Virtual reality comes of age in manufacturing

Will there be virtual reality headsets in the living room by the end of 2015? Perhaps not, but Ford and BAE Sytems are putting virtual reality to work

Are we on the cusp of a virtual reality revolution? Would it be unreasonable to suggest we will have virtual reality headsets in the living room by the end of 2015? Perhaps not, but all the signs point to a rapidly developing market for virtual reality.

In the past year alone, Facebook has acquired Oculus VR, Sony announced its Project Morpheus VR headset, Microsoft revealed its augmented reality HoloLens and Google released Google Cardboard – a fold-out cardboard smartphone mount for virtual reality applications.

The concept of virtual reality can be traced back as far as the 1860s, when 360° panoramic murals – such as those by Baldassare Peruzzi – first appeared. However, virtual reality as we know it first began to appear in the 1980s. 

One of the early pioneers, Jaron Lanier, formed VPL Research in 1985, creating the goggles and gloves system that virtual reality first became known for.

These early forms of virtual reality required substantial computing power. Cyberzone, the first virtual reality game show, required a network of six 486 PCs (with only 8MB of memory each). It was impressive, but still clunky, due to being CPU-driven.

Due to the computing limitations and high costs, virtual reality was considered a niche area only high-end companies could afford to enter. As such, it lacked development focus and was not particularly robust.

Barriers of entry to virtual reality market changed

Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre  (NAMRC) head of virtual reality and simulation Dr Rab Scott says the barriers of entry have since changed.

“In the old days you would need six computers, but now all you need is one graphics card, because so much of what you need is being pushed onto the graphics card, so they are becoming GPU-driven,” he says.

The cost of the viewing equipment has also been reduced, with a 3D screen costing £200 and an Oculus Rift headset costing £475, both of which can be run from a standard laptop. The experimental Google Cardboard can be picked up for approximately £10, and runs off a smartphone.

The capturing and creation of content has also been streamlined through software from the likes of Autodesk and Bentley, as well as the capability to capture entire rooms using 3D laser scanners.

Virtual reality has extended into becoming fully immersive like cave automatic virtual environments – similar to the holodeck from Star Trek

These virtual environments use projectors directed on three to six sides (including the floor and ceiling) of a room-sized cube, allowing people to not only experience a full 360° view, but to also experience walking around the virtual models.

Virtual reality technology can be broken down into four separate, yet distinct, elements:

  • Content, which is the 3D model being visualised;
  • Delivery mechanism, which is the display device;
  • Driving software, which is used to view content;
  • Interface, which is the device for controlling the viewpoint and interacting with the environment. 

Autodesk has a long history in visualisation technologies with its 3D modelling software products such as AutoCAD, Navisworks and Infraworks. 

It recently worked with Owlized on the Better Market Street project, which sought to improve Market Street in San Francisco by bringing more trees and greenery into the area. A series of "OWL" viewers installed on location allowed the general public to virtually see what the new Market Street would look like once the design was complete.

Bringing together the virtual and physical at Ford

In the past few years, Ford has started marrying the virtual world with the physical world, through the use of an adjustable vehicle. This physical representation can be arranged so it matches the simulated vehicle that Ford are representing virtually (see picture). Thus, a person interacting with the simulated model in virtual reality is also touching a physical representation of it.

The cost of virtual reality is now becoming minimal compared with what businesses can save down the line. 

Ford virtual reality and advanced visualisation technical specialist Elizabeth Baron says the car firm have spotted things in its most recent vehicle that would have otherwise been missed and would have cost a lot more money.

Even the simple walk-through of a day in the life of a factory operator gives an architect an understanding of what needs to be where and why it needs to be there

Dr Rab Scott, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre

“In the past we would have had to build a physical model to see how change would impact our design,” she said. "We are now a lot more agile in what we can understand right away, so we can understand problems that do come up a lot quicker."

