Halfpoint - Fotolia

Immersive technologies advance training and design

Building on a similar discussion on the emerging metaverse at the iconic cultural event a year ago, this year’s SXSW saw a select group of experts discuss how immersive technologies could be a driver for future societies

Immersive technologies enable new computing environments that will affect the fabric of future societies. Augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technology – extended reality (XR) – promises to advance and enable applications for virtually every industry and all market segments.

AT SXSW, experts provided perspectives from governmental organisations, hardware manufacturers, software developers, infrastructure providers and users of how immersive technologies and virtual environments can shape this brave new world.

VR training modules can measure a wide range of data types, such as gaze to see where trainees look when going through exercises, and can quantify knowledge retention. Such capabilities not only serve trainees, but also corporations. The connectivity and infrastructure of a metaverse-enabled platform can allow companies to make better and more informed decisions to support their business goals.

A 2022 PricewaterhouseCoopers International study found substantial potential of VR for skills acquisition and upskilling initiatives. It observed that selected aspects deserve attention and VR learners stay more focused and emotionally connected to training content, learners are more confident when applying what they have learned, and training can occur up to four times faster in VR than in real-world courses.

Tech firm Nokia divides the metaverse into three areas – enterprise, industrial and consumers. The company believes these individual metaverses will have commonalities, connect to each other at varying degrees, and share technologies, devices and interfaces. Yet they will differ when it comes to applications and business models.

At SWSX, Nokia’s head of trend and innovation scouting, Leslie Shannon, noted that VR-based training can be more effective than training in the real world. VR enables measurement of a wide range of phenomena and skills-related data points. Progress can be quantified, and users can practice difficult operations repeatedly – without spending resources on human instructors or systems other than the VR equipment.

As the head of scouting at Nokia, she is looking at new technologies and applications that will be stressing the network so that she can inform her company’s research and development team about emerging infrastructure uses – immersive technologies have the potential to drive many of these uses.

Nokia also supports many use cases that will require advance networks. For example, Northumbrian Water in the UK uses XR applications to support field technicians. Bank of America is improving employee training via VR. And the team that is working on restoring Notre Dame in Paris is collaborating in a virtual environment, a digital twin, of the cathedral.

Levelling the playing field

Wärtsilä Voyage is a provider of industrial equipment looks at professional and industrial applications of immersive technologies. It uses immersive technologies in its Smart Realities solution, a maritime training application that uses VR and AR technologies to create realistic simulations to prepare the next generation of mariners and advance the skills of current captains and crews.

“Virtual, augmented and mixed reality applications will soon become an indispensable part of future volume training, both as colocated and distributed learning,” said Johan Ekvall, head of product, simulation and training at Wärtsilä Voyage.

The company’s head of growth, Vesa Koivumaa, highlighted how immersive technologies and simulations will create a level playing field. As systems become increasingly available and less expensive, more industries and companies can integrate the technology for a wide range of applications, such as for services or training. Related applications also allow operators to virtually manage equipment and systems remotely. Koivumaa added logistical advantages for corporate operations to the list of benefits.

He said technical experts are needed around the world. Instead of sending them to the location and spending days in travel time, these experts can, in many cases, provide their expertise in a couple of hours in the virtual world without the need of physical travel. Such a process has safety advantages, provides environmental benefits and generates efficiency gains.

Koivumaa also showed how immersive technologies and digital twins let designers seamlessly jump from paper blueprints for cruise ship designs, for instance, to digital representations that allow for intuitive and collaborative planning and assessment – ongoing changes to the design are literally some mouse clicks away. In the physical world, such changes easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Carnival Cruise Line makes use of a training and simulation facility outside of Amsterdam where immersive technologies can recreate bridges and cruise ships in virtual environments, facilitating training of personnel.

Carnival’s Center for Simulator Maritime Training, CSMART, opened at a cost of €75m in July 2016 and reaches over 110,000 square feet across five floors. The facility features recreations of shipping bridges in eight full-mission simulators.

Hans Hederstrom, managing director explained that the facility finds use for training but also for risk assessment of navigating various ports. Captains and officers come to the facility to repeatedly train unusual events that are not occurring often and therefore can come as a surprise to ship operators.

Virtual designs

For Anssi Komulainen, director at Gaia-X Finland, a European initiative to develop a framework for digital governance for cloud and edge technology solutions, the participation of a wider set of companies, the market will gain more choices and innovation will thrive as data would flow more freely. Gaia is investigating how to make this new networking world more equitable and fairer across market participants and societal stakeholders – adding to creating options and use cases across industries and companies.

Miikka Rosendahl, CEO of ZOAN, whose products and services find use in applications across industrial environments such as maritime training, revealed that since last year’s SXSW, the company had created three subsidiaries, addressing varied needs in the developing space of immersive technologies. Cornerstone is a photorealistic metaverse environment. Burst is a hub for creating immersive environments, enabling artists and developers to create virtual landscapes. ZOAN Studio is a service provider to enable brands, organisations and communities to create customised immersive experiences.

Training applications benefit tremendously by immersive technologies that can create realistic and authentic environments practitioners across many professions will encounter during their work. AT SXSW Jussi Mäkinen, chief brand officer at Varjo, showed how his company’s set of mixed-reality applications find use in fighter training such as for Viper Wing’s physical simulators. Boeing similarly used Varjo technology for its virtual training for astronauts.

VR training currently occurs mainly in the enterprise and industrial sector, but it is easy to see that over time educational institutions and organizations will target individuals and consumers to acquire new skills. In the long run, it is not unreasonable to expect that creators will leverage the technology to develop modules, very similar to the way instructional videos have become common on video-sharing platforms. In fact, pundits and developers foresee a world in which online and virtual environments become skill-acquisition environments – related keywords are the internet of skills and the internet of abilities.

ZOAN also highlighted how AR and VR allow users to experience different applications and environments of the metaverse. Digital twins, for example, reflect reality in meaningful ways and find use in training and design, another area where immersive technologies will play an important role. Varjo’s Mäkinen added that many designers use its VR applications to create products and equipment. For example, Framery, a provider of soundproof office booths and workspaces, used Varjo equipment to make [its] R&D process smoother and faster.

Aston Martin, the luxury carmaker, also employs Varjo VR solutions to design its vehicles. Pete Freedman, vice-president and chief marketing officer at Aston Martin, said XR and VR can be used to allow its design teams to collaborate remotely and that such applications enable the company to take experiencing the cars to customers without the need to visit showrooms.

In her SXSW slot, Shannon provided an example for such design benefits from Australia. When Transurban, the operator of the Burnley Tunnel in Melbourne, Victoria, wanted to improve its traffic flow, the company enlisted the help of Snobal, a provider of immersive-technologies solutions. Snowbal created a VR simulation of the tunnel to vary and test features and capabilities of the existing and potential infrastructure elements. The company created three kilometres “of photorealistic, immersive road tunnel with traffic [simulations] in VR…to measure and benchmark changes to driver behaviour in response to changes in infrastructure design.”

The approach allows inexpensive changes to infrastructure features and elements that would be costly and impede on traffic if tested in the real world. The result is a lighting pacemaker which places running bands of lighting strips along the walls of the tunnel to set a pace for driving speeds to regulate traffic.

Even with all of the innovation and insight, it is worth reflecting on the words of Shannon at South by Southwest 2022. She offered the crucial benefit virtual design applications’ realism offers, paraphrasing architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “It’s much easier to make changes with an eraser than with a sledgehammer.”

Martin Schwirn is the author of “Small data, big disruptions: How to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty” (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

Read more about the metaverse

Read more on Social media technology

Data Center
Data Management