Virtual Reality and its place in the Real World
When an employee lands a new job, the onboarding process begins. A big part of that is training.
But training is changing, and depending on which company the employee works for, that training could include a trip to a whole other world… well virtually speaking.
Virtual Reality is all the rage when it comes to new processes being adopted by companies during the current technology disruption.
With the right idea and the right company, a realistic simulation can be created for the purpose needed. And the need seems to be in training. VR training simulations can run the gambit when it comes to preparing a new employee for a new job. The simulations can provide ‘on-the-job’ experience long before the new employee is on the actual job, and can be manipulated during its duration to create new learning opportunities.
The idea is to create a world as realistic as possible both in function and in form. That said, what are the benefits? According to Industrial Training International’s (ITI) Director of VR and Online Learning Pinky Gonzales, there are many, but all of them really boil down to four categories: safety, consistency, cost, and emersion.
“With safety, one of the great benefits is that you can put people in, otherwise, very unsafe environments that can be, in the case of cranes, for example, can be high winds, it can be putting an operator around electrical equipment or things that can electrocute you, in between things like railroad cars that can squish you and so forth,” Gonzales said. “So, for obvious reasons, being able to put somebody in an, otherwise, unsafe-for-humans kind of scenario is really key.”
Consistency, Gonzales said, is one of the lesser-realized benefits of VR training. He gave the example of giving a person a driving test in VR. Outcomes can vary based on conditions, say daylight and clear conditions versus nighttime and rainy conditions. In a VR simulation, you can focus on the driver's performance.
“So consistency allows you to measure those results over time. It allows you to measure the performance of one operator versus another with a quantitative framework rather than qualitative,” he said. “And it allows you to show, you know, as they do improve exactly how. Did they knock down a wall or did they not is something you can observe and that the consistency that VR provides allows you to view that in a scientifically accurate manner.”
One of the more popular areas of interest in terms of VR is the cost.
“VR hardware just continues to come down in cost. Facebook actually just announced their Oculus Rift, which is one of the premier headsets, is now going to be permanently priced at $400 with the headset and the hand controllers,” Gonzales said. But a company would need more than just the headset. They’ll need a decent computer as well. Add another $2,000 to that and a person would be well equipped to experience VR at a high level.
Finally, emersion. VR is presented in 3D. While that’s a big part of a simulation, so too must other characteristics such as depth perception.
“They call it the 6 degrees of tracking. I can stand up and actually be at an elevated point in VR. I can sit down and be lower as well as looking all around. So that gives you that true sense of presence,” Gonzales explained. “So you want somebody to be fully present, fully captivated in the moment when you're training them in that scenario.”
Virtual reality has always been considered futuristic, but it’s not uncommon for science fiction to become reality. Take the original Star Trek series, for instance. Captain James T. Kirk would pull his sleek, black Communicator off his belt, flip open the gold antenna and call the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Virtual reality is no different with movies and books using the technology to further a story line. Now, companies are using it for their own purposes.
Take UPS for instance.
The company is using virtual reality to train drivers long before they step foot in an actual truck. Trainees are strapped into a VR headset that allows them to see and hear. During the simulation, students are taught to spot road hazards while on a route. They have to verbally identify the hazards such as people and oncoming traffic. The outcome: teach drivers to think about safety and react accordingly to hazards.
Not to be left behind, Walmart is doing the same in terms of training. They are putting new associates in training scenarios, allowing them to experience situations they will most likely encounter while on the job. One of those includes a training simulation for Black Friday.
Augmenting Video Learning
Training in VR doesn’t have to rely on 360 degree video. Gonzales said VR can, in fact, augment video learning.
“Pick a subject. We can talk about it. We can show examples. We can do dramatizations. We have talking heads. We can do interviews. We can have text on screen. Literally all of those would apply to VR because we can show video in VR whether or not it's 3D or 360,” Gonzales said. “There's not a limit to the subject matter or even the style of learning that is possible that you wouldn't expect from any other form of media.”
He said the difference is VR can take the learner to another level of emersion. The individual would be able to anticipate deeper aspects of muscle memory or reflexive behavior he or she would not anticipate from video learning.
Lifting the Virtual Weight
The endgame here: to reduce cost, improve efficiency, reduce accidents, and increase skill development.
That’s exactly what virtual reality is being used for by construction companies like Bechtel Corporation.
ITI is helping Bechtel achieve those goals through realistic crane simulations.
It begins with the actual crane vehicles themselves. Once ITI knows which crane it’s creating a simulation for, designer reach out to the people who know the crane best: the manufacturers. “It's absolutely critical… if we are professing to be able to teach somebody to use one of these cranes... that crane has a name. It has a model number. It has performance characteristics that are different from model to another,” Gonzales said. “The actual crane in the simulator is based on the real thing and should have true to life physics accordingly.”
