With capital spending restrictions in place at the moment, Return on Investment (ROI) is right at the top of customers’ agendas. While Virtual Reality (VR) sounds like a science fiction application of projection technology, its adopters have found that it can deliver massive cost reductions, cut the time to market and extend the communications process outside of the domain of specialists to all the stakeholders in a project. AV News reports.
It might seem a long way from projectors, but let’s start this piece with a discussion about gunnery – specifically, the training of artillery personnel in the British Army. Training a gunner means firing guns – and that requires ammunition. In fact, in the last financial year, the British Army consumed £26,618,743 worth of ammunition in training – 80% of all the ammunition purchased by the Army.
Ammunition costs have been rising since 2007, and with more conflicts likely in the Middle East and elsewhere this growth in spending is likely to continue – were it not for a technological fix that not only cuts costs dramatically, but also produces better gunners. The introduction of a virtual reality training solution enables gunners to familiarise themselves with their equipment and to expend as much ‘ammunition’ as they wish – with no ongoing cost as the amminition isn’t real.
But surely there must be some compromise made in not firing real guns? Apparently not, according to solution provider Virtalis – in competition, the VR trained gunners generally outperform those trained in the traditional way. A major factor here is the removal of any cost constraints on the use of real ammunition – the VR trained gunners can take as many shots as necessary, without adding to the £26 million plus bill.
Defence provides examples of directly measurable cost saving opportunities, but it is far from the only benefit. VR visualisation has applications anywhere there is a need for a three dimensional visual world to be created by a computer for display on a wall, cube or other surface.
These 3D representations offer the potential for interaction with one or more suitably equipped users. These users might be required to use goggles, gloves fitted with sensors or other devices to achieve fully immersive interaction. Here, user can enter and move about in the virtual world and interact with objects as if inside it.
The advantages of creating a virtual representation of a physical object or project for design review, internal and external communications, testing and training are increasingly understood. While sales of complete solutions are difficult to track, market research company TechNavio do monitor the 3D rendering and VR software market. They forecast a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 21.4% to 2015.
The ability to manipulate and interact with object environments even before they exist in physical form is providing the impetus to adopt VR visualisation in an ever wider field of activities. Drivers for growth, the researchers report, include not only cost saving and the reduced time to market associated with virtual reality visualisation, but also growing demand from the entertainment industry – theme parks, for example, Here, the ability to create novel user experiences in immersive environments is proving to be compelling.
If anyone has lost out in the race to adopt VR, it is probably model makers. The traditional design process is largely conducted in the 2D world but at some point the design review process demands a 3D model be made.
While drawings are accessible to experts, other stakeholders in the design process can have issues in understanding a 2D representation of, for example, a building or a new car. Physical models take time to make, extending the time taken to bring a project to market, and can be expensive, particularly if the design goes through multiple iterations.
Replacing model making with VR visualisation can be both quicker and cheaper, utilising data sources including Computer Aided Design (CAD) files as the source for the 3D image. The ability to see something in 3D has made a material difference to the working methods used in some industries. The ability of chemical engineers to interact with the structure of a molecule, for example, has cut days off the development time when compared t o traditional methods.
Changes can be implemented without having to restart the process from scratch, and the VR visualisation solution is generally multi-use, whereas earlier generations of physical models are generally just scrap. In environments such as construction, manufacturing plant design and mining, VR visualisation can be used to improve communication with all sorts of individuals with an interest in the project, from engineers to investors.
Training the eventual users of the end result of a project is another important consideration – better to let them loose on the 3D model than the real thing. Virtalis cites the example of a VR solution installed in a Portakabin alongside a nuclear submarine under construction. Welders practiced their work in a virtual environment before attempting the real thing – mistakes in a VR context are much cheaper than in the real world.
While many examples of the deployment of VR visualisation are drawn from the world of seriously expensive capital projects, like defence or large scale manufacturing, reductions in the price of high-end VR solutions, and the emergence of new entry-level systems, is opening up the technology to a much wider marketplace.
Price reductions at the high-end have been driven by the usual factors present in most AV markets – competition, amortisation of development costs etc – but it is the emergence of entry-level solutions that is likely to have the greatest impact on the market as a whole. Not only does the lower price of entry, which can be under £10,000, appeal to a wider cross-section of buyers, lower cost solutions provide an onramp to VR, encouraging new buyers to invest further in higher specification solutions once the initial installations have proved their worth.
The key factor driving the availability of these entry-level solutions is the widespread availability of 3D projection in markets such as home cinema and education. With the unit cost of the elements that make up a VR visualisation solution being so much lower the technology is starting to appeal to markets including entertainment, retail and design.
