As a bit of a geek who’s been to her fair share of video game expos, I’m no stranger to playing around with virtual reality (VR) but if you’ve witnessed the buzz and disregard for trespassing laws brought about by the recent Pokémon Go hype, you’ll know I’m not the only one. However I must confess, I’ve often questioned the value of these futuristic headsets outside of anything other than making you feel like you’re sat in a cockpit or shooting repetitive Zombies.
Much like 3D printing, VR has suffered the same level of novelty and leaving to gather dust thanks to a groundswell of premature hype and a dizzying number of headsets on the market from Google Cardboard to the much-praised HTC Vive ranging anywhere between £15 to £800.
It’s because of this that you would be forgiven for overlooking the opportunities where it could add real value but such prospects are becoming much clearer as industrial players get their hands on it. Over the past two decades, numerous companies have been applying VR in industrial applications for real-time product evaluations in advance of physical builds. Increasingly companies are finding innovative use cases for the technology in major industries, in a similar way 3D printing has and in many cases with 3D printing working alongside it, to do things like create the factories of the future or transform healthcare.
Global engineering company, Siemens recently announced that it is deploying VR at one of its sites as part of its drive towards the ‘Digital Factory’. The site manufactures variable drives for motors for customers primarily in the automotive, aerospace and machine building sectors. The drives are used to control the speed of the motor, increasing efficiency and reducing power use. However, production can be costly and though there are only a small number of product ranges and systems, their modular style means that Siemens can go through thousands of potential product configurations – which isn’t cheap. As an alternative, the company turned to VR to conduct its design reviews for new cells on the factory floor.
The site has installed a Virtalis ActiveWall with a projected wall and floor combined with optical tracking for group and collaborative activities. It is being employed to visualise new working environments to pick up clashes or problems that might otherwise be unclear on a CAD workstation and even in everyday uses such as office moves.
“Typically, we’re finding that we are reducing the snagging list of a new cell design by 90%,” Anil Thomas, a transformation manager at Siemens, commented. “We are even finding more and different snags virtually and solving them in VR. This will certainly have a positive impact on our product lifecycle. We are not resting on our laurels, as it is apparent there is much more we can do with this technology.”
Siemens aren’t the only company taking a dip into the virtual world. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) installed a similar system at its Boeing Rolls-Royce Factory of the Future and is also the owner of the first mobile Virtalis ActiveWall System, the ActiveMove. Researchers at the centre create different concept methodologies for various businesses to help reduce waste and cost and speed up processes, starting in CAD and moving on to VR.
Away from industry, VR is proving a cost effective solution in areas of healthcare and humanitarian work. Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been reinventing the idea of emergency aid with a technology concept that combines both VR and 3D printing to design better hospitals. The organisation used this new approach to create a proof of concept model for a hospital in Cantahay, the Philippines following the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. The original plans were transformed into a digital model and then 3D printed for use in a VR experience that simulated a virtual environment where users could navigate through the centre and see themselves inside the hospital. Compared to a traditional approach, this method will allow doctors to test new hospital models for their specific environments and demonstrate capabilities before a single brick has been laid. This particular project took four months to complete but with the foundations now in place, MSF believe they’ll be able to create future models much faster, anywhere in the world. MSF have commented that there is “no doubt” this is the way they will work in the future.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Inside these hospitals, healthcare professionals are also are using a combination of 3D printed models and VR as training tools, like 3D Systems’ Simbionix line for VR medical simulation, to prep for complex surgery or test patient-specific implants.
“One of the biggest opportunities for VR is rapid 3D prototyping where, due to limited resources, teams cannot afford to run multiple trials and test runs of physical models,” Clifton Dawson, Analyst at VR and augmented reality research company, Greenlight VR, told TCT. “An example of this is maxillofacial surgery in the healthcare industry. Given the nature of surgery and the intricacies of those regions of the body, surgeons cannot afford to make any mistakes when it comes time to actually operate on a patient. Thus, there is a large amount of planning beforehand; traditionally, this planning process has consisted of creating plaster models as well as resin models of patients created from stereolithographic data, which is significantly expensive to collect. In this case, VR can provide a lower-cost testing environment to run trials and see various ideas in action.”
HP has also ventured into the area, populating the chasm between the real and virtual worlds with its ‘blended reality’ concept, presented compactly in its Sprout desktop device which features both 3D scanning and modelling, allowing users to scan an object and manipulate it within seconds on screen. This was recently given a boost with the acquisition of David Vision Systems to further its push into the 3D technologies market with the HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution. The company also recently launched its Tech Ventures venture capital arm formed to invest in early stage VR, 3D printing and Internet of Things start-ups.
VR may still be in its infancy but it has clearly caught the attention of the Fortune 500 elite including Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently commented that he believes VR will play a major role in making society better informed through augmentation. Likewise, Facebook was fast to purchase one of VR’s most prominent brands, Oculus designed by a then 17-year old sci-fi geek Palmer Luckey who first launched the tech on Kickstarter, and sold it to the social media giant for the not too shabby sum of $2 Billion.
As with any technology that’s still finding it’s feet, often the problem is lack of applications and for VR, the few applications we’ve seen in the mainstream are primarily targeted at gamers, but that’s probably doing it a disservice. Its true value is in applications like these where we’re able to put people in situations they wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience and trial actions before any have to be taken to improve safety, reduce risk and save time and costs. Like 3D printers, as costs have decreased, more people have been given the opportunity to experience the technology and do some amazing things but there remains a question about what place it has in the wider world. VR faces similar obstacles and in some areas, there’s even an argument about whether VR could replace 3D printing altogether as a prototyping tool for certain applications in industries like architecture and healthcare. Of course there are instances where simulation just won’t be able to rival the benefit of holding a tangible object in your hands – like demonstrating a surgical procedure to a patient with a patient-specific model. Instead VR should just be another part of a technology ecosystem that helps reduce time to market and improve workflows. Its fate will ultimately be determined by market reaction as VR becomes more accessible.
Dawson added: “The timeline for VR to substitute or complement 3D printing as a prototyping tool will depend on numerous factors, including the proliferation of developer kits, more university and corporate training programs, and the initial reception of consumer headsets.”