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Interview: the emergence, importance and value of using VR for business in the 21st century

Michael Garwood 9 January 2018

AVTE interviews John Mould, commercial development manager, Antycip Simulation – a European leader for 3D immersive simulation software about its new simulation centre and the future of VR 

For some, the subject of virtual reality is one which sits within the consumer space. We’ve all warn/seen those cardboard VR headsets (Google Cardboard,Pudsey VR), where you place your phone within a few centimetres of your eyes and ride a rollercoaster, walk around a haunted mansion or swim with fish. Some of you may have even invested in or seen Sony’s Playstation VR, where you get fully immersed 360 experience within a game. I’m sure many of you have also experienced AR (where reality meets digital) with Nintendo’s Pokemon Go.

But VR is more than just fun “oooh” and “ahhh” experiences. The technology, whilst not displayed on the shelves in stores, is playing an ever increasing role in work related environments, helping to train and prepare people for various eventualities their role may include.

AVTE recently attended the opening of Antycip’s first Regional Demo Centre Regional Demo Centre in its Adderbury office – Oxfordshire, UK.

Examples included (amongst others) driving a tank and jumping out of an aircraft

The firm – full name Antycip Simulation – serves defence, commercial, and public organisations with projection and display solutions ranging from power walls to VR Caves, to custom one-of-a-kind installations that push VR technology to its limits

The demonstrations we received/experienced that day included various forms of military training. Examples included (amongst others) driving a tank and jumping out of an aircraft. We also got training in driving and using a digger (pictured) and even racing a car around a track. Such experiences – some of which required headsets, some which use displays/projectors to create an environment – are designed to help not only train, but to almost programme your brain so when you come to experience them in real life,  there is an element of familiarity.

According to figures from Statista, the value of the VR market is set to almost double this year to more than $12.1 billion. That figure is expected to top $22.8 billion by 2019 and $40 billion by 2020. This is not a fad (like 3D?).

To find out more, AVTE sat down with Antycip’s commercial development manager John Mould to learn more about what they do and how the technology is changing the way we work today and will continue to do so in the future.

  • Tell me about your new simulation centre. Why now?

Antycip’s expertise has led us to get involved in more and more complex designs of immersive displays and associated technologies. The challenge we faced is that with such a comprehensive portfolio of both product options and project capability, how do we translate that to (new) clients, to prove concepts, let them sample new technologies, and help them with their projects?

We did create temporary solutions, at our offices, and used existing customer sites as references for, new projects. But this was not a sustainable solution and we were keen to provide our customers with the highest level of service.

VR is reaching the home consumer for gaming and growing in its adoption for entertainment purposes

However, with the benefit of an end of lease situation, and a move to a more capable site in the UK, and a related change in Italy, we now had the space and flexibility to create better, permeant demonstration facilities. From this, we engaged our partners, leading with projection manufacturer Barco, on the vision of the demo centres, and the benefits they would bring in terms of customer engagement, project de-risking, technology education, and sales results, and gained their collective support in creating the centres.

We now have two very well equipped regional demo centres in the UK and in Italy, each with three display stations, and the capabilities to demonstrate a full range of solutions, from flight simulation to virtual reality. They are being used regularly for customer demonstrations, planning, and review meetings, and we are already seeing the benefits in terms of project de-risking, customer engagement and sales.

Our third office is in Paris, and again, with an imminent end of lease situation, we plan to have a regional demo centre for our French and Spanish markets online by 2019.

The cost for VR hardware at the entry level has been going down so more organisations can use it, and benefit from it

The subject of VR has often been discussed as a consumer technology – most notably in gaming. What are the opportunities in business? 

Agreed, VR is reaching the home consumer for gaming and growing in its adoption for entertainment purposes. For business Antycip sees that VR has been widely adopted for virtual prototyping, digital mocks ups, design and much more. It is increasingly becoming a part of workflows for manufacturers as it saves time and money from concept creation, to engineering design, to speed to market, and when in market, through better more robust design integrity, reduces recall and/or defect issues.

