Before I hand the Virtual Reality headset over to anyone, the first question I ask is “Have you used VR before?”
Before I hand the Virtual Reality headset over to anyone, the first question I ask is “Have you used VR before?” Mostly I do this so I know whether to explain basic things like how to fit the strap and not to walk through the chaperone grid lest you walk face-first into a wall. But partially, I ask to gauge what your reaction is likely to be. If you’ve already used one, you know what you’re in for and I can just talk about what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been using the technology, cue the sales pitch.
If you tell me you haven’t, that’s when I get excited. Forget the sales pitch for a moment. I get to be there with you while you discover what modern VR is like. Watching someone put the headset on and find themselves in an entirely new world is almost as much fun as it was discovering it for myself. Until you’ve tried it, you just can’t grasp how immersive it is. How good it feels to see the controllers moving in virtual space exactly how you expect them to, tracking 1:1 to your movements. How right it feels to move your head and have the virtual landscape move around you exactly how it should. It’s one of those things that feels so natural, that you just know that it took thousands of hours to perfect (it did).
And then you start to realise the possibilities. I know, because I did too. Within a few minutes of putting on the headset, my mind was racing with ideas. Of course, gaming will become that much more fun, that much more immersive. That’s cool and all, but only impacts gamers. In the health industry, VR is being used to treat PTSD. It’s even been used to give some movement back to paraplegics. Amazing!
But what really tweaked for me is the impact VR will have on training and simulation.
Let’s use the example that we’ve already produced a demo for: maintenance training for the digitised periscope. Only a few have been produced so far, and they’re all installed on submarines that are in service and off doing whatever it is that submarines do. In order to train someone on how to fix the periscope, you’ll need access to one. So either a sub has to be in port and not doing much, or you need to have a spare digitised periscope sitting around not being used, either of which costs money. You could of course build a physical simulator that looks and acts the same, but that’s going to be pretty expensive, and you still only have a very limited number of them available.
Instead, what if we built a virtual periscope? It can be programmed to behave just like the original, with the same faults and glitches. There can be levels of training too, so the first time you could be shown exactly how to perform the task, then given hints when you fumble, and then tested without any help at all. That could then be recorded in a Learning Management System (like Oracle), to keep track of what you’ve done. The training could be led by the software, or you could have an instructor next to you in virtual space, talking to you, showing you what to do, in real time. And even better, that instructor doesn’t need to be in the same physical space. They could be in the building next door, or the next state over, or even on the other side of the world. You can drill over and over, forming muscle memory of the task, without ever having seen the real thing. That way, when you do finally get your hands on the real piece of kit, you are already familiar with it, you already know how to do everything you need to do.
Does it exactly replicate the feeling of being on a submarine, the weight of the tools in your hand? No, but does it need to be? What simulator exactly mimics everything about the real experience? The point here is to become familiar with the equipment without having access to the real thing. The point is to cut down on costs by reducing the amount of time needed with expensive equipment. Once the VR simulation has been developed, it can be accessed infinitely and from anywhere. All you need is a PC or laptop and a commercially available headset.
But wait, there’s more than just training!
What if you’re the mechanic responsible for fixing a vehicle, and you’ve just removed that faulty fuel pump. Now you need to order a new one from the supplier. Ordinarily, you would open up the Repair Parts Identification List (RPIL), trawl through the pictures to find the part, then check the list to get the part number, and finally ring the supplier or put in a form. But what if you could jump into VR and open up a virtual version of the vehicle. And when you point to a part, everything you need to know pops up. You could press a button and that information could be sent to your printer or email. Or you could press another button and order the part directly, from inside VR, and the warehouse would have that order within seconds.
Or let’s go back to the design process. You’ve got the engineering model for a ship and hundreds of 2D illustrations, ready for design review. It can be difficult to interpret such information, especially for non-engineers. So you can also take the model and view it directly in VR. You can appear on deck and literally walk the corridors – before any steel is cut. You can check and make sure that this panel is at a comfortable working height, or that you can get to that valve, or whether there’s room for another fire extinguisher against that wall. The customer could stand on the virtual ship with you and any other stake holders, discussing designs and making mark-ups, all in real time, all from different real-world locations.
Some of these uses of VR are already being explored and utilised within BAE Systems. There are dozens of other ways that we could take advantage of it, many that we haven’t even thought of yet. VR is a new and exciting tool that stands to change the way we view and experience digital data, how we train, and how we interact. What was yesterday’s science fiction is quickly becoming our reality. It’s thrilling to help lead the way on innovation and explore the infinite possibilities that this opens up.