11 April 2016
The concept of virtual reality (VR) and the potential of the digital domain is widely recognised, mainly as a result of sci-fi movies, other popular culture, high-profile crowd funded campaigns by Oculus and its subsequent purchase by Facebook for $2bn. However, until recently, the reality has been more prosaic than Hollywood might suggest. With technology beginning to mature, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the video-gaming sector, the defence value chain now has the opportunity to benefit from what VR, augmented reality (AR) and digital visualisation tools can offer. Faced with the need to deliver high quality, complex training while cutting costs and improving flexibility, governments around the globe are becoming more aware of the value that VR can deliver and take-up pace is expected to increase significantly over the coming years.
Simon Luck, Head of Information Systems and Information Assurance, discusses the value of deploying digital visualisation tools in the defence domain to satisfy specific, existing training requirements. He goes on to explain the importance of fully understanding the scope of the problem using expertise and experience gathered in practice, in order to deliver a system that is user friendly, fit for purpose and cost effective.
Advances in digital technology present us with a range of options which are highly appropriate for different training tasks. Virtual Reality (VR) delivers the full immersive experience with graphical representation of an environment presented by the computer without the need for any ‘real’ elements. Trainees use face-mounted screens such as the ubiquitous Oculus Rift to engage with the computer generated environment which can be customised for specific training needs. Augmented Reality (AR) captures the real world by overlaying layers of information using a hand-held device or optical head-mounted display (OHMD) such as Epson Moverio or Microsoft’s new Hololens in order to provide training in the context of an existing environment. An example of this might be in the engine room of a ship where the overlay automatically provides technical information about existing equipment during planned maintenance without the need to check manuals stored away from the worksite. Technology in this area is still being improved and BMT is involved in test and validation to ensure that the development momentum is maintained.
Well-designed and human-centred content is key to successful training regardless of whether it is delivered using VR, AR or more traditional methods with information displayed on a computer screen. If the training objectives are not clear in the first place, and the content does not reflect them, using VR will detract from the experience rather than enhance it. The visualisation of what is being taught must be appropriate for the task. Different levels of immersion are required depending on the importance of developing spatial awareness of the specific environment. There is no need for high resolution graphics for a simple task while full VR simulation must be realistic enough for the trainee to engage with the process as they would if carrying out a task for real.
Despite common misconceptions, VR and AR need not be expensive. Much of the hardware has been developed by the gaming industry spreading development costs and making the equipment remarkably accessible by exploiting commercial of the shelf technology (COTS). Some full motion simulation platforms that are in use in defence training are extremely expensive to operate because they require infrastructure, maintenance and support from a team of engineers, as well as a management and governance overhead. There is a place for motion simulation platforms but VR and AR can deliver very specific, cost effective training so that the training pipeline is shortened and trainees have an appropriately high level of knowledge and experience before they sharpen their skills on the more expensive training simulations or in a live scenario. As an example, providing laptops and Oculus Rifts to Royal Naval personnel as part of familiarisation training before joining a new ship has huge benefits.
To deliver successful VR and AR requires a mix of engineers and human factors specialists who understand the technical documentation and intricacies of the training domain and software engineers who can translate the requirements into high-quality immersive, engaging content in the digital domain. BMT’s experience in the defence domain provides it with an insight into those engineering areas that are complex, high risk or low frequency and require special training. By placing individuals in VR scenarios, BMT can run them through operating procedures which are going to test their ability to understand visual communication rather than auditory, spatial concepts, where important equipment controls are, but also how to carry out those activities with the procedures in a given time frame.
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