Additionally, the cost for VR hardware at the entry level has been going down so more organisations can use it, and benefit from it.

Also, as VR has become more mainstream, the demands at the high end professional level have increased. Antycip is now seeing a rise in the call for complex multi-channel display systems with increased demands for working with diverse datasets and applications in a virtual interactive environment.

As well as the hardware demands for VR, the need for software solutions that can help leverage the benefits of VR, has risen. One of the software solutions we offer, TechViz XL, works to this need by eliminating the requirement for the user to reconfigure data (e.g. 3D CAD designs) into a VR readable format. This saves time by speeding up the design – review – change process, as the user stays focussed on working in the software they are familiar with, rather than having to learn and use an additional piece of software to recreate their design or data in virtual reality.

  • Can you provide some examples of companies you work with – or have worked with?

Due to client confidentiality we are not able to highlight a lot of names, but I can say a large aerospace focused organisation utilises our tools for VR and combines them with additional immersive displays we have tailored to suit their requirements. With these solutions, they can step inside their data on the day it is created using the VR theatre and work with it collaboratively with functionality like full body tracking and virtual avatars to represent a real person working in the virtual content.

Another set of our projects was support for a global FMCG manufacturer with VR theatres which are used for customer research into everything from route through retail outlets to placement of products on shelves.

The possibilities are unlimited, and it comes down to applicability for the business, and the investment they are willing to make

A couple of other projects our French team recently worked on, which are in the public domain are;

Hutchinson – a leading automotive component supplier, which was looking to develop its prototyping activity. We designed and installed a four-sided VR Cave, which allows the R&D team at Hutchinson to work in a virtual environment and manipulate 3D objects. In addition, we installed a VR theatre with a stereoscopic power wall, which is being used for VR demonstrations to wider audiences than the R&D team.
ENS Rennes – here we installed a very large three-sided VR theatre (12m x 4m x 4m), which in one project, is being used to study sports team communication and interaction on the field, and from there how to train teams to be better at both.

  • What are the standout uses and benefits of VR for businesses? 

This varies as the technology gets used and becomes more understood by the users; speed of design, faster to market, better design so less recall, more engagement, so more sales, are all established benefits that VR brings to businesses

The traditional use has been in the design stage of a product, with VR helping speed up the iterative nature of that process through the more rapid pace that can be achieved with virtual, instead of, physical, prototyping.

  • VR can appeal to all sorts of businesses from small architectural practices to construction companies and more

But as we are seeing from the examples above, this use is moving out of design into research and presentation.

Ultimately, VR is a communication tool, a very powerful one, and if something needs to be discussed and communicated in a business environment, with images, the use of VR can enhance that communication and improve the shared insight and understanding.

  • What types of business could/should VR appeal to most?

VR can appeal to all sorts of businesses from small architectural practices to construction companies and more. Basically, if they are using 3D applications on a computer screen today, then VR may be the next logical step.

Other examples include, training organisations for safety purposes – you can immerse the pupils where they are not at risk but can fully appreciate the tasks at hand or to be assessed for a task.

The possibilities are unlimited, and it comes down to applicability for the business, and the investment they are willing to make

  • Has interest for VR from businesses grown?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the statistics, as we don’t track the verticals like that. But the use of VR displays in commercial companies has grown. This is especially the case in France where we’ve seen a boom in activity, and business is close to twice what is was just a few years ago.

  • Just how good is VR technology today?

In a very well detailed nicely modelled 3D environment that uses all the latest in graphical shade effects etc, items can appear photo-realistic, when you view objects like cars.

As in modern state of the art video games, it is all about the attention to detail, with the related time and cost to produce the experience, that brings the realism.

The current graphics cards and displays combine to deliver this content into ever more exotic display systems and we can see 3D depth, we can feel the virtual content as we interact with it and we can move around in more and more natural ways for motion. But, we are nowhere near the level of something like the Star Trek Holo-deck, which many people think of when VR is mentioned.

