Virtual Reality has become the industry standard for education and training within mining and resources. It’s likely you already knew that.
What might come as news to you, is that the global leaders of industrial VR training production are right here in Australia. Perth, to be exact.
As Occupation Health and Safety regulations continue to tighten, and become increasingly complex, VR is the key to maintaining simplicity for mining workforces and operational stability.
Never was this made more apparent than through the swift change brought about by coronavirus. The need for remote training shot up rapidly.
Thankfully VR rose to the challenge and propped up production in the industry, by bridging an isolated workforce with continued training and operations.
Core Benefits of VR in Training
There are three advantageous principles underlying the rise of VR in mining training and education;
- the elimination of risk
- reduction of cost
- an increase in efficacy
The Australian Mining Review spoke with the Technical Director of Viewport XR, Brendan Ragan, about immersive technology and the company’s vision for the future of training.
Making a Scene
In 1938, French visionary Antonin Artaud described theatre as “la réalité virtuelle.” However, the English term “virtual reality” wasn’t popularised until 1987.
It was coined by tech visionary Jaron Lanier, who has been a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, and computers in general.
One could argue that the augmentation of reality has been happening since early humans drew on cave walls. The dawn form signified real life beings, who were not actually on the cave wall. Though things have come a long way since then.
We are now reaching the crest of the real impact VR will have on our lives and for the purposes of this article, the mining industry. Or, if we’re going to get granular, training within the mining and resources industry.
Understanding the importance
Lanier believes: “If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body.”
Bearing in mind that we interact with VR through computers, we can draw from this quote that virtual reality is an optimised form of enrichment that computers will bring to our human existence.
Consider Lanier’s thought that “information is alienated experience”. It follows then, that to effectively absorb information, it should be united with the experience.
Let’s take a simple and natural example: a spiky cactus. We know which plants not to touch, as we have all been pricked. This is part of the safety training we do as growing humans.
Well, what do you do when the stakes are much higher, like on a mine site? You can’t simply recreate a life threatening disaster to teach someone what to do in such a case.
Efficacy is, more or less, a fancy way to say “efficient”. In our context this means many things: more knowledgeable workers, increased production, reduced downtime, among a pile others. Though, how does that come to be? And what does it mean on-site?
It is a well-known truth that training in VR activates a greater portion of our brains than spoken or written content does. One major contributor for this is the muscle memory learnt, or, the neural pathways formed that optimise the retention of information.
This is a widely understood concept, that the more you do something the better you understand it. In other words; practice makes perfect. VR training empowers your team with the ability to master their craft.
The way we interact with a space has a vast impact on efficient learning. As Tim Massey of Vicon told mining.com: “You can be in a different scenario just by changing the setting. [It] has emotional impact – which is hugely relevant in building an effective training experience.”
In the journal, Multimedia Tools and Applications, David Checa and Andres Bustillo conducted a Review of Immersive Virtual Reality to Enhance Learning and Training. It was found that trainees displayed retention rates of 80% one year after their training.
Why is this significant? Because the one year retention rates for non-immersive learning were only 20%. Virtual reality amplifies retention rates by 400%. Yes, you read that right.
Remote training in VR encompasses entire teams: from ground workers, to supervisors, to managers, to upskill on digital twins of real world plant environments. It enables teams to hone their skills, prior to even stepping foot on site.
The optimisation potential for hiring managers is significant. Forbes confirms that VR technology “will help companies understand their employees’ satisfaction, engagement, and empower employees to reach their full potential”.
This empowers the workforce through the ability to identify cross operational employee skill sets.
The Viewport team created a VR app to provide meaningful engagement at a distance, for miners and their families who felt isolated through the coronavirus pandemic. It was an uplifting experience that kept everybody safe.
2020 was tough on everyone, and workers at Rio Tinto’s Tom Price Mine were not exempt. As part of the copany’s meticulous effort to uphold safety standards, Rio Tinto’s annual Family Day was another luxury that had to be foregone in 2020.
“We seasoned our high end tech with some lo-fi touches. The user interface (UI) was simple and intuitive – always a top priority at Viewport,” Brendan said.
“In this instance it served to create a personable feel to engage people of all ages.
“Any item can be created in a virtual world, size is no barrier. Our process creates a visual flow that is intuitive and easy to use, taking the guesswork out of the user experience (UX).