Gonzales said any crane simulation works on a real set of rules. If the crane can perform a specific function in the real world, it can be recreated in a virtual one. Simulations must obey the laws of physics.
Next, ITI begins creating the simulation based on the feedback from their customer. In between all of that: the subject mater experts.
“This is where ITI really excels. We've been in business now for 31 years as a training company. We've become very skilled at training people using real equipment that will perform in real life scenarios that will be competent to go back to their employer and apply those skills,” Gonzales said.
There are also opportunities for ‘human-assisted’ VR. In this scenario, Gonzales said, future simulations will include multiple views. Instructors will be able to watch trainees in VR and even communicate with them as they would through a radio in the crane’s cab. Other trainees may participate by giving cab operators hand signals.
Instructors would also have control over environmental conditions.
“They can bring in clouds and wind and so forth. There's a lot of variability the instructor has control over,” Gonzales said.
The Kobayashi Maru Conundrum
When it comes to training, Gonzales said the number one thing ITI looks for is the person that says the simulation isn’t real; it’s not as good as the real thing. He said that comes from decades of experience between humans and computers.
“We've all played a video game and it's not like I can drive a space ship now just because I've played Space Invaders,” Gonzales mused. “But in VR, the idea is to make it real. To create physical best practice to physical experience that is going to apply to real life exactly as it would in that simulation. It's important to create things that are practical in that matter, and not just novel.”
Of course, from time to time, there comes an operator with the sole purpose of beating the simulation.
“We had a guy extremely skilled at the real deal and was able to tip a crane over and put it back up by using the boom... and was able to do that in the simulator,” Gonzales said. “It was not at all designed to do that. There's no exercise to manipulate a crane in that way, but it is designed to function according to the laws of physics and the capability of that crane.”
So what about the ‘no-win scenario’? While Gonzales admits there is something to be learned from that, their goal is to train people, not fail them.
“Things like high wind conditions or rough terrain or, you know things where you absolutely can tip over one of these cranes. You can put it in a position of failure. You can hit a signal guy with a load. You can murder people in our sim, but at present, every scenario is technically passible,” Gonzales explained.
That being said, he acknowledged fear is your friend. Fear can make you slow down and think through an exercise. He said it’s most prevalent when seeing an experienced operator train in simulation versus an inexperienced operator.
“An experienced operator will tell you the goal is not to move fast, it’s to move safely. They can navigate a virtual obstacle course perfectly far more often than not because they already understand the mechanics that are required and the angles that are needed to get that load through without it starting to swing for example,” Gonzales explained. “So you see an experienced operator be very intentional and methodical with this stuff.”
That’s not always the case for inexperienced operators.
“Somebody who has just used the game is like, ‘Oh the clock is ticking. I've got to rip through this thing. And if I knock some stuff over to do it, so be it.’ Exactly wrong,” Gonzales said.
The Future of VR is AI
Gonzales said the future of virtual reality is bright. He said gaming and entertainment will continue to drive adoption of the technology
But one of the more interesting facets of VR’s future is the integration of artificial intelligence.
AI “is going to come fast and it’s going to evolve very quickly” according to Gonzales. “We can imagine a world where you have a character that is entirely powered by a computer, essentially a VR robot that understands what you're saying and can respond accordingly. If you can do that, then they can teach you anything that a person could,” Gonzales said.
AI is already being used in homes and through mobile devices. It makes sense it will eventually permeate the professional world and training.
“Are you, in order to ask for a load chart or different scenario-based exercises, being able to just talk to a machine, talk to virtual people or talk to a virtual scenario can actually be an important part of that training exercise,” Gonzales said. “All of that relies on AI.”
In addition to AI, VR will be used to operate equipment remotely.
“That power crane for example, instead of having somebody 200 feet up in the sky... they might be on the ground using a VR headset operating a real crane,” Gonzales explained. “So, room for VR to grow in this industry. The more photo-realistic, the less latency or time between what's happened and what is seen by the operator the better. So we're going to see evolution in that regard.”
Settling in to Virtual Reality
Though intimidating to some, Gonzales said he expects VR to become more common in the real world and will, in reality be an extension of it.
“Many people have yet to experience VR at all... so you might not get a realistic performance from them if they're nervous or self conscious about putting on a headset or otherwise interacting with somebody the way they would in the real world. But in time, it will just be another piece of equipment you know? No different than sitting in front of a computer and proving you can use Microsoft Word.”
Pinky Gonzales is the Director of VR and Online Learning for Industrial Training International.