We still have a lag in middleware, in my opinion, where the cabling and mediums to pass these higher bandwidth signals are not always as robust as we would like

  • How has it evolved?

I have worked in this field for twenty years and the projection technology has gone digital in that time, the signals passed have gone digital and we have seen image generators reduced from wardrobe sized proprietary Unix based beasts to conventional PC’s running Windows operating systems with high end GPU’s onboard. The transitions have been steady and as the resolution of our graphics capabilities have been growing so have the projectors to deliver them, with laser being the latest of the cutting-edge light sources we can deploy. Warping and blending technologies we have seen becoming more and more easy to use and able to address and automate the calibration of increasingly complex multi-channel displays. The manufacturers supporting this technology, like VIOSO, continue to innovate all the time, allowing us to accurately project images onto more and more different shaped surfaces

But we still have a lag in middleware, in my opinion, where the cabling and mediums to pass these higher bandwidth signals are not always as robust as we would like; often the VR and display industry is on the bleeding edge when it comes to driving display systems over distance.

We are also facing challenges with the PC, as each time Windows progresses we find it creates problems and challenges for high end users like us.

One area we still have not cracked is collaboration using immersive projected displays. We can immerse an audience and give them all a great experience, but high-end VR displays like Powerwall’s and VR Cave’s still don’t enable multiple people to each have their own dynamically adjusted view of the virtual content, as you would expect to have in real-life.

I know that this is being explored and there will be emerging solutions that Antycip Simulation will be at the forefront of but as of today it is a tough cookie to deliver and much of the collaboration must be achieved by linking VR displays or headsets to have people working together in that same virtual space.

Microsoft HoloLens

  • Is it still largely a visual experience?

No. VR today is much more than that, it can be about sound, Barco, for example, offer technologies that create a realistic soundscape which can be placed around an immersive display. In this, you can close your eyes and pinpoint your proximity to an object that may be emitting sound or know what direction an object is approaching from. Senses like touch are becoming more interesting with haptic feedback devices to feel the weight of an object and to feel the physics of the forces when man-handling that object, even though it doesn’t exist. Motion peripherals are evolving to help you simulate more natural walking within the virtual world, and your sense of smell is also taken into VR with systems that can simulate with chemicals, and then disperse, the smells associated with your visual experience. I think these technologies will continue to evolve, commanding the senses to make the experience more lifelike.

  • Many people will associate VR with wearing some form of headpiece. Is that correct?

Head mounted displays (HMDs) have been around for many years, they emerged as very unwieldly and expensive proprietary units that were built to order and typically were low resolution with restrictive fields of vision. Today, VR can enjoy lighter weight HMDs that are even 4k resolution and with 210 degrees fields of view. They are becoming more commodity based at the low end and more sophisticated at the higher end.

Outside of HMDs we are finding more and more clients wanting to immerse themselves in projected environments, so they have higher resolutions and image quality and they don’t feel as isolated from colleagues by completely covering their eyes. Here we see stereo eyewear being very popular, as it’s like wearing a pair of glasses and feels more natural compared to putting a HMD on. The experience difference can be compared that between having a face to face conversation, with stereo eyewear, verses a phone call with a HMD.

I think simulation and VR is already commonplace for many organisations. It has proven its worth for design, review, presentation and training, and is becoming more the need to have than the nice to have

Autostereoscopic displays have also been around for some time. These remove the need for any head mounted accessories and rely on the viewer to simply look at the correct angle to the display to see depth in the VR experience. However, this functionality has many limitations and I have not seen it successfully implemented in a useful VR experience that is reliable to ensure that my vision is properly immersed with the ability and freedom to move around.

  • What technology is typically required?

Antycip can deliver all sorts of technology, from the software to create the virtual visuals to the projectors that, on the right screens, make this immersive and the image generators that drive the visuals over the multiple channels, but we must also not forget the middleware and accessories that make the full solution. Spatial tracking systems are needed to track people and devices in virtual space and audio systems are needed if sound is important to the experience along with systems for motion, feedback and interaction.

