Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have a growing role in design and development in the defence sector. Prof Robert Stone, of the University of Birmingham, has been a champion of the technology for almost 30 years, through good times and bad, Ruari McCallion learned.
The loss of HMS A7, a First World War submarine, cost the lives of 11 crewmembers and the wreck, in 135 feet of water at Whitsand Bay, near Plymouth, has defied all attempts at salvage.
Recently, a team from the University of Birmingham’s School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering (EESE) was involved in an MoD-approved survey and used 3D software to recreate an image of the doomed vessel, helping to reveal why it settled on the seabed in an unusual, bow-up angle of around 30° and with her stern embedded in more than 20ft of soft clay.
But the Virtual Reality (VR) technologies employed in the survey are not just interesting tools for academics. Their role in the defence industry is growing – after a false start or two.
“In the 1990s, when VR first gained visibility in the UK, a lot of people were force-fed the ‘technology push’ approach. You had to wear a helmet, a glove and many other outlandish technologies” said Professor Robert Stone, Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems and Director, Human Interface Technologies Team at EESE.
He was one of the first Europeans to experience the NASA VIEW VR system in 1987 and established the first industrial VR team at the UK’s National Advanced Robotics Centre.
He could justifiably be described as “Mr VR” so when he offers an opinion on the subject, people listen.
Initially, the computers and software were so expensive and the skills base was just at foundation level, with the result that the industry generally turned its attention elsewhere. Stone and a few others continued to believe that VR would have its day.
“The critical influence was the Games industry,” he said. “They not only developed software that was affordable to and usable by many, they also influenced the development of the graphics hardware we now exploit in all of our applications.”
VR’s range of technologies can be useful in design, manufacture and training; the trick is to use the right ones. Stone’s concern in the near-term future is about the technical and human factors in using head-mounted displays, such as the Oculus Rift, in industrial applications.
He is also quite critical about the “need” for large-scale projection-type VR “theatres” or “CAVEs”.
“There is no concrete evidence to suggest that companies, especially in the defence and manufacturing sectors, need to invest in these “overkill” technologies when a carefully designed and implemented virtual environment, presented on a large, ultra-high-definition screen, will do the job,” he said.
The Human Interface Technologies Team has developed an interactive command space planning tool using games-based simulation techniques, enabling future Royal Navy multi-role vessel designers to explore a variety of command space layout concepts prior to finalising a specific solution, using objects from a 3D database and both male and female avatars to test operating space, lines of sight and ergonomics.
The initial prototype was based on the Unity game engine. It recently successfully concluded a two-year research project dealing with advanced technologies and interaction concepts for BAE Systems’ Future Projects Team, which investigated virtual and augmented reality forms of human machine interface (HMI) between the human pilot and aircraft, or a sophisticated command and control system.
But is it just for the OEMs or main contractors or can it be used further down the supply chain?
“Definitely,” Stone responds. “Because the price of the games machines and 3D construction tools have come down so much, there’s no reason why smaller companies can’t benefit.
“Companies we have worked with will deliver proposals to the MoD and OEMs in the form of 3D presentations and virtual prototypes. And once you have built it, there’s no problem with converting it to work with other companies’ tools.”