Immersive Simulation; A new world of training?

by Sam Halverson on Oct 07 2019

Growing up I was constantly designing experiences for others. Whether it was creating puzzle solving video games on the PC, programming text adventures into TI calculators during calculus, animating video shorts, or making table top games my main goal was to create memorable moments for others. I derived a lot of enjoyment from watching people delight in my creations. Additionally, I had a perpetual thirst for knowledge, alongside loving all things related to science and technology. I would spend a lot of time taking things apart and trying to analyze how they worked - rarely putting them back together!

The first experience I had with Virtual Reality was during my childhood at a friend’s house. He had a Nintendo Virtual Boy system. It wasn’t the best experience as you could only play it for so long before your neck and eyes hurt, but the same concept of using stereoscopics to increase immersion applied. Despite its drawbacks, I was still extremely impressed. The most memorable moment I’ve had with VR was at an arcade in Bemidji, Minnesota. It was a game using a head mounted display that you could rotate which, in turn rotating the viewport of the command station you were sitting in.

It’s human nature to react with one’s entire body when absorbed in scenarios, so it’s never surprising to see someone that is immersed in a game or simulation lean forward or lift up in their seat when close to an edge. I was still young when I used the early day Head Mounted Display at the arcade, but throughout my career it was something I often thought about.

It wasn’t until Oculus announced the first Dev Kit, that developing for virtual reality seemed like an actual reality. Before that it was an exclusive and expensive buy-in with little ability or reward. It really opened the gate for a lot of developers who wanted to push the memorable moments of their applications and offer the next level of immersion.

I purchased the first Oculus Dev kit to work with my applications at home. Curious to see what the Virtual Aircraft (VA) I spent so many hours developing would look like in VR, I brought the device into work. I was elated! It was a project I was very close to, and to feel like I was actually peeking into areas like the wheel well and different access bays brought everything to an entirely new level. The VA was designed to include the correct proportions translated to 3D space, so it felt like I was there at the photoshoot again when we originally got our reference material. I brought some people over to my desk to show it off, and it became clear that this was something we wanted to pursue further.

The benefits of immersive interaction has been realized across the entire technology industry, we’re seeing more and more corporations producing products that utilize virtual reality with every month that passes. From medical companies to aviation, the advantages of incorporating this next level of training cannot be ignored.

Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality is exponentially advancing. This is largely due to the technological advancements made in both computer and graphics processing hardware but also due to the interest and investments of corporations. The VR/AR industry is booming right now and I believe will continue to do so until, like computers, there is one in every home. Last year, over $6 billion dollars was estimated to have been spent on AR and VR in the USA alone. This year 14 million VR/AR devices are expected to be sold to consumers and developers and the amount spent last year is forecast to increase sevenfold by 2022 (IDC).

When it comes to training, the more realism you can add while also deterring risk to students makes it hard to overlook the positives included with VR/AR. There’s also an enormous amount of money that can be saved running scenarios from a headset and desktop rather than booking time with an entire aircraft or training course.

Currently I’m developing a handful of different virtual reality applications to train both pilots and maintenance engineers in various tasks. More recently, I created a pre-flight walk-around demo, which is being expanded upon, and also a cockpit flow application to help train pilots in procedures adding muscle memory exercises to their lessons. We’re excited to develop the products and increasingly offer these options to airlines and schools interested in the technology.

We have a lot of great minds here at L3Harris that have been in the aviation industry for many years. They offer monumental feedback on the design and flow of the VR products being worked on. That really pushes the quality of what we can offer. There is such a wealth of experience and knowledge we have direct access to at our organisation.

There are limitations at the moment, some being due to the technology still being accepted by potential customers. As more of them see the benefits of VR/AR training it further opens the gate for us to push the products we have along. Once there is a real desire across the entire industry to incorporate the added immersion, there will be more drive and capability to pursue it. We’re also waiting for haptic technologies to catch up with the headsets. The ability to press against a switch in virtual reality and feel that same force on the tip of your finger is insurmountable. As technology continues to advance so do the benefits.

The possibilities are endless. We already have a strong foothold in VR and now are looking at ways we can incorporate AR for on the job training and work. Mechanics have expressed an interest in being able to have components and panels identified while on the job, fully displaying their name along with information on their safety goggles or helmet visor.

Any training procedure (whether it’s safety, maintenance, or pushback) that requires the person to be alert, astute, and aware will benefit from virtual reality. We can bring about dangerous or uncommon situations without putting the trainee in potentially hazardous situations. Perceptual awareness and quick critical thinking are sometimes lacking in training procedures done solely on a screen or through studying a manual. If the VR training product is developed properly, then I see no area that can’t benefit in some way or another.

Offering fully immersive training can provide cost saving and increase learning retention. I struggle to see an area that wouldn’t benefit from it when done properly. We are currently working with wider stakeholders in the aviation industry to push our products to the most efficient and beneficial they can be. We’ve received great feedback concerning our virtual reality applications and are excited to push them to the next level.