Virtual reality. When we hear these words, we may immediately think of computer or video games, while others may conjure up images of Neo from the 1999 sci-fi classic The Matrix.
And while it’s true that the origin of virtual reality (VR) and most of its uses have been rooted in gaming, thanks to technological advances and the buzz around Oculus VR—a company recently acquired by FaceBook due to its virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift—its potential is being realized in new industries.
According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the VR market is expected to grow to $407.51 million and reach more than 25 million users by 2018. This increased demand is attributed to industries that are starting to see potential for VR products outside of the gaming world.
In diverse fields—such as education and manufacturing—VR is becoming a powerful, multifaceted tool used to help with industrial design, train employees, and even get students interested in STEM.
Better collaboration and product design
Engineers at companies like Caterpillar and General Motors already use VR systems, virtually “creating” products to test design principles, safety, and more. Ford Motor Company over the last seven years has made VR central to its automotive development.
Andrew Connell, CTO of Virtalis, a world-leading virtual-reality company based in the United Kingdom, believes that the use of VR systems in engineering and product design allows people to better understand and interact with product data while also fostering communication between designers, manufacturers, trainers, marketers, and management.
“We kind of trap engineers behind the computer screen now, so they can only touch a product with a mouse,” Connell says. “But we want people to become immersed in their 3D model; to reach in with their hands and really dig about inside a product to explore, learn about, and improve it, while also communicating with others in the organization about that product.”
Virtalis’s Visionary Render VR software allows companies to do just that. Users are able to access and experience, in real-time, an interactive and immersive VR environment created from 3D datasets. Engineers, marketers, project managers, and others involved in a product’s creation can virtually collaborate with each other as avatars.
“The VR systems network people together so they all see the same product on their screens and can have a meeting around this product,” Connell says. “So if somebody in, say Bristol, moves a component, everyone else sees it move. And they’re all immersed with avatars in the virtual worlds.”
The VR environment can be accessed via large virtual displays or on something as small as a desktop system. The end result is that VR allows users to have a natural “physical” interaction with a virtual product to figure out its optimum design, and this interaction in turn progresses into more communication between departments.
“As soon as you make things interactive,” Connell explains, “it can become collaborative, and that’s really important.”
Improving training and safety
Of course, VR systems like the one from Virtalis are not limited to product design. One of the most widely used applications of VR has been in training, especially in the military, both for mission simulation or part-task training. The British government, for example, recently announced its plans to use the Oculus Rift to prepare trauma medics for battle.
But another area where VR use has increased is in maintenance training. Virtual reality allows instructors to deliver complex information in a visually attractive way, and to also expose their trainees to real-life (and potentially dangerous) situations with minimal risk. National Grid in Boston, for example, uses three of Virtalis’s VR systems.
The VR courses provided to National Grid allows trainees to make choices, such as what tools will be required for a task and what personal protection will be needed, and allows them to have consistent interaction with the instructor as they go through drills that have been deliberately designed to mimic real life.
These VR systems for maintenance training also help companies make training engaging and enjoyable, especially for millennials entering the workforce.
“These younger generations of engineers who’ve grown up with very adaptable thumbs playing on their Xboxes, they expect a more compelling experience from their training,” Connell explains. “So as long as you have VR immersion once or twice a day, it helps the trainers engage these newer generation of engineers for who the blackboard and the textbook isn’t enough anymore.”
Inspiring engineering students
Studies have shown that close to half the students who study STEM subjects in college end up dropping that major, and one of the common complaints about STEM education is it relies too heavily on theory and doesn’t provide a lot of hands-on experiences to students.
Virtual learning through a VR system could open up a new window of opportunity for STEM education, difficult and often mundane content to be presented in a new and exciting way.
Virtalis has seen this work first hand through its involvement in the Formula Student competition. Formula Student is Europe’s foremost educational motorsport competition run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Engineering students in universities and colleges across Europe are challenged to design and build a sing-seat racing car in order to compete in static and dynamic events.
The University of Liverpool’s Formula Student teams partnered with Virtalis to design and optimize their cars in a VR system for the competition. It’s not possible to manufacture all of the student’s design ideas, so the VR system allows them all to design a car, and then as a team they decide which solution is the best.
“The visualization really helps get the students involved, and we’ll hear them say, ‘WOW I never thought I’d get to do this. I’m so pleased I took this course,’” Connell says. “And of course we’re driving cars quickly. That also appeals to students.”
Connell believes that bringing a video game-like experience to students and presenting material in a more engaging way with will help get a new generation of engineers get excited about STEM degrees.
“It really improves student up-take when they see they’re going to be using the newest technology,” Connell explains. “Students are paying for their qualification, they’re customers. They ask themselves, ‘Am I going to be equipped to learn with the latest technologies, and am I going to be ready for the 21st century workplace?’ They’re looking for universities to go beyond classroom teaching.”
Photo courtesy of Virtalis