October 2017
By Martin Jung and Caroline Poersch

Image: © Monika Wisniewska/123rf.com

Martin Jung studied German and Theoretical Linguistics before working as a technical editor, lecturer, and consultant in various areas of information technology. Since 2000, he has been working in leading positions for cognitas in Germany, where he currently serves as Business Development Manager.


martin.jung[at]cognitas.de
www.cognitas.de


 


Caroline Poersch studied Technical Editing and Communication at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich, Germany. Virtual Reality and CBT were in the focus of her bachelor thesis. She currently works as a technical editor for IT communication at cognitas.


caroline.poersch[at]cognitas.de
www.cognitas.de


 


 

This article was originally published in German in tekom's trade journal 'technische kommunikation'.

Virtual training delivers real benefits

Digitalization influences most aspects of our lives, including the way we learn. Technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) bring entirely new perspectives. But is VR just about technical gimmicks? Or will it help to improve the acquisition of knowledge in the long term?

Intelligent provision of information usually seeks to deliver the appropriate information for each context of use. Thus, a service technician at a machine must receive the exact information that he requires for his task. For such cases, Augmented Reality (AR) is coming into play with increasing frequency: The AR application identifies the situation in which a user finds himself through the eye of the camera and provides the exact information that is most likely needed.

But what if the technician doesn’t have the machine in front of him at all? What if he wants to prepare for a service activity before the assignment for instance, or if he is still in training or undergoing advanced training? It is of course possible to take recourse to classical technical documentation and learning material. eLearning modules such as computer-based trainings (CBT) or web-based trainings (WBT) are often used. However hands-on learning and practicing is possible only to a limited extent with such media.

Virtual Reality (VR) opens up a new dimension of learning: During a VR-based training, the learner is placed exactly in the context that is best suited for acquiring the knowledge. He can experience technical devices, machines or systems spatially in the original scale, move in the virtual environment, look around freely and even interactively carry out maintenance activities (Fig. 01).

Figure 1: The user can move freely and see the virtual machine from all perspectives 
Source: Caroline Pörsch and Martin Jung


In short: Augmented Reality delivers the information for the context, Virtual Reality the context for the information.

How Virtual Reality works

In VR applications, the current real environment is concealed from the user as completely as possible, to achieve an unrestricted immersion in the computer-generated world. In most cases, the user wears VR glasses, also called head mounted displays (HMD). The glasses completely cover the view of the external world and represent the virtual scenario on an integrated or inserted display. The VR application supplies the left and right eye separately with images pushed slightly against each other respectively, the brain consolidates the images into a coherent, spatial perception (stereoscopic illusion). Unlike AR glasses, such as the Microsoft Hololens, VR glasses intentionally prevent the optical view of the real environment.

Along with the spatial visual impression, the deciding factor is that movements of the user are recognized and transferred to the virtual scenario. If the user turns his head for instance, then this should lead to a corresponding change in the angle of vision in the VR scenario in real time. Position and speed sensors integrated in the VR headset serve the motion tracking. For particularly precise motion tracking resulting in an extra impressive VR experience, accessories installed outside the VR glasses using laser or infrared technology are used.

Approaching reality

Controllers that users hold in their hands are used to enable true interaction with the VR environment. The motion tracking includes the controller. Thus, hand movements such as lifting or turning, are transferred to the virtual scenario. Since the user sees representations of his hands in the virtual world, he can be involved in the action in the truest sense of the word, for example by lifting objects or removing screws (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: The user can track his actions exactly in the virtual environment (Source: Caroline Pörsch and Martin Jung)

State of the art technology

Such scenarios were mere distant dreams only a few years ago.  Although there were initial approaches in the direction of VR, the technology was very expensive, difficult to manage and hardly available. The situation has changed significantly in the last year: Several mature VR headsets with high value controllers and precise motion tracking appeared on the market at prices clearly below 1000 Euro, e.g. HTC Vive and Oculus Rift (Fig. 3). New generations of graphic cards bring the computing performance necessary for VR to affordable standard PCs.

Figure 3: Conventional VR glasses with controllers: HTC Vive (l.) and Oculus Rift. 
Source: HTC and Oculus VR

 

The development continues. Presently, all high-performance VR glasses depend on a cable that connects the glasses and PC. The tripping hazard that is invisible in the VR scenario is however to be done away with soon. Additional modules will come on the market in the next months that allow cable-free data transfer between VR glasses and computers. Completely autonomous VR glasses have also been announced. The glasses function without additional components, but are efficient enough for challenging VR applications. An inside-out motion tracking and integrated computing capability would be the enablers.

Advanced developments in controllers are also near market maturity. These include VR gloves that transfer the movement of every individual finger precisely to the VR scenario. The current usual practice of key-based control of movements for gripping and letting go could soon be history with such gloves.

Better start now

In view of the rapid speed of development, the question is whether companies should still wait to use VR technology for operational training. Our unreserved recommendation is to begin now. The technology already available now is solid enough to achieve real value addition with VR trainings and to use this form of learning economically and effectively. The improvements expected later will further increase applicability. Concerns that the concepts developed today might be swept away after a short time due to revolutionary new developments are groundless. If you wait too long to start, you will lose the pace.

