When people learn how to fly a plane, engage in combat, or work on sea rigs in stormy conditions, they will often be sent into simulations: a similar environment where they can learn how to do their job without the real-life risks and costs. These physical simulations are often costly and have a large carbon footprint. And up until now, they have mostly been the preserve of a handful of industries, such as the military.
But this is all changing. Virtual Reality can now provide immersive simulations to more people at a lower cost and with a reduced carbon footprint, allowing more industries – such as the renewable energy sector – to benefit. They can now use digital 3D simulations to teach their employees how to handle challenging and hazardous scenarios without the danger.
VRAI is a company that is bringing VR technology to the world of simulations and training while also using data capture to improve performance. We spoke to the Managing Director of VRAI, Pat O’Connor, about VR’s potential for teaching and its entry into the simulation market:
Q: How did the idea for VRAI come about?
A: I previously served for 22 years in the Irish Defence Forces. My last operational deployment was to Syria in the civil war there in 2013. [I found that] what people call ‘gut instinct’ or ‘situational awareness’ saved my life a couple of times.
When I came back from Syria, I mentioned this to my now cofounder, Niall Campion. I started to wonder if it was possible to train people differently and to consider the importance of the “human factors” [which arise on the ground in real-life work situations].
Q: Let’s speak a bit about ‘situational awareness’. If my understanding is correct, this is the kind of awareness that comes from knowing where you are, being aware of your surroundings, the environment, and any potential risks or dangers that can arise in such a situation.
When in the field, many factors can interfere with this awareness. Even with formal training, there are circumstances when you must act on the spot and respond to changing, unknown, and uncertain circumstances. In particular, various ‘human factors’ can get in the way of situational awareness. These are environmental and organisational factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence work behaviour in a way that can affect health and safety. Things such as distractions, fatigue, stress reactions, and certain attitudes or social tendencies can throw people off in the moment despite background training. So, VRAI uses VR to help prepare people for these kinds of unexpected circumstances?
A: [Yes]. Niall recognized that a number of technologies were maturing at the same time, such as VR, Cloud, IOT and AI, [which could be used in the service of this kind of training]. He developed a product vision to combine Virtual Reality technology with data capture, analysis, and machine learning (ML) in order to measure, evaluate and predict human performance and improve training outcomes. [What this means is that through simulating real-life scenarios, VRAI can not only can help to train people to handle volatile situations, but can also record and analyse behaviour patterns to improve the training itself.]
Q: Tell me a bit more about VRAI and how it fills a significant gap in teaching and e-learning?
A: [Simulation training is not new]. [But] we are democratizing it by bringing high end simulation capability, once the sole domain of elite roles such as pilots, surgeons and F1 drivers, to whoever needs it, whenever they need it, wherever they need it. [In particular], we are focused on helping customers in aerospace, defence, and offshore wind.
Because training can occur virtually, we reduce both the cost and carbon footprint of traditional training. But what we also do is help improve human performance and training outcomes. Our insight is that VR is not only a great way of presenting data to a user [and teaching them a skill], but it is also an incredibly powerful medium for capturing data. [We can track how people learn and react to experiences, giving insights into human behaviour which can then be used to enhance training outcomes.]
Q: There are many skills and experiences which are dangerous and risky to be exposed to. Can you tell me about which industries will particularly benefit from VRAIs’ training?
A: Industries like aerospace and defence have decades of experience in using simulation to allow users [to get lots of experience in repeating tasks], but without the same cost or risk associated with doing them in the real world. [VR simulation allows learners to become immersed in and interact with a 3D environment in real-time]. Our data-driven VR simulation solution is seen as the next evolution of that [original] technology and those industries are the earlier adopters.
Our vison is about democratizing simulation training and bringing this capability to industries that could not access this technology before as it was generally only available for elite roles like pilots or surgeons. With the maturing of tech like VR, cloud and AI, we can bring simulation training to new industries.
One industry that we are keen to support is the renewable energy industry. The wind energy sector needs to add 400,000 trained technicians in the next four years to meet the fast-growing demand for renewable energy. It will be very difficult to do this with traditional training, and we intend to build a simulation product to help them scale their workforce and meet demand using technology.