The simulator in The Hub (digger), our Regional Demo Centre, is just an example of a training system we can provide to our clients addressing the needs of heavy equipment simulation, it is a multirole simulator and converts in both content and controls to be used as a bulldozer, various cranes, an excavator and a light armoured vehicle to name a few of its operational modes. This tool is mainly aimed to deliver realistic training values and experiences for operators to help assess them in the performance of their duties, to allow for planning and execution of those duties and familiarity to new equipment in a safe environment. The key attributes here are real-world based repeatable physics for a non-gaming experience where the equipment should operate as it would in the real-world. Games are fun, but simulation is designed to emulate the real-world and not to provide a negative training value.

  • How would a company get started?

That’s our job, I pick the phone up each day and don’t know who will be on the end of it, what objectives they will have and what they imagine they would like to do with this kind of technology. This is what keeps me interested. We work with clients on the scoping of their projects and their options to meet budgets etc.

AR and mixed reality displays will get more and more lightweight and more powerful to overlay the virtual on the real world

  • What sort of costs are involved?

This question is hard to address, we sell 3D glasses from less than a hundred pounds a pair, and we have some projectors that can be several hundred thousand pounds per unit. We believe that Antycip helps qualify a customer’s requirements and has a level of supplier independency that allows us to find the right price performance.

  • Will VR ever become commonplace rather than – perhaps – a novelty for a business?

I think simulation and VR is already commonplace for many organisations. It has proven its worth for design, review, presentation and training, and is becoming more the need to have than the nice to have, as the benefits it offers impacts on the organisations costs. But it really does depend on the client’s business focus. It is common place to us as we live and breathe these technologies, daily, but in the wider world I think it is growing steadily in its adoption.

  • Where do you see VR heading?

I think AR and mixed reality displays will get more and more lightweight and more powerful to overlay the virtual on the real world and they will feature in more areas like integration into car windows to enable more comprehension and data of the outside real-world you are approaching.

VR will be delivered on 8K native projectors at 120hz stereo soon and we will see higher bandwidths possible to enable these new displays, along with the stereo peripherals to accommodate multiple spatially tracked dynamic views within the same immersive display space.

Google Cardboard

Head mounted displays will continue to evolve with 8k resolutions and larger fields of vision and lighter units to wear, this will also combine with the growing wireless untethered capabilities enabled by body worn hardware that can be networked for group experiences.

To find out more about Antycip, click here to visit their official website

More about Antycip….

Antycip was originally a French distributor of automatic test equipment and embedded electronics, which was bought by Convergie (now Convergy) in 1996. Convergie appointed Michel Pronier (now CEO of Antycip Simulation) as general manager of the business unit.

Michel was tasked with evolving the capabilities of Antycip, and he discovered that it had a small project that was looking at the Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) simulation industry, which, in 1996, was in its infancy.

Antycip soon landed its first customer for COTS simulation: the French defence contractor, Matra. Just a year later, it had added Thales, Dassault and Aerospatiale to its COTS client list.

With this involvement in the European simulation markets, for both defence and commercial projects, Antycip moved from COTS software to also working on the COTS projection and display side of simulation projects. With this expertise and supplier base, a move into the early VR and immersive display markets, in the late 90’s, was a natural fit. And one that coincided with universities and research centres seeking system integrators which could provide them with turnkey immersive display solutions – software, image generators, screens, projectors etc.

By the early 2000’s, Antycip was delivering virtual reality theatres and simulator display solutions in different markets – FMCG, aerospace, academic, automotive, sports, maritime and defence – across Europe and around the globe.

In 2008, Singapore Technologies Training and Simulation, looking to grow its European market share, purchased the simulation (including the VR and display) side of Antycip, and formed Antycip Simulation, with Michel Pronier as CEO (the remaining parts of Antycip became Antycip Technologies).

 

 

 

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