Virtual reality at work, literally

Technology experts may claim that ground breaking virtual reality (VR) may greatly benefit industry, but in reality how can it be implemented in the workplace and be used to its best advantage? VIEW OF THE FUTURE provides some answers.

This recently completed IST programme-funded project was initiated “to translate the theoretical value of VR into a practical tool in the workplace whilst at the same time looking into how to make systems more useable for the end users,” explains John Wilson, project coordinator and professor of human factors at the University of Nottingham.

Drawing on the expertise of project partners representing key user groups five main barriers were identified to the widespread adoption of virtual reality and virtual environments (VE): difficulties in using it; the need for better technical development; problems of its integration with current workplace technology; the lack of practical examples and evidence of how VR would be beneficial; and possible health and safety problems.

With real industrial end-user input, developers were able to update the VR technology and create new tools to meet the user’s demands and improve usability. These tools allow users to control the 3D menu with ease and accuracy, or find where they, and others, have been in the VE, what they did and even add relevant information. Many different impressive developments have taken place in hardware and software. For instance PI-casso, a totally mobile VR system developed within the project, “gives a high quality VR experience that isn’t anchored to one place and is accessible to a wider range of users,” says Wilson.

The possibility to customise VR systems is also possible through a Basic Application Framework. “BAF provides a set of tools to allow engineers and other users in companies to develop a Virtual Environment that meets their own needs and to their own specifications,” explains Wilson. New interaction devices as well as the associated 3D user interfaces and navigation metaphors were also developed within the project. They can be used in combination with every VR installation. The BAF supports the new devices “hornet”, “bug”, and “dragonfly’ and the PI-casso system uses some of them as standard interaction devices.

Helping to bring together the worlds of computer aided design (CAD) and VR to better improve the integration of current systems, VIEW OF THE FUTURE held two workshops. One took place in Athens, Greece on 24-25 September 2002 and the other in Noordwijk, The Netherlands on 16-17 December 2003. Outcomes from the workshop have been very insightful for developers and these workshops will continue long after VIEW OF THE FUTURE. “For the first time a community across Europe has been created so that the very difficult integration of CAD and VR can start to take shape,” comments Wilson.

With real industrial partners involved in the project, it was possible to develop VR/VE on the basis of identified human and organisational needs, have continuous evaluation against utility and usability criteria, and trial the applications developed to showcase the possible value of having VR technology in the workplace. Industrial companies are still carrying out R&D for VR systems and plan to use the products that have already been developed by VIEW OF THE FUTURE.

The conclusion of the project’s final report states, “the VIEW OF THE FUTURE project has successfully moved the field of VR/VE development, application and evaluation forward, in terms of good adventurous science and also well-founded, industrially relevant application.”

However, further research must be carried out in this field if the potential value of VR/VE is to be fully realised and the European Research Area strengthened, for instance on collaborative and distributed workspaces as well as the new ambient intelligence at work theme. VIEW OF THE FUTURE has led the way and now other research projects must build on the research completed. “The new Thematic Network of Excellence, INTUITION, has been set up on the basis of VIEW OF THE FUTURE and new projects will emerge which take further the notion of the powerful, high quality and mobile visualisation workplace of the future,” comments Wilson.

Contact:
Professor John Wilson
Institute for Occupational Ergonomics
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD
United Kingdom
Tel: +44-115-9514004
Fax: +44-115-9514009
Email: john.wilson@nottingham.ac.uk

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