The ability to recreate real-life training environments in virtual reality is no longer a science-fiction setting on the Star Trek Holodeck – it’s happening
“There are bombs stuffed inside dead animal carcasses because 18-year-old lads, with their morbid fascination with death, would go over and kick that carcass, detonate the bomb and get blown to bits. Those are the kind of scenarios we can prepare you for.”
Hidden Creative chief executive Matthew Trubow gives an example of a less obvious threat to be rehearsed using virtual reality (VR) in military training.
It wasn’t quite the Atari-style simulation many youngsters may have pictured the military using when they were growing up.
Mr Trubow explains how with the use of smart headsets and response sensors, the quality of data transmitted using VR can enable the military – or other clients – to “read the mind” of their subjects.
The order in which tasks are tackled, any delay or preference – subconscious elements – are monitored and logged, whether you like it or not, removing subjectivity. And there are no more labyrinthine spreadsheets to decipher.
Keeping an eye on cost
While such an “ecosystem” with analytics could cost upwards of £1 million, prices have come down significantly in recent years. VR “caves” still exist which design teams visit to work offsite, but they cost millions.
Antonio Tallon, HTC’s head of regional product management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says the cost for businesses will vastly reduce as the consumer market explodes.
“As we introduce the technology to consumers that brings scale, which means we can bring compelling experiences at a fraction of the price,” he says.
Firefighting is a hazardous area just starting to exploit the full potential of VR and augmented reality (AR). “If you need to keep burning stuff, it can get quite costly. Using VR you can do it as many times as you like,” says Mr Tallon. “Similarly, with car engines, if you have to keep breaking things, you have to be more selective with your training allowance.”
So while not having to repeatedly destroy a $4-million AgustaWestland AW119K helicopter is a big tick in the “pro-VR” column, there is more to it than just dollar signs.
Improving employee safety
“Some of the guys being sent out to work on the offshore oil rigs in Middle East, sadly, are not always the most educated or street smart and they were dying at a rate of one per month,” says Mr Trubow.
“And you can’t really train for those kinds of jobs unless you are actually doing them – it’s a very short learning curve.”
Vincent Higgins, chairman and chief executive of OpTech4D, explains how since the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster safety is firmly entrenched at the top of all the oil majors’ priority lists.
Using VR simulation rather than sending teams out to the rigs for training days saved one of the big oil companies millions on flights alone, he says.
The live data will be floating in the air while they are working – that is the future
Investing in people
The long game, of course, is investment in people. There is a well-documented skills gap in the engineering and oil and gas sectors. As the current workforce retires, they are being replaced with young minds that need to be stimulated in different ways. Anyone under 35 is thought to adapt far more quickly to the simulated environment, which in turn improves retention rates.
By training people using so-called “gamification” and VR headsets, they are engaged from day one, their careers advance more quickly and the industry progresses, along with its public image.
Mr Higgins describes his nirvana: “When training and operations are brought together on the same platform, when every field operator is taking off their safety glasses and putting on smart glasses.
“They will have all the data they need in the field – documents, schematics or liaison with an expert in the office who can see what they are doing and give advice, literally say ‘turn your head left or right’. The live data will be floating in the air while they are working – that is the future. It is a very passive and intuitive way to work.”
While you’ve kicked your dead carcass and your friend might have watched you blown to pieces, they might understandably suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
Being immersed in VR
They too can seek solace in the virtual world. In being cast back into the environment that might trigger a reaction, but in a controlled, virtual “safe place”, it eventually reduces the time soldiers think about the horrors they witnessed.
Adrian Leu, chief executive at Inition, has developed VR in a similar way to treat autism and phobias, as well as to practise cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR and simulate a tracheotomy. In theory, there seem to be few limits to the applications of the technology.
“In some areas of training, it’s about a task list. That applies to anything from medical procedures to astronaut training,” he says. The immersive nature of VR and AR embeds the task list deeper in the memory.
Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami signed an agreement earlier this year with Next Galaxy to use VR for various life-saving procedures. The hospital says it takes things “far beyond today’s methodology of passively watching video and taking written tests”.
Participants can “walk around”, interacting with voice commands, gesture and eye-gaze control, being measured on decision-making and technique. They are informed of errors and their successes are celebrated.
So from 3D holograms to virtual cadavers, healthcare is hitting the VR headlines. Last month, for example, surgeons in Warsaw wearing Google Glass unblocked a coronary artery – a first for in-human VR use.
While never a direct replacement for the human touch, by stripping away the practice barriers of cost, time and legislation, VR continues to push the medical envelope.
Dr Fernando Bello of Imperial College London sees the future: “When we can follow a patient through a complex operation, using their own anatomical scans to generate 3D models that are loaded into the software, the whole team can practise any challenging aspects, identifying any possible risks but in a simulated environment – that will be the Holy Grail.”