Virtually real

Being able to visualise how something will work has long been advantageous when developing new products or processes. JOHAN BOUWER, head of VR/New Technology, Simulated Training Solutions, explains how the game has moved on to the immersive world of virtual reality.

Many people thought Jeff Hawkins was going looney. For months on end he would randomly produce a wooden block from his shirt pocket, poke at it with his finger (often while talking to it) before pocketing it again. Then he’d continue his conversation with you as if nothing had happened.

But Hawkins wasn’t losing it, he was playing it smart. He was pretotyping. Yes, with an “e”. See, Hawkins was co-founder of Palm Computing, and inventor of the Palm Pilot – the very first Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA. One could arguably see this as the great-grandfather of the smartphones of today.

About ten years earlier, Hawkins developed one of the first handheld computers – the GriDPad. Although an engineering marvel, it failed miserably – it was just too big and lumpy to carry around. In retrospect, he realised that the device should’ve been much smaller. Palm Computers took another stab at it, but this time around he was going to approach it right. He was going to pretotype.

Whenever Hawkins needed to look up a phone number, pencil in a diary appointment or make a note, he would yank out his block, and pretend to use it as a computer. This allowed him to focus on the consumer requirements for the device, and not only the technical requirements.

He wasn’t asking, “Could I build it?”; he was asking, “Should I build it?” This saved the company millions of dollars and years of development time in building the wrong product – again.

Where prototyping allows people to see if something would work, pretotyping allows people to see if something would work as intended.

VR training can demonstrate on-site dangers without actually endangering the participants.

Ghosts in the machine

In building mine-safety training programmes, we make use of a similar approach to ensure we (and the client) get it right before starting with the more expensive production processes.

We first produce a ghosting animation – a simplistic black-and-white animation showing the storyline, technical workings, and movement of objects or characters. Although the script may have been approved by the client, it is only once words are presented as pictures that not-so-obvious issues come to light. Discovering these problems early on saves a great deal of time and production costs later on.

Some case studies include where we’ve helped engineers discover flaws in their design’s mechanical operation (something a static CAD file won’t show), or where complex rock-mechanics stress visualisations highlighted problems in support and safety procedures previously thought to be sufficient.

The outsider perspective

It’s not unusual for us to identify issues even earlier – during the briefing, scoping or prep phases. It is our job to visualise what the client needs, so we have to make sense of it first. If we don’t understand properly, we can’t visualise properly. And this is where we ask some critical questions. Why this, what about that?

As “outsiders”, we’re not prone to “insider assumptions”. We don’t accept that things will simply work. We need to see all the components fit together as part of the whole for it to make sense. That’s not because the client is stupid; sometimes they just miss a simple detail.

STS has developed its 3D Virtual Cube, which places the user right inside the virtual environment and makes them a part of the virtual experience.

Subject experts often skip smaller “insignificant” details, or the “obvious” stuff, when sharing their ideas or providing training content. These bits are, however, the glue; the links, that hold the bigger pieces together. They may also become so focused on the end product that they (and I mean this in no bad way), develop a form of tunnel vision to the end goal; missing issues on the sides, just as Hawkins missed out on simple ergonomics with his first, lumpy computer.

Sometimes during the scripting phase we discover that everything doesn’t quite add up – even in procedures that have been taught and followed for years on the mine. The reason is that we are forced to study and evaluate the procedures in order to build an animation. We look at it with a completely fresh set of eyes.

Sometimes our concerns are put at ease, and through that we learn, but at other times our questions send the engineers back to the drawing board – quite literally.

Getting IN the game

Visualisation remains an immensely powerful tool. From explaining complex abstract concepts in a way that everybody can understand – such as horizontal and seismic stress effects on strata and underground operations – to improving production (up to 27 percent in this case) by simply explaining to workers (in a way they understand) why following an approved shuttle-car loading procedure is better than filling the cars to capacity.

In order to take it to the next level, we need to fully embrace virtual reality (VR).

Applications for VR include anything from virtual meetings in a “cyber room” (above) to simulated training exercises (left).

Immersive VR systems like the STS3D VR Wall, STS3D CUBE, or commercially available head mount displays (HMDs), place one right inside the virtual environment. Users are not staring at a small flat screen that takes up less than ten percent of their visual field. The environment is all around them: they are experiencing the content, not merely looking at it. This level of immersion puts the user in a state of “suspension of disbelief” – a phenomenon that makes them a part of the experience. It’s like watching a good Spielberg movie – the user gets so involved, they simply forget about the rest of the world.

Once in this state, the brain is like a dry sponge. One pays more attention, sees more detail, takes more in, and remembers things much, much better.

I remember when we first took one of our TARP programs into a VR HMD environment. Looking at a trigger like a joint or a brow was a whole different experience from looking at the same trigger on a computer screen. With the HMD one could sense the mine, feel the danger. The risk was present – the disconnect was gone.

We’ve had many a giggle at people ducking and dodging, stepping over virtual obstacles that simply aren’t really there. Watching somebody nervously retreat when “standing at the edge of an open shaft” never fails to raise a smile.

However, apart from the fun factor, this real sense of the environment allows one to see things one wouldn’t normally see on screen. We’ve often spotted mistakes on 3D models inside the HMD that we simply didn’t notice before.

This technology works so well that we now use the HMD to place 3D models of our immersive hardware installations within 3D models of the proposed venue before we commit to any hardware purchases. Then we can walk around the venue, rearrange the equipment until we find the best fit, and experience the final layout on a real-life 1:1 scale. This allows us, the client and the engineer to approve and sign off before any real fabrication starts.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones who’ve come to this realisation. Recently HMD manufacturer Meta announced that it has joined forces with Dassault Solidworks to visualise CAD drawings. The reason? Speed, accessibility, and efficiency… 

A final word

When all is said and done, visualisation helps reduce waste in more ways than one, right from the start – whether it’s pitching and conceptualising the idea, ghosting the procedure, educating the workforce or experiencing the full might of an immersive VR world.

So, maybe it’s time you started having conversations with a piece of wood.

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SHEQ Management

SHEQ MANAGEMENT is the definitive source for reliable, accurate and pertinent information to guarantee environmental health and safety in the workplace.
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