carson said.
“We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what we can be and what we are no longer,” she said.
Cue the parking lot money. With the $9,000 in lagniappe funds, LITE was able to take a risk in purchasing untested technologies without taking a budgetary hit.
“Because if it worked, it would put us that much ahead of the competition in that particular market,” Carson said.
One project in its testing phases customizes software for patients with speech impediments, who range from children with developmental disabilities to adults recovering from a stroke.
“What we wanted to do is provide a more personal experience for the end user,” said software engineer Matthew Williamson, who’s been developing the product.
Traditionally, speech patients use mirrors to practice facial exercises that improve their articulation. LITE’s digital twist on that method involves a facial recognition software originally developed to create characters for video games.
Through a monitor-mounted webcam, the user’s facial expressions are mimicked on the screen by a character the user created — whether it’s a digital depiction of his real-life attributes or a zombie.
“The development of this particular project makes the painful task of watching yourself articulate vowels in the mirror much more engaging,” Carson said.
The project is just one effort to diversify LITE’s portfolio, Carson said.
“This is our initiative to develop a product line that is more mass market with a lower price point in its application,” she said. “Just some sort of enablement of our technology to help our clients become more successful in their lives.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.