Why virtual?

Why the detour through virtuality? Why not let the learners learn in the right, real environment? Many times, it is not possible to offer the real environment in teaching and learning situations. For example, the machine for which the maintenance training is to be conducted, can be under production or may not be delivered yet. Often, service technicians are distributed over may countries, but a system is available only at one location. It would be too expensive to get all technicians to travel there. Until now, for such scenarios we were restricted to classical learning material, in which images and in best cases animations or film sequences ensured clarity.

Advantages compared to classical methods

VR trainings offer clear advantages as compared to classical learning material.

Clarity: As compared to conventional visualization techniques, VR clearly offers more clarity. Classic two-dimensional images usually only show sections of a total scenario, in a fixed specified perspective. The learner finds it difficult to relate the image in relation to his as yet incomplete imagination of the entire described object. Where is the illustrated operating element to be found in the system? How big is the illustrated component?

A VR application offers a direct reference to the described object. The exact position of individual parts and the proportions can be recognized at any time simply by looking around. The user can freely select the perspective not just by moving his head but also by moving around the machine and viewing it from all sides.

Although the objects can be moved in all dimensions even in traditional representations of 3D scenarios, such as in 3D PDF files, the deep optical impression remains restricted to one perspective representation. For the viewer, all objects are shown on one layer, namely the monitor. In VR scenarios on the other hand, the user experiences the described object with a deep spatial impact that is close to reality and in real dimensions in relation to his body size. He has the impression of actually standing in front of the objects and not just viewing pictures of them.

Interaction: VR trainings don’t just offer more clarity, but also advanced options for interaction. While the interaction remains limited to inputs through keyboard and mouse in case of conventional digital learning media, VR enables playing through action sequences with considerably natural sequences of movements. For example, to loosen a screw, the user must grip the appropriate screwdriver, position it and carry out the corresponding turning movements. The actions close to reality reinforce practical reference and design more consistent knowledge transfer, since the potential of the muscle memory is used.

Motivation: Not to be neglected: Learning in virtual worlds is evidently more fun than learning with conventional materials. We always see references in literature: Motivation is a very important factor while learning. Lack of it is a primary cause of failure of a learning process.

As a new, surprising and game-like medium, VR represents a special attraction for users, due to which the concentration and receptivity further increase. The extent to which this effect wears away over time will have to be supported by long term studies. However, it is expected that VR as a hands-on, interactive and visually attractive medium will continue to enable an especially consistent learning process even when the use of VR has passed on to be part of everyday training.

Moreover, VR is an optimal platform to integrate game-like motivation elements. Its proximity to the world of computer games with their countless mechanisms to bind users to the screen becomes positively perceptible here (→ gamification).

Advantages compared to the real environment

The shift to virtuality can have advantages even in situations, in which the described object is really available and learning would be possible on-site. They are not limited to the greater fun factor. The advantages result from the fact that Virtual Reality is not bound to practical constraints or physical laws of the real world.

Visualization of the hidden: The VR application can enable looking through the body of a machine and make the learners familiar with parts and processes within it. They can experience the impact of control commands for example, which are not visible in reality. The learner obtains a deep understanding of the functional principles and contexts.

All this is not possible in real work environments or can be possible only after modifications. The latter usually costs time and is hardly possible in ongoing operations.

Didactic reduction of complex environments: The complexity can be reduced didactically in virtual work environments and thus be customized individually to the prior knowledge of the learners. This makes it possible to present a very complex machine vividly for every user. In contrast, this possibility does not exist in real work environments.

Time stretch and acceleration: The dynamics of the machine and with it the speed of its operational processes cannot be influenced or can be influenced only to a limited extent under the real working conditions. Functionalities can often be followed only with great difficulty by learners. Technical processing following each other at very short time intervals can be slowed down with time stretching and thus represented more clearly in virtual work environments. Slow processes can also be accelerated with the help of time acceleration to avoid waiting times and design a training more efficiently.

No danger to man and machine: While an error while training on the real machine can have critical consequences, it remains without negative impact in the virtual environment – apart from a deduction of points or not passing a test.

This enables trainees to learn from errors. Consequences of wrong operation can be made to be experienced drastically, but no injuries or material damage is caused. Practice and repetition itself are possible without constraints here.

Simulation of faults or exceptional situations: Faults or rarely arising situations can be effected only with considerable effort in the real machine environment and cannot be repeated as desired. Usually, productive operation has to be interrupted or comprehensive modifications have to be made to simulate an error.

During a VR training it is possible to simulate all types of malfunctions. The learner can thus practice the measures necessary during emergencies without any problem. VR training offers the opportunity to place the learner specifically in a stress situation typical for malfunctions, for example through loud noise, alarm signals or simulation of mechanical deformations.