There are, of course, compromises in what customers get for their £10,000 as opposed to the six figure sums demanded for a high-end solution. The key variable are display size (10 feet wide is about as much as can be expected at the entry-level) resolution, brightness and contrast. The standard projector characteristics of resolution, brightness and contrast are vital in the VR market because ‘reality’ is a function of detail, perceived spatial depth and the light available for the stereoscopic rendering of the image.
Virtalis has introduced an entry-level range based on Optoma’s 720p 3D models and, while the quality cannot match that of the company’s high-end Christie-based solutions, the availability of a lower priced alternative has started to make inroads on a burgeoning mid-market for VR visualisation. Coupled with the potential of 4K resolutions and ‘virtual touch’ to come at the high-end, the future for this branch of high-end projection is a very exciting prospect.
Case study 1: Inside the molecule
Sheffield University’s Structural Biology Group’s focus is the atomic structure of biological macromolecules. By understanding these structures, they hope to elucidate the relationship between structure and function. The Krebs Institute Structural Biology Group, within the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, has recently installed a Virtalis ActiveWall Virtual Reality (VR) system and Virtalis’ own VR software enabler for PyMOL (the most widely used 3D molecular visualisation application) which enables molecular data to be visualised and interacted with in stereoscopic 3D.
Dr. Patrick Baker is a researcher in protein crystallography within the Group: “The proteins in our cells are really molecular machines. They are also very tiny, being typically just two to ten nanometres across. Yet within that small size, each protein molecule comprises between 1,500 and 20,000 individual atoms. Studying such complex structures can be mind boggling at times and, historically, we needed large polystyrene or wooden models to represent the structures. Twenty years ago, it took between one and five years to determine a structure. Now, we can have that structure within a week of creating the crystal. Structural biologists have long been at the forefront of what computers can do, owing to the enormous demands placed on them by molecular graphics. The advent of stereoscopic 3D viewing has been a further leap forward, because we can see so much more of the structure without becoming confused.”
The Virtalis ActiveWall is an installed, immersive, interactive 3D visualisation system. Movements within the ActiveWall environment are tracked using a tracking system. This added functionality alters the perspective of the visuals according to the user’s position and orientation within the scene to give a natural and accurate sense of relationship and scale. Using the hand held controller the user can navigate through the virtual world, pick and manipulate component parts in real-time and make decisions on the fly.
“Our ActiveWall allows us to share our results with colleagues, work with industrial collaborators and, of course, teach”, explained Dr. Baker. “Previously, I’ve used a 3D monitor, but the ActiveWall gives insights you couldn’t get with the monitor, as it was too zoomed in. Now I can walk right up to the screen to examine an area in detail and the rest of the molecule remains visible. It is an excellent teaching aid; we are using it to help students understand complex molecular structures. Also, this is a great collaborative working tool. We can get a group of about a dozen non-specialists all looking at the same thing, enabling productive discussions about the various structures.”
Case Study 2: understanding the environment
The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), a public-sector research centre, has begun using Virtalis’ GeoVisionary software to visualise its data in 3D. Gwyn Rees, director of the Environmental Information Data Centre at CEH, explained: “We are always looking for new and innovative ways to access, analyse and communicate our data and had already decided 3D visualisation was ripe for investigation when we saw GeoVisionary at the British Geological Survey (BGS), our sister organisation.”
Both CEH and BGS are part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which delivers independent research, survey and training in the environmental sciences to advance knowledge of the Earth as a complex, interacting system. CEH is a custodian of environmental data, including 20 million records of 12,000 species occurring across Britain and Ireland, as well as records of over 50,000 station years of daily and monthly river flow data, derived from over 1,300 gauging stations throughout the UK.
GeoVisionary was developed by Virtalis, in collaboration with BGS, as 3D software for the high-resolution visualisation of elevation and photography data overlaid with a wide range of geospatial data. “Already, we’re finding that we are getting better insights from our data”, said Rees. “GeoVisionary also neatly encapsulates our work to visitors, really showcasing our science. So far, we’ve used the system to see how land cover relates to terrain and cross referencing with Ordnance Survey and digital photography layers. In another project, we are analysing the dispersal of plant species in one of our Environmental Change Network networks in the Cairngorms and, GeoVisionary clearly shows how different species congregate in different parts of the terrain. GeoVisionary is enabling us to derive new insights from our pre-existing data.”
“As well as using GeoVisionary to display our hydrological, air quality and floral and faunal data in a user-friendly way, we are using it to plan fieldwork. GeoVisionary is much clearer than a map and by visiting a site in Virtual Reality (VR) first, we can check access, identify risk areas and give Health and Safety briefings. We are keen to use GeoVisionary on more applications and as a critical means of communicating our science to a wider audience.”