Q: I’d like to hear more about the technology behind VRAI. How does it use the power of AI and VR to create learning experiences?
A: In 2018, we completed a project in Somalia with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). We were tasked with demonstrating how difficult it is to spot Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from a moving vehicle in VR. As part of the project, we included an after-action review function which used gaze-tracking information. Users were told how many devices they successfully identified, how many they missed, and of the devices they missed, whether there was a common theme/pattern. This information was presented as part of an after-action review. By showing the participants that they looked directly at devices they missed yet didn’t identify, we were able to provide a strong learning point.
[We saw that] VR is a good way of generating insights from user performance. We took this insight and raised some seed investment to develop HEAT: a data capture, storage, analysis and display tool for training data captured in VR. We developed an MVP of this product and deployed it in a VR training experience with IAG Cargo in 2019. Since then, we have been deploying HEAT in all our simulation products, building out HEAT’s capability to deploy not only with our VR simulation but also with partners such as BAE Systems, a leading global provider of training solutions to the aerospace and defence sectors.
Q: How do the simulations and immersive experiences offered by VRAI make a difference to how people learn? How else might learners benefit from this kind of e-learning?
A: A case study conducted by Trinity College Dublin’s applied research centre, Learnovate, showed that the system results in several concrete benefits. The research focused on a gunnery course that used three days of simulation training, and it found that knowledge retention improved from 30 % to 80 %. Student confidence post-training increased from 60 % to 100 %, and the student-to-instructor ratio dropped from three students per instructor to twelve students per instructor. It was also shown to save time, specifically 81 days, through increased efficiency and capacity.
Ultimately, data-driven VR simulation allows people to get more “hands-on” experience to develop the skills they need in a safe environment. It provides more exposure to a wide range of scenarios that can be very difficult to recreate in the real world, with more data-driven insights into what affects performance, fewer costs, and less carbon footprint.
Q: How do you see VR’s place in the world of teaching and learning? (e.g. do you think VR will ever replace traditional types of learning, are there any limits to VR-facilitated learning?)
A: I believe VR will extend the spectrum of what is possible in a blended learning environment. In aerospace, they use the term “targeted fidelity”. In other words, what level of fidelity (detail and functionality) should the learning environment have in order to train the specific skill?
Sometimes to achieve the skill, the learning is best done live. Sometimes a full motion simulator is needed, which provides a practical in-person experience – such as a flight simulator with physical controls.
But sometimes, VR can provide the right fidelity to provide more ubiquitous simulation [when large numbers of people need to learn] and for procedural training where repetition is key. It also does this at a reduced cost and with a lower carbon footprint than traditional training and simulators.
Q: What challenges, if any, has VRAI faced as an up-and-coming start-up?
A: Key challenges for a startup are often around understanding your customers’ problems and how to solve them innovatively, acquiring those initial customers, and then making sure you exceed their expectations and build a long-term relationship with them. You can only do that if you have the best talent, which has been very difficult [to attract] in a full employment economy over the last two to three years.
[Luckily, we have been okay in terms of investment]. Most early-stage high-growth startups will almost always need funding from investors to bridge the gap between revenue and costs that often exist in the early stages of startups. This takes a lot of time and focus. But we have been fortunate enough to have some excellent early-stage investors who believed in us and continued supporting us as larger investors have bought into our growth story and invested in VRAI.
Q: What are the short and long-term plans of VRAI?
A: [Our] long-term goal is to [continue to] democratize simulation training –to make simulation available to whoever needs it, whenever they need it, wherever they need it. That means bringing the simulation capability from fighter jets to the factory floor.
[In the short term], we are focused on delivering for our customers, growing our revenue and building a sustainable business model that allows us to grow and become leaders in data-driven VR simulation globally.
We are just beginning to discover the multitude of possibilities that VR offers. VRAI has unlocked a powerful one, which uses the technology to help facilitate training through 3D simulations. They say that nothing compares to real-world experience, but VR could come close when it comes to learning various skills – especially those that are risky and dangerous to learn in real life. Through not only facilitating training but also observing and analyzing the behaviour of learners, VRAI can help to improve the learning experience while allowing companies to cut costs and emissions.