DTE Aims to Train Workers Using VR
Virtual reality (VR), the video game technology that takes the viewers into the other worlds by using headsets, software and hand controllers, is likely to intensely alter the way of training and recruiting of the technicians of DTE Energy, and possibly change the way of decision making of the top executives in a crisis situation.
Last week, Shawn Patterson, vice president and chief learning officer of DTE after a demonstration at the Royal Oak headquarters of Vectorform (technology partner of DTE) said, “It kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? We can evaluate, teach, coach, and make mistakes in these scenarios, obviously, without the consequences of it happening in the real world.”
The technology can also become a new revenue source for the company by licensing or selling it to other companies.
With VR, the workers of a company can experience an unlimited number of working environments and situations – from repairing the damaged power lines after a big storm to standing on top of the hundreds of feet tall wind turbine – without even leaving their homes or offices.
Patterson said, the younger workers, who the Michigan company plans to employ in the coming few years – are used to, assume and understand VR.
He said, “We’re looking at a pretty profound transformation of our workforce in the next few years. Over the next five to seven years, roughly half of our workforce will be eligible for retirement and we’re going to be bringing a whole new generation of workers.”
How the technology works
Virtual reality mimics a scenario in the three dimensions and tricks your mind to believe that those surroundings actually exists by stimulating your senses – what you hear, what you see, and even sometimes, what you smell or feel – with the help of a specially designed virtual reality headset that you look into, hand controllers and earphones.
To give you real life-like feelings, hand controllers can give you tactile feedback by vibrating. The room where the virtual reality system is setup can be temperature controlled to give you feelings of cold and hot. A blowing fan can simulate the wind on your face or create specific scents waft.
It is much more than just viewing a movie. It is like being inside a 3-D film.
In whatever direction you move your head, there is always something to watch same as in the real life.
Jason Vazzano said, “This is definitely transformational technology. We’re going to see — just as we saw mobile phones in 2008 and the rise of Internet applications in 2000 – this year is really going to be the one for the rise in VR technology.”
And there are not only the utility and gaming companies that are looking at VR.
Two years ago, the giant of social media Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire the Oculus VR, the company that develops virtual reality headsets. Facebook plans to find the ways for the application of virtual reality in the social platform.
But you don’t require the expensive computer and a headset to experience VR. With the headphones and simple, handheld cardboard holder that looks like a View-Master, anyone with a smartphone can enjoy virtual reality by downloading virtual reality apps on their smartphone.
How real is it?
To understand the how and how well does virtual reality works, consider this:
Kurt Steckling, the other founder, and CEO of Vectorform tried one of the simulations of virtual reality himself on a day after showcasing the technology to the journalist.
He put up the HTC Vive headset, along with the earphones, and hold the controllers in his hands.
In a short scenario, he entered in a suburban back yard with a white picket fence, a picnic table with orange cones on it, a tree with downed limb and a chainsaw. His task was to pick up and properly place the cones on the table using his hands and the saw to cut off a limb felled due to the storm.
The simulation was so real that when the Steckling finished – even though when he had already created it, he still tried to set the hand controllers that he was holding on the picnic table that he saw in the headset. Of course, the problem was that there was no picnic table in real – and the controller would have fallen on the floor.
He said aloud, surprising himself, “I almost went to set these down on the table. I almost dropped them.”
In another virtual reality simulation, the computer puts the user on top of a tall wind turbine.
It is so real that you become afraid as you get close to the edge. Your heart starts beating fast and you perspire. You know that nothing will actually happen to you. But no matter how hard you try to overcome the virtual edge, your mind will every time tell you that it is dangerous out there and you will hesitate.
In a science fiction analogy, it is nearly the “Star Trek” holodeck.
Boundaries of virtual reality
DTE expects to start training their workers late this year, and Vectorform plans to develop simulations that are even more lifelike, what it calls as higher fidelity.
Vectorform and DTE predict that virtual reality will assist the workers to familiarize with the hard conditions like working up high in the air, and experience the jobs to decide whether they want to pursue it before they have invested much of their time on learning how in the field.
Some of the initial VR headsets gave users headaches and made them nauseated. But the developers of Vectorform have said that the problem has fixed in the HTC Vive headsets.
Still, how the real as the simulations might be, there are limits and it is still uncertain that how much virtual reality can improve the training of the workers or whether there are unidentified drawbacks.
In the downed power line simulation, the virtual cones are light. The chainsaw is also light – and you can’t likely get cut. Could the training in such circumstances where there are no actual significant lead workers advance bad habits – or become deadened to the fears that in normal conditions keep them safe?
Drop the saw? Nothing happens to it.
Step over the edge on top of the tall turbine? No plunge to your death.
Vazzano said, “But, it’s a lot closer to reality from web-based or app training than we’ve done. There are ways we can simulate more life-like scenarios. We’re going to see a much higher range of fidelity, and you’re going to see motion-picture special effects to drive realism.”
Future of technology
As the technology improves, DTE and Vectorform also aims to find other possible uses for it.
Patterson said, right now, the headsets that are not available in the consumer market, are predicted to cost less than $1,000 each, and the training of workers using virtual reality is costly as compared to the other methods, that will probably change as the prices will come down.
He said virtual reality can also be a more demanding way to train the workers, judging the demand for it in his own office.
Patterson said, “We have folks on my team fighting to be out here on this project.”
He added, in the future virtual reality may give the executives of the companies an opportunity to be in the field virtually, by providing them a life-like sight in the real time of what is occurring in hard to get places or areas damaged by the disasters, allowing them to make better and quicker decisions.
He said, “We are convinced the innovations that we make here are going to be more applicable in the energy industry more broadly. You can only imagine where we can take this.”