The VR 3D productivity configurator allows for many different procedures to be converted to a custom virtual environment so that employees can practice in a safe and efficient manner.
“The idea for abilitee was born in September 2018 and was a combination of several factors,” Bart starts off. “A prospect told us that their client sends a group of people to China every year in order to attend a training in a factory. This costs a lot of money and the training facility can easily be recreated using a simulator.”
The company had just built the virtual reality job simulator for VDAB, which was still rather static and did not allow for modifications or real-time instructions. Bart realized they were on to something though. As he puts it: “With the training in mind, we knew that we had something to work with!”
So the fine-tuning began and soon the configurator was ready to be utilized, with the added bonus that instructors can monitor employees through a separate monitoring system that also generates training and test reports.
As an example, a trainee prevention advisor can first learn how to extinguish a fire in a VR environment, so that he or she can act quickly when real danger comes around. And a maintenance technician can learn how to repair a cooling system without the risk of significant adverse consequences. In principle, the possibilities are endless.
From POC to project
Every good idea starts with a test case. By the end of 2018, the team developed their first proof of concept (POC) in just a few weeks. The demo was well received both internally and externally and formed the start of a fully-fledged project.
“Before we got started, we divided everything into user stories. This gave us a clear idea of what was needed: 3D models, code and data management, as well we storage, actions, instructions, etc. Once we finished creating this overview, we distributed all tasks within certain time frames,” Stijn tells. “My colleague Kevin and I took care of the coding and data management, while developer Anthony was responsible for the virtual reality (VR) environment. And our colleague Glenn developed the user interface (UI). This division of tasks resulted in minimal dependence, so that everyone could work on their own tasks until the joint tests.”
The team built the configurator in Unity3D, a cross-platform game engine that they linked to the Steam VR platform. Steam VR has an extensive software development kit (SDK) and also ensures that the configurator works on all VR headset types, such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Odyssey.
The team provided generic elements for the coding, allowing themselves to easily and quickly create various objects and procedural steps for customers. They also focused on fast loading and the correct writing of all elements.
For the visual development of the virtual reality environment the team used Blender, a program that creates spatial 3D objects. After they finished this, they set up the actions for the objects: ‘open doors’, ‘pick up cubes’, ‘turn over levers’. Fortunately, 3D developer Anthony has a lot of experience in this field, so everything went smoothly.
The user interface came last. “We developed the UI in 2D in the Sketch design program, and then programmed it in Unity3D. We decided on instruction screens in 2D as these could be developed quickly and efficiently. We are now looking at 3D possibilities for our UI, but that’s not enough. Virtual reality is still in its infancy; there are no uniform guidelines for a strong UI or UX (user experience),” Stijn tells.
“With the help of a UX-designer from our colleagues from Continuous we are constantly investigating the best practices of UX and will apply these in 3D in abilitee. For example, we use various profiles in the development of our configurator in order to achieve optimum results together,” Stijn continues.
Abilitee’s first steps
In March 2019 the Maintenance Expo took place in Antwerp, Belgium: an event for the industrial maintenance sector that focuses on technological solutions. This provided the perfect opportunity to introduce abilitee, although this was not originally the plan.
“Initially, our demo wasn’t going to be ready on time for the fair, but because we had made much greater progress in developing abilitee than anticipated, we saw an opportunity to launch our configurator with an alpha version anyway,” says Stijn.
Just before the fair the emphasis was on extensive testing. Stijn tells: “We worked out the latest bugs and glitches so that visitors to the trade show could carry out both the onboarding process and the procedures without any problems. Especially the onboarding was important: this test allowed you to get acquainted with the use of a VR headset with controllers. You learn how conduct actions such as pointing and clicking. This first impression has to be clear and smooth,” Stijn emphasizes.
Despite a variety of last-minute changes and the necessary amount of stress, the team managed to prepare abilitee and proudly present it at the fair together. At the Expo, visitors were able to test two procedures: the office simulator in which one extinguishes a fire according to certain guidelines, and an industrial simulator in which one learns how to correctly start up and close an industrial installation.
At the time, the configurator counted on a lot of attention from both visitors and fellow exhibitors. A successful first step into the world! Nice work from the team, and they aren’t done yet!
Fast-forward to the future
The configurator in its current state is only the first step. The company still has a lot in store and can’t wait to move ahead. As Stijn puts it: “We’re not sitting idle; immediately after the launch we started with optimizations, adding features and the 3D user interface. We will further speed up and simplify the onboarding process and complement the linear step-by-step process of procedures with the necessary flexibility.”
The team wants to build in a node editor so that all procedural steps are in a diagram and it will become possible for example to jump straight to step 3 after step 1, which then generates different results. “This allows for more complex procedures with exchangeable steps,” Stijn states.
They will also build in a timeline that will allow the instructor to monitor when someone performs what action. The instructor can then compare this with the averages of the other trainees. This allows for more precise follow-up and instructions.
In the longer term, the company will expand the asset and demo library with numerous objects and procedures. “This component library will be available to anyone who purchases abilitee. In addition, we will build custom environments and elements on request. In this way, we are fully committed to the flexibility of the system,” Stijn tells.
This is also confirmed by Bart: “Of course, demand will depend on the customer. We are not targeting any specific sector, but rather looking at the needs of certain sectors. In particular, industrial companies with complex and dangerous procedures will benefit from our configurator. For example, the mechanical and chemical sectors: environments where dangerous actions are difficult to simulate. But for example, automotive and construction industries will also benefit from abilitee.”
In addition to complex procedures, the configurator also lends itself perfectly for generic actions. Steps that keep coming back in training can be learned more efficiently and effectively with a simulator, such as basic car maintenance or safe building closing.
“There are so many possibilities. We want to build the tool in a well-founded way with some strong, stable core features to position ourselves on the market,” Bart explains. “For now, we are welcoming customers for whom we can fully optimize our tool and develop it into a fully-fledged product.”
What if Enriched were to dream big?
Stijn does not need to think twice before answering: “It would be great if we could integrate a conversion tool into the configurator, allowing customers to load their own 3D files and immediately have access to a virtual reality environment. You could then add all objects and procedures from the library, however, we are not quite there yet.”
Available 3D plans are rarely usable in a VR environment, simply because the files are too heavy. “Details of grooves, bolts or small reliefs are often superfluous in a VR world and take up an enormous amount of space in the file,” Stijn explains. “Even with dynamic objects things can still go wrong. The axis around which an object should rotate is not always correct, because there obviously is no movement in 3D plans, but there is in VR. At the moment, these are all custom jobs for us, and we very much enjoy working on it,” Stijn concludes.
Fortunately, the world is continuously moving. Progress is being made every day. Yesterday’s dreams have become today’s reality. Who knows, maybe abilitee will grow into the default virtual trainer for industrial environments? Enriched is already working hard to help further VR.