Limits of Virtual Reality

Considering the variety of advantages, VR represents the perfect platform for transferring knowledge that leaves conventional learning media far behind and is still clearly superior compared to the in-situ learning in real environments.  However, some constraints and limits must be mentioned.

Motion sickness: Undesired side effects occur in rare cases while operating in virtual worlds: Discomfort, nausea and dizziness – symptoms that are similar to sea or travel sickness. The phenomenon is often called "motion sickness", "cyber sickness" or even "VR sickness" in literature. The cause is possibly a conflict of information between the real physical and the simulated visual perceptions.

However, the symptoms can be reduced by ensuring that the time offset between the actual physical movements and their implementation in the virtual world is as small as possible. This time offset is often called latent time. Shorter latent times are becoming increasingly possible with advances in technology, thus alleviating the motion sickness problem.

Lack of haptic impressions: A major constraint of VR experiences is the lack of haptic and tactile perceptions near reality. Virtual objects have no mass, no tangible form and no perceivable surface structure. Although approaches exist that make the simulated environment "tangible" with the help of exoskeletal gloves that brake or stop the movement of fingers, when they touch or enclose a virtual object, these are still being tested and do not represent a real-world solution for the haptic problem at the moment.

Thus, VR scenarios are only conditionally suitable for learning special action steps where "fingertip feel" plays a significant role.

Hardware requirements: As opposed to a CBT or WBT that simply requires a conventional PC or a mobile end device, VR trainings have higher hardware requirements. Along with the especially effective computer with high-performance graphic cards, special additional devices are required for implementing VR trainings: The VR glasses that are connected through a cable with the computer, the controller and tracking sensors. Powerwalls can be used as alternatives to VR glasses.

The technical requirements mean a certain financial and logistical effort and could reduce the acceptance on the part of the users and organizations. But it is expected that the next generation of VR glasses will be wireless and will not have external tracking sensors. And with respect to the costs: The savings that can be achieved with VR trainings are considerable and also measurable, so that investments in VR can usually be amortized demonstrably after the shortest time.

Recommendations for organizations

A recommendation was already given in the introductory part of this item: If VR-based trainings are an option for you: Don’t wait for further technical development, but get started. The technology already offers a solid basis today. The advantages of VR trainings are obvious, the savings that can be achieved are considerable and measurable.

Develop on CAD data and use the results multiple times: In many organizations, 3D models are already available in design, which are suitable as basis for VR trainings. These models usually have to be "cleaned up", i.e. simplified and structured. The effort for it is however definitely lower than what would be necessary for the complete redesigning of the virtual scenarios.

If extensive CAD data is available in your organization for the products to be trained for, the entry into VR-based trainings is particularly easy.

If the design data has been prepared in an appropriate manner once, they can be used versatilely, and not just for VR trainings: It is possible to obtain “normal” manual illustration from it, they can be the basis for CAD-based animations, which are embedded in 3D PDFs for instance, or the basic stock for AR applications.

Promote communication: If a learner wears VR glasses, then he usually acts for himself alone and is separated from the real world. What about the communication and exchange with colleagues? What about the advantages of learning jointly in a team? Although our observations show that VR experiences nevertheless encourage exchange, it is recommended that communication promoting elements should be integrated in the VR training concepts.

The participants of a training can immerse in virtuality through the VR glasses taking turns in small groups. The rest of the participants follow the actions in parallel on the screen, give tips or comment on the proceedings. Functions can also be integrated with reference to the group, for example practice in the form of a friendly competition.

Furthermore, it is also possible that several persons meet in the same virtual room. Forms of collaborative learning are also possible for VR trainings. Major spatial distances can be bridged in this process. Participants come together in a kind of VR online meeting and see each other respectively in their virtual representations (avatar). The trainer, who is possibly thousands of kilometers away from the trainees, can look over their shoulders while they work on the machine and instruct them.

Integrate VR trainings in blended learning concepts: It is neither possible nor meaningful to process trainings completely using VR. Training concepts that use the specific advantages of different learning media and methods and integrate different modules in one concept are the most effective. The user should be able to select from different forms of representation. In this way, the VR trainings can be converted without major additional effort into less immersive learning units, which can be implemented without additional hardware requirements on PCs and tablets and can be integrated in classic CBTs. Although near real spatial experience is not possible, and the interaction remains limited to traditional inputs such as typing, clicking or drag and drop, this further expands the areas of application.

Do not rely on VR specialized agencies: The creation of VR-based information applications like VR trainings belongs in the hands of technical writers. The knowledge about a target group-oriented preparation of technical information and didactic understanding are at least as important as safe handling of VR toolkits and VR author systems.

Moreover, VR-based information can be successful in the long term only when their creation can be gradually integrated in "normal" writing processes.

The perspective of VR

In the long term, it is highly probable that Virtual Reality will be one of the focal point technologies that define the future life of a digitalized world.

The use of VR will prevail widely especially in the area of technical communication, since this technology marries information and context: As a kind of context delivery solution, VR places learners in exactly those environments that are best suited to the intake of information. This allows training times to be reduced, successful learning to be more consistent, and products to be brought to the market more quickly.