Ask a handful of people about the potential uses of virtual reality and you will most likely hear things relating to gaming and entertainment. While it is true that this is where virtual reality has gained most of its fame in recent decades, this is sadly also the reason that many of its other more beneficial uses have often been overlooked. For so many, the hype around the virtual reality experience and the subsequent failure to prove itself rapidly enough outside of the entertainment industry, have led them to disregard it as a gimmick.
It might come as a surprise then that one of the first uses of virtual reality was for an entirely different purpose, and perhaps a far more appropriate one – as early as the 1920s flight simulators used a form of virtual reality for training pilots. Here the value was not in the exaggerated effects or the ‘wow’ factor – it was in the potential to save lives by training pilots in a low-risk environment.
Perhaps now that virtual reality has gained its fame through entertainment, it is time to go back to basics and recognise its true potential in industrial environments. After just a small focus shift, the list of ways that virtual reality can make real improvement in such environments far outweighs the initial few uses that come to most people’s minds.
Training is by far the most meaningful use of virtual reality in industry. The low-cost and low-risk environment can overcome many of the challenges to providing practical training and have huge benefits in alleviating skills shortages and capacity.
For industries that require large equipment, making this equipment available to trainees and/or transporting them to regions where this equipment is available is a costly exercise. Add to that the potential cost of safety breaches or breakages to the machinery caused by trainees, and the whole idea of practical training becomes so risky that it is often sidelined, leaving trainees with only theory-based training. Sadly this is insufficient on its own - in the traditional teaching method of ‘Tell, Show, Do’, the ‘Telling’ component is suggested to be the least effective form of training. This can mean that many trainees cannot reach the technical level of expertise that they are capable of until they have had years more experience. The effects of this reach further than just the individual trainee – a widespread lack of skills can do serious harm to the economy and can lead to many missed investment opportunities especially in emerging markets.
But virtual reality provides a solution to this in the form of virtual training. At a fraction of the ongoing cost and effectively risk-free, trainees can be exposed to equipment and procedures in a virtual environment on a computer or mobile device, or can be immersed even further through the use of virtual reality headsets. Evidence has shown that this has huge benefits over theory-based learning - a study with students from the Technical University of Denmark showed a 76% increase in learning effectiveness when using virtual laboratories instead of traditional theory-based teaching. Generally this type of training should not entirely replace theoretical training but rather be used in conjunction with it, and in that case the benefit reaches even further - the same study further showed a 101% increase in learning effectiveness when using virtual training in combination with traditional teaching methods.
For industries where safety is paramount, the value is even greater. Numerous fatal accidents have occurred in the mining industry alone that could have been prevented by simply following the correct electrical lockout and grounding procedures, and with virtual training these procedures can be taught much more effectively to drive down the number of incidents.
While virtual training can never entirely replace hands-on training, it puts trainees in a much better starting position to go into practical training with a solid foundation of principles that they are unlikely to forget due to the immersive representation.
As an additional benefit, virtual reality doesn’t just make standard training more feasible, it also creates training potential that would never be possible in the real world. The opportunity to make mistakes without consequences and to push the boundaries without safety limits creates learners with a far better understanding of what can and can’t be done and may even lead to new techniques which would not have been found in the real world due to necessary safety constraints.
As you will have read in our previous article, virtual reality also creates opportunities for remote support. An expert anywhere in the world can step into a virtual environment and lead a technician through fault-finding, maintenance or repair steps, which results in huge savings of both travel costs and time. This also assists with the transition from training to practical problem-solving. In fields where the equipment is highly complex, such as the medical field, recent graduates can take years to become technically proficient, even with factory training. With remote support, such employees can be provided with assistance that can drastically reduce the time taken to reach technical proficiency and thereby diminish the period for which a salaried employee is not yet able to fully do his/her job.
In many industries such as architecture and engineering, mistakes can easily be made when taking a project from the planning phase into the real world, resulting in wastage of both time and materials. But now an architect, engineer or designer can walk through the project in virtual reality and iron out any issues long before the first tool is lifted. Close to home, this is already being used by key industry players at the University of Pretoria’s Kumba Virtual Reality Centre to simulate plans and designs, and hence enable better decision-making.
Some might say that the use of virtual reality for marketing is taking things back towards the sensationalism of the entertainment industry, but while the visual impact of virtual reality marketing has its benefits, the real value lies again in the cost saving. Instead of transporting large-scale mining, medical or other equipment to tradeshows, all that is needed now is a headset and a computer. A perfect example of this is a virtual reality solution developed by Looksee.do for GE Healthcare that is currently in use at the GE Africa Innovation Centre – this system allows customers to experience large scale medical equipment and even simulates the experience of undergoing a scan, all within a small room. Perhaps not far into the future when a virtual reality headset is standard in every office there will not even be a need to travel to showrooms or tradeshows - clients can view your entire product range, in full scale, without either of you leaving your desks.
Big data is one of the latest buzzwords in technology. But one of the key challenges is still how to make sense of all of this data and use it to make informed decisions. Again, virtual reality provides the answer by bringing this data to life, and the race is on to grab market share in this new industry. Traditional data visualisations such as graphs and tables can be enhanced and made interactive, geographical or spatial data can be overlaid on the environment to which it relates, and engineers and scientists can walk through large datasets or explore multi-dimensional data in a way that simply cannot be done on a 2D computer screen.
Virtual Meetings and Conferencing
The days where all of an organisation’s employees worked in the same building are long gone, and many teams are now split across various countries or are working from home. One of the disadvantages of this is that teams can feel disjointed, and while many communication technologies exist, a Siemens survey showed that 43% of users felt frustrated and disconnected by these technologies. Virtual reality has the potential to reduce this frustration by adding a whole new dimension to virtual meetings, and allow employees to feel as though they really are in the same boardroom together.
If the above list has not yet convinced you that virtual reality has value in solving real-world problems, then healthcare is bound to push you over the virtual edge. In addition to the value in training doctors and nurses, as well as the possibility of virtual surgeries, virtual reality has now been shown to have real benefit in the treatment of patients. This includes neurological problems such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but also rehabilitation and coping with problems such as phantom limb syndrome. Research teams are now using and investigating these forms of treatment at places such as the University of Southern California’s Medical Virtual Reality Lab.
It is clear that virtual reality has the potential to make a huge difference in industry, and now is the time for key role players to take advantage of that and allow virtual reality to find its true fame.
If you are interested in learning about the real value that can be added to your business by virtual reality, contact us at Looksee.do to take the first virtual step towards your new reality.