DTE Workers to Be Trained Using Virtual Reality Technology
Virtual reality which is a video game technology that transports users into alien worlds with the help of headsets, software and hand controllers is anticipated to change the way DTE Energy trains and hires technicians and possibly change the way top executives make decisions in crisis.
“It kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?” Shawn Patterson, DTE’s vice president and chief learning officer, said after a demonstration last week at the Royal Oak headquarters of its technology partner, Vectorform. “We can evaluate, teach, coach, and make mistakes in these scenarios, obviously, without the consequences of it happening in the real world.”
This new technology could also become a new source of revenue for the utility by making it available for sale or licensing to other firms.
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With VR, utility workers can experience diverse situations such as standing on top of a wind turbine hundreds of meters tall or repairing downed power lines after a rain storm all in the comfort of their homes of offices.
Patterson said younger workers — who the Michigan company aims to hire in the next few years — are used to, expect and understand virtual reality.
“We’re looking at a pretty profound transformation of our workforce in the next few years,” he said. “Over the next five to seven years, roughly half of our workforce will be eligible for retirement and we’re going to be bringing on a whole new generation of workers.”
HOW THE VIRTUAL REALITY WORKS
Virtual reality reproduces a physical environment in 3-D and fools the mind into believing one is there by stimulating the senses of sight, hearing and smell with a special headset that one can look into, headphones and hand controls.
To create real life-like sensations, hand controls can give one tactile feedback by vibrating. The temperature of the room where the experience is happening can be controlled to make one feel hot or cold as the case may be. A blowing fan can simulate wind in one’s face, or be made to carry certain scents.
It’s far beyond watching a movie. It’s like being inside a 3-D film. If one turns his head in any direction there is something to see just like in real life.
“This is definitely transformational technology,” Vectorform co-founder and co-CEO Jason Vazzano said. “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.”
The virtual reality buzz is spreading beyond gaming and utility companies.
A couple of years ago, Facebook spent $2 billion in buying Oculus VR, a tech company which develops VR headsets. The goal is to find ways to use VR technology as a social platform, thereby, blurring the line between VR and social media.
But one doesn’t need to empty one’s pocket to experience virtual reality. With the use of a simple handheld cardboard holder that closely resembles a View-Master and a headphone, anyone with a smartphone can download virtual reality apps and enter virtual worlds.
HOW REAL IS VIRTUAL REALITY?
To have a knowledge of how virtual reality works, this should be imagined:
The day after exhibiting the technology to journalists, Vectorform’s second founder and CEO Kurt Steckling tried one of the simulations.
He wore the headset which was an HTC Vive along with earphones and controllers.
In this example, he got into a backyard in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a tree with a felled limb, a picnic table with some orange cones on it and a chainsaw. His objective was to pick up and place the cones with his hands and then use the saw to cut off a limb downed by a storm.
So immersive was the simulation that when Steckling was finished he still attempted to set the controllers he was holding on the virtual picnic table he saw in his headset. Not realizing that there was no real picnic table and the controls could have dropped to the floor.
“I almost went to set these down on the table,” he said aloud, surprising himself. “I almost dropped them.”
In another demonstration, the computer puts one on the top of a tall wind turbine.
It is so genuine that one gets scared as he gets to the edge. The heartbeat is increased. One begins to sweat. One believes that nothing would happen but no matter how hard one tries to step over the virtual edge, the mind tells one it is dangerous and hesitates.
LIMITS OF VIRTUAL REALITY
DTE is expected to begin training with VR by the end of the year and Vectorform plans to create simulations that are even more lifelike, in what it calls higher fidelity.
DTE and Vectorform expect virtual reality to help workers acclimate to difficult conditions, like working up far in the air; and experience jobs to decide whether they want them before investing time and effort learning how in the field.
Earlier released VR headsets made users sick and gave them headaches.
But according to Vectorform developers, HTC Vive headsets rectified the problem.
As real as the scenario could be, there are some limits and it’s yet to be seen how much virtual reality can improve training or whether unforeseen pitfalls exist.
Regarding the downed power line simulation, the virtual cones are weightless, the chainsaw is also weightless and one can’t get cut by the chainsaw. Could training under conditions where there are no real consequences lead workers develop bad habits — or become desensitized to fears that normally keep them safe?
Drop the saw? Nothing happens to the saw.
Drop over the edge of the wind turbine? There is no plunge to one’s death.
“But, it’s a lot closer to reality from web-based or app training than we’ve done,” Vazzano said. “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 VR TECHNOLOGY
DTE and Vectorform expects to find other uses for virtual reality as VR technology improves,
Right now, Patterson said, the headsets, which are not yet available to consumers, are expected to cost less than $1,000 each, and while virtual reality training now costs more than other methods, that will likely change as prices come down.
Virtual reality, he said, also may be a more appealing way to train employees, judging by the demand in his own office for it.
“We have folks on my team fighting to be out here on this project,” Patterson said.
In the future, he added that technology may also give executives an opportunity to immerse in the field virtually, by allowing them to have a life-like glimpse in real time of what’s going on in hard-to-get to areas and/or places ravaged by disasters, allowing them to make faster and better decisions.
“We are convinced the innovations that we make here are going to be more applicable in the energy industry more broadly,” he said. “You can only imagine where we can take this.”
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