An immersive tour of the virtual machine
Ulster University has designed a way for customers to ‘walk through’ heavy machinery
Technology and creative content collide: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in Avatar. Photograph: Reuters
A multidisciplinary team from Ulster University’s Research Institute for Art and Design has used the latest augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies to allow potential customers of heavy machinery to “walk through” and examine machinery from remote locations. This capacity has been developed by the institute for a major heavy equipment manufacturer.
It has clear benefits for the sales process.
“They no longer have to ship very large-scale equipment to trade shows around the world, for example,” says senior lecturer in product design Dr Justin Magee, who led the team. “They can now show the functionality of the machine and experience it as if it was actually there. In future, they will be able to interact with the functions of the machine, and this has potential applications for training and other areas as well.”
But this latest innovation involves a lot more than just showing high-quality video or pictures of the machinery, even if they are in 3D. It’s the highly complex process of creating an immersive experience for the user or viewer. This goes far beyond merely viewing a machine and involves giving people the sense that they are experiencing it in reality.
“Immersive technologies are all about the user experience,” says Magee. “It’s how experiences can be simulated using technological and digital means. It can be 3D video right up to VR headsets with haptic and gesture controls. It’s very much an experiential thing. The technology is key, but the user experience is also key. You’ve got to emotionally engage the user. If you have a visual interface that gains empathy with the user and allows them believe they are part of a world, that’s an immersive experience.”
It doesn’t all have to be about technology though. “The user must be engaged with the content,” Magee adds. “The content itself can give the immersive experience. The surround sound on a TV at home can give you that experience if the content and the narrative is good enough and believable enough to pull you in. Even a cartoon can be immersive once the narrative is right.”
A case in point is the film Avatar, which broke box-office records at the time.
“This is an example of where creative content and technology collided to make something believable which had empathy with the viewer,” Magee says.
Indeed, that user empathy is the constant in the whole process.
“Technology is ever-changing,” he says. “Somebody coming from a technology point of view might argue that it comes first, while others argue that it’s the user experience. Both are true to a certain extent. That’s what’s so interesting about this. We are seeing two approaches to how immersive technologies will develop, and because of that crossover we will see a lot more innovation and creativity.”
The creation of an immersive experience and its engagement with the user was key to the success of this project for the engineering client.
“We collaborate with industry on knowledge transfer projects like this where we bring together multidisciplinary teams to work on unmet needs which they have,” says Magee. “In this case, the team comprised product design skills, graphic design, film-making, animation, interactive design, software, and so on. A whole mix of skills was involved.”
The aim of the project was to assist the company’s marketing department in communicating the advantages of its products to potential customers around the world. This required the creation of 3D animation representations of the product, with a high degree of photographic and functional realism.
Like the real thing
The machinery the viewer was experiencing in virtual reality had to look and almost feel just like the real thing, and had to behave just like it too. So if a viewer asked for a door to be opened or a section of the machine to be raised, the resulting view had to be absolutely true to life.
The team from Ulster University worked closely with the client’s product development and marketing teams.
“Team members had experience in games and product design, and this allowed us to introduce the client to design thinking and visualisation concepts,” says Magee. “The company had a story to tell about their product and what it does and can do. This is a piece of industrial equipment and we had to figure out a way to tell the story in an interesting and exciting way. Virtual and augmented reality technologies started to take a few leaps forward during the project, and this helped in the process.”
In the future, it will not only be products from a catalogue that potential customers will be able to peruse. It will be possible to test-market new products not yet made before going to the expense of prototyping and initial manufacturing runs.
And the technology will keep making it more real.
“VR headsets are good, but they are not exactly user-friendly,” says Magee. “The holy grail is to get to something like Google Glass, where the user barely realises they are wearing something and they can get totally immersed in the experience that we create.”
To learn more about collaboration with Ulster University, go to ulster.ac.uk