“We made a digital twin of the mine site and recreated it as a cardboard diorama. Then we put this cardboard copy (carbon is so outdated) into a VR app.
“Instead of bringing families to the mine, we put the mine into families’ pockets. Now they can take their loved ones everywhere.”
The Rio Tinto Family Day app gave a closer look at the days of six miners, using 360 video, 3D visualisation, and the personal touch of good old workplace friendships.
Overlaid on a map of the mine site, cartoons of the six miners were used as reference points to the daily activities, in an informative yet entertaining manner.
“We achieved this interactive experience utilising 3D and gaming engine software, utilising the immersive stereoscopic 360 video content for a powerful end result,” Brendan said.
Michael Casale, Chief Science Officer of Strivr, explains how businesses can use data learnings from VR software: “you can make better people decisions that ultimately affect large-scale business objectives at the highest level.”
“We can build in the ability to record every learning session, creating analytics and capturing test scores. Businesses can then leverage these analytics to inform strategic shifts in their training flow,” Brendan said.
Virtual reality offers a greater degree of immersion than other training modalities and does so in an extremely cost efficient manner, with year-over-year spend seeing noteworthy reductions, as the workflows and objectives are streamlined.
Viewport created a “Hazard Identification” training platform for a leading petroleum exploration and production company, modelled on one of the largest sites in Karratha using stereoscopic 360 video captures.
It allowed staff from all over the world to train in a real world plant environment, avoiding the danger (and potential expense) of untrained personnel in a live plant.
The simulation recreates unsafe scenarios such as leaks, contamination, high temperatures and trip hazards. These sorts of risks cannot be replicated in real world settings without considerable expense.
Viewport has the mining industry expertise and insight to quickly and efficiently build cost saving VR site inductions that can revolutionise the way a company onboards teams.
As Jaron Lanier said: “Software breaks before it bends, so it demands perfection in a universe that prefers statistics.”
At Viewport, after a piece of software passes the development stage, it goes through rigorous quality assurance. Only then, is it ready for deployment.
Although KPIs within training modules may evolve and need to be altered, the software itself remains robust. This is because when built effectively, training experiences retain the capabilities of customisation.
This means you can add, subtract and alter functionalities of your virtual world, yet the world itself will not be affected. Furthermore, it means that your tactical optimisations will not cost an arm and leg.
The journal Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration asserted the reduced manpower costs with the following:
“the increased engagement can also improve participants’ experiences and maintain higher accuracy, because boredom and disinterest have the potential to confound behavioural results just as severely as poor training or technical errors.”
This is to say that increased engagement gives better results, meaning that users can simply repeat their training infinitely, at no extra cost. Though it is unlikely they would have the need.
VR training content can also be utilised further down the pipeline. It can be put to use after the fact; in ways aside from the obvious; ongoing and future training.
Learning modules can be leveraged via on-demand learning, shareable videos, and consumer engagement. Virtual training experiences attract audiences, plus they are always live and instantly accessible.
The University of Nottingham conducted a study on health and safety training in virtual environments.
It found the tangible benefits to business to be numerous and worthwhile. Broadly researched and undertaken with industrial partners, some of the advantages of VR training over legacy formats were:
“[The] opportunity to conduct OSH induction sessions remotely, reducing the costs associated with on-site training and with delays while waiting for new starts to be trained.”
The ability to deploy remotely to trainees all over the globe was previously touched upon. When Forbes addressed this, they did so with their sights set on the pay-off remote education could deliver:
“PowerPoint-over-Zoom just does not have the impact necessary to create lasting behavior change.”
The necessities of remote learning preceded the disruptive learn [or work] from home impositions of the pandemic. It has long been the case that managers and their teams needed remote learning solutions to “transcend two dimensions”.
“Let’s use the capability to train on equipment that is logistically inaccessible as a test case,” Brendan said.
“Not only do you need professional supervision, there are hidden costs that accompany already exorbitant travel and accommodation expenses.
“That’s leaving aside the headaches of securing the usage of said equipment. As in the majority of others, usage of VR for training in industrial settings reduces cost and complexity.
“We can sensibly wrap this up by addressing the time and resource vacuums that is site-induction. No one genuinely enjoys them, certainly a business’ bottom line does not.
“VR software that accommodates site and safety training and inductions is an investment that will pay immediate dividends.
When training in hazardous environments and scenarios – for example, authentic blasting experiences – there are significant risks. They typically involve getting workers up to 1000m underground, for monotonous and unengaging formal training.
Virtual reality enables workforces to explore high-risk scenarios and evacuation procedures in digital twins of real world sites. Explosives are expensive and fires are dangerous.
“Let’s address the above blast scenario,” Brendan said.
“You can’t just blow up a whole lot of substances underground repetitively. That would endanger your trainee/s, technicians, and supervisor/s. Constant subjecting to billowing smoke and flames. Conversely, in a virtual training environment, you can do just that.
“Viewport built a VR training simulation for a leading aluminium producer. We created digital twins of their substations, including relevant tools, equipment and PPE.
“We then integrated these assets with our software development pipeline, and replicated the work process in an immersive world.
“Our team used precise hand tracking technology on the Oculus Quest 2, building multiple options and scenarios for personnel to train on. This allowed Alcoa personnel to train and learn in otherwise hazardous scenarios, before they stepped foot on site.”
This pertinent nature of digital twins is highlighted by Forbes:
“Key to the idea of VR-based training are digital twins: exact digital replicas of physical places and things. At their best, these replicas don’t just look like the real world.”
There is strong demand for virtual reality in any industry considered high-risk. This comes as a result of the tactical optimisation of training sequences. VR technology has significantly improved safety and emergency training for the mining industry.
“The main point of interest for training here, is the degree of procedural complexity that tasks can have, once we eliminate the risk,” Brendan said.
“When done virtually, the training is completely safe and this feeling of safety is what allows trainees to fully concentrate on their learning. The focus this enables is a major contributor to the increased retention rates VR training is known for.”
Furthermore, Forbes praised VR’s efficiency to facilitate collaborative environments, both remotely, and meaningfully. This means employers can upskill their on-site personnel immediately with remote updates. Even allowing for efficient retraining.
Therefore, if a new piece of operational equipment requires new technical understanding, or safety standards, managers can bring their teams up to speed.
Immersing teams in realistic scenarios, and remotely monitoring their progress. Teams are ready to go as soon as the new equipment is installed or standards implemented.
“Earlier in this article, we addressed the muscle memory, and the usage of digital twins,” Brendan said
“We’ve yet to touch on the sense of spatial familiarity created by them. This is more to do with worker mindset during a task.”
Forbes outlines this notion acknowledging just how realistic these exact digital replicas are: “Hopefully, even the most tenured employees have never experienced a crisis; with VR, however, employees at all levels can engage in dress rehearsals that prepare them for what crises look like and what their roles and responsibilities will be when responding to them.”
This spatial familiarity pays major dividends with reference to productivity and safety. Subsequently, the age old adage of less downtime rings true.
Thankfully, virtual isn’t simply for high-risk industries. Companies all around the globe are using immersive technologies to educate and upskill their staff. While enjoying increased efficiency of training and rises in production.
Future Looking Freedom
It is worthwhile to examine this spotlight on virtual reality’s constructive addition brought to the mining industry, with a wider lens.
“One of virtual reality’s most liberating, and consequently, important advantages is something we can all agree on. It provides an unbounded space for authentic communication and expression,” Brendan said.
Lanier addresses social media platforms, to clarify that mainstream internet is quashing outlets for genuine expression.
“Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavour of person-hood. MySpace preserved some of that flavour, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organising people into multiple-choice identities while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other forms.”
One could choose to read the above with the caveat “salt to taste”. Lanier offers further context on the topic, by outlining just why virtual reality is so appealing.
“When children are growing up, they face a profound conflict between the internal world of their dreams and imagination, in which everything’s possible and fluid, and the practical world in which they have parents, food, and friends, in which they’re not alone, and in which they can survive. So as kids grow up, they have to gradually de-emphasise this world of imagination and celebration and emphasize the practical world, unless they’re willing to be alone in their insanity and completely dependent on others for survival. Of course it’s possible to integrate the two, but it’s so hard, like walking a tightrope. I think the reason that kids instinctively love computers, and especially love virtual reality, is that it really does present a new solution, a way to make imaginary worlds that we can be together in, just