Building submarines with virtual reality

Virtual reality is even going beyond the visualisation stage of design. BAE Systems recently used a product development virtual reality system by Virtalis to assist in planning the construction of the Astute-class submarines. 

Instead of creating physical prototypes, 3D virtual models were viewed from cabins positioned on gantries surrounding the submarine, replacing the need for expensive physical models.

Virtual reality is also finding uses in disaster management, where trainees are able to experience high-impact/low-probability events. 

Such situations would normally be unfeasible to simulate in traditional training exercises. Virtual reality allows trainees to become familiar with the environments in which they could be expected to work, or to gain confidence in their ability to handle dangerous situations.

Virtual reality in crime scene investigation

Law enforcement agencies are also finding practical uses for virtual reality, especially in regard to crime scene investigations. Rather than traditional methods, which require the physical presence of investigators at the crime scene, a virtual reality model of the scene can be created. 

Prior to anyone entering the scene of a crime, it is scanned using a laser scanner and/or high-definition camera, limiting any contamination of the crime scene. This technique also allows investigators to review the scene of the crime at a later date, long after on-site investigation has been concluded.

Unlike previous 3D design review packages, such as Navisworks which only provides an assumed line-of sight based on the current perspective, virtual reality gives users a true sense of depth. This depth perception creates a level of immersion and parallax.

It is this immediate immersion that makes virtual reality such a powerful tool for users. 

“Even the simple walk-through of a day in the life of a factory operator gives an architect an understanding of what needs to be where and why it needs to be there,” says NAMRC's Scott.

The future of virtual reality

However, this immersion and sense of depth does come with a price. People who are prone to motion sickness can experience similar symptoms. Known as simulator sickness, this occurs as the brain tries to rationalise what it is viewing with what the body is experiencing at the same time. Symptoms can vary from headaches and drowsiness to dizziness and nausea.

Since the commercial applications of virtual reality are relatively new, there is still a lack of plug-and-play functionality. Just because you can use the Oculus Rift headset to view something, does not mean you can use the same software to view something using Google Cardboard.

But Autodesk Director of Engineering, Office of the CTO Brian Pene says eventually using virtual reality will become no different to plugging in a new monitor.

“Today, applications only support a certain type of headset and you have to specifically integrate with different software development kits for different headsets, as they have different ways of displaying stereoscopic virtual reality,” he adds.

I think the future of virtual reality will be new types of display technologies, such as holographic displays or blending the real with the virtual, which is more augmented reality

Brian Pene, Autodesk

Virtual reality technology is also seeking to embrace other senses, such as sound and touch. Binaural audio – the recording of sound using two microphones to create 3D stereo sound – is one such example.

With this we will soon be able to model the effects of sound in a room, such as a concert hall, or the expected noise pollution of proposed transportation projects – by modelling the sound effects of high-speed trains, for example.

“There are a number of people using virtual reality to model the effects of sound in an environment," says Pene. "For doing something with the design of sound, such as understanding how sound incorporates into a design or how a design affects sound, or how echo effects can be felt, is invaluable.”

There are also a number of people researching the use of tactile properties of models in virtual reality, as the sense of touch can be invaluable for its immersive quality.

But what does the future hold for virtual reality? As research continues, the capture and creation of content for virtual reality will become increasingly refined and easier to use. Likewise, we may soon also be able to edit and manipulate 3D models directly in the virtual environments, rather than merely being able to passively view them.

Nasa is currently experimenting with an Oculus Rift headset and Xbox Kinnect motion sensor to develop a more natural method of control system for a robot arm. Using the virtual reality headset allows the operator to gain a greater understanding of the environment in which the robot arm is operating.

“At the moment, researchers, are looking into projecting onto your retina, contact lens delivery and augmented reality glasses” says Scott.

Pene concludes the future of virtual reality will be moving away from headsets. “I think the future of virtual reality will be new types of display technologies, such as holographic displays or blending the real with the virtual, which is more augmented reality,” he says.

This was first published in February 2015

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