VR simulation has completely changed the game for high hazard training environments. It not only reduces risk, but results in a more efficient use of resources. This is becoming all the more evident as we see a notable shift towards remote working, but training and simulation solutions have been moving more and more towards virtual worlds for some time now.
We spoke to Pat O'Connor from VRAI - a data-driven simulation company that combines VR and AI to make simulation training feel more "authentic, memorable and measurable" - to find out more.
Pat and co-founder Niall Campion first met in college, coming back together to form VRAI after two very different careers. Pat joined the army, while Niall found a successful career in film and VFX.
There are four main areas VRAI is training people for at the moment - pilot training, winch-man operator training for helicopter search and rescue, armoured vehicle training and offshore wind.
"If you're trying to train for an operational environment that is so far away, and is in itself hazardous, we can create that world virtually," Pat explains.
The value here is obvious, and the company is seeing even more interest in their tech due to Covid's impact on digitisation efforts in the workplace.
"If you're being told you need to travel 100 miles off the north coast of Scotland to climb a wind turbine the same height as the Eiffel Tower next week, Zoom isn't really going to cover it."
"VR simulation allows people to train for risky, remote or rare operational environments in the safety of a virtual world," Pat explains. "The most obvious benefit is that your employees are going to be safer as there's no inherent risk. But it's also so much more efficient."
"Instead of having to organise a lot of expensive equipment and gather instructors in one training location, you can allow people to train wherever they are in the world. There's no need to travel to a training centre and no need to go offshore - you can train where you are."
If you can think back to any time you've ever been put through any kind of training in your life, chances are there was always someone hovering over you with a clipboard. This might have been the only option years ago, but by combining VR with data-driven AI, the subjectivity and the guesswork is almost completely removed from the equation.
Using data-driven VR simulation, VRAI can objectively codify performance and evaluate it with no kind of external bias. This results in clear dashboards relaying each trainee's performance compared to others, a baseline, and also their own previous training results.
"The technology we've developed enables us to gather about 500,000 data points per minute of virtual training," Pat explains. "What we can then do is extract the data into the cloud and apply analytics in order to measure and evaluate performance. We then apply machine learning to predict performance."
So how does it actually work? By his own admission, Pat is no data scientist, but the way he describes it, there are four 'buckets' of data:
Demographic data linked to training profiles which explains who the user is, what their role is, and what their training experience has been so far.
The X, Y and Z axis which shows where the user is in the world.
The data that relates to the specific tasks being carried out in the virtual world
Biometric data relating to stress and cognitive load
The barrier to entry for this sort of training is generally just a mid-tier VR headset, or a headset tethered to a laptop for some of the heavier simulations.
"But ultimately, even for those more advanced simulations, all you need is a good gaming laptop and a VR headset," says Pat. "You don't need the aircraft, and you certainly don't need the offshore wind turbine!"
VRAI prides itself on being a platform-agnostic company, which means they can measure, evaluate, and predict performance regardless of what headset or VR simulation software you're using.
From a more business-focused perspective, meanwhile, they are also focused heavily on business model innovation, including a "simulation as a service" business model that they built from the ground up based on talking to customers and understanding their needs.
Even more important than what the company offers, however, is its founding principles. When Pat and Niall established the company they adopted something called the triple bottom line.
"That means that we don't only focus on profit, but sustainability, of both people and the planet. I think that sets us apart, particularly in the aerospace, defence and security world."
VRAI has seen sales increase by a factor of five over the last 12 months thanks to COVID and, as such, they recently kicked off a new round of investment to raise a further €3.5 million because there are so many more problems they know they can solve.
Thanks to Pat for helping us look into this fascinating area of simulation training.
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