Beaming, bolts and having fun

Virtual reality training courses are intuitive, and their content is easy to recall. They’re even better when you can quickly create them yourself.

Today, training courses in a virtual environment – usually wearing VR (virtual reality) goggles – are already a favorite. They allow, for example, service technicians to train on large plants at any time, regardless of location, in a way that’s easy to grasp. On the past, these courses were extremely complicated to create, but now a new VR platform is making it easier, faster, and less expensive, while also allowing the contents to be used for augmented reality. 

The first time a service technician is confronted with a bearing replacement in a new type of electric motor as part of scheduled maintenance, the disassembly sequence isn’t immediately apparent. Numerous cables, bolts, sensors, and covers have to be removed before the bearing itself can come out. What’s more, every product is different, and large and powerful motors in particular often require a special tool.

Because it’s so complicated, the Siemens Repair Center is also offering continuing education courses for its own company on request – either traditional, on-site courses or virtual courses using VR goggles and controllers.

Until now, these virtual courses were usually produced by agencies who worked with industrial companies. The courses proceed step by step, precisely following a prepared script that makes the relevant procedure comprehensible, whether it be assembly, maintenance, or repair jobs.

But this is not an optimal solution. The courses produced by the agency are costly and time-consuming, and they can’t be changed or adapted afterwards without a great deal of effort and expense. That’s why Siemens Digital Industries, in collaboration with Siemens Corporate Technology, developed the virtual and augmented reality platform “V@RENA,” which allows companies to produce their own VR training courses flexibly and, above all, independently.

Training courses developed by experts

“With V@RENA, experts can independently create instructions based on their knowledge by interacting with the familiar product in virtual reality,” says Anja Simon, Program Manager at Siemens Corporate Technology. “In no time at all, they can also adapt the contents when necessary, for example if products or procedures change.”

Production itself takes very little time. Georg Schöler’s team at Customer Services for Siemens Digital Industries found that a practiced user of the V@RENA platform can produce a training course for a standard product within just a few hours. To do so, they need computer-aided design (CAD) models, detailed knowledge from experts and, when necessary, videos or photos. “The result is a digital twin of the entire service procedure,” says Schöler, “with all the relevant information in one place.”

 

Put on the goggles and learn from experience

The user’s journey through virtual worlds begins soon as they put on a pair of commercially available VR goggles. They can then explore these worlds from their real environment. If their workstation isn’t large enough, they can simply click to beam to the desired location and then interact intuitively with the life-sized 3D models of various products.

All that’s necessary for generating simple, step-by-step instructions is to enable users to grasp individual objects and move them into the desired position. More complex activities can be taught by superimposing additional information in the form of images, videos, instructions, or audio commentary by experts. In this way, trainees can call on the wealth of experience of expert colleagues and learn new procedures. This realistic interaction also ensures that the contents become more deeply embedded in their memory. “And speaking from my own experience,” says Simon, “learning in this type of environment is simply a lot of fun.”

Augmented reality on a tablet

V@RENA also makes it possible to use these contents on AR devices such as an iOS tablet or HoloLens without additional outlay. An AR app uses the tablet’s camera to recognize machines and components, projects notes onto the real product, and in this way teaches the service technician the procedure for performing a specific task. The app also makes it possible to take photos or add comments that can later be integrated in the VR training courses. “Service experts now have a tool that not only supports them on site, but also enables them to actively contribute to improving the contents,” says Schöler.

The gap between the virtual world and reality is steadily narrowing. Based on V@RENA, researchers at Siemens Corporate Technology are even discovering ways for multiple participants to attend these training courses simultaneously. This would allow an expert and trainee to meet in virtual reality, even if they’re located on two different continents. It certainly won’t become the infamous Matrix that people could mistake for reality, but rather a useful “Matrix Lite.”

 

Hubertus Breuer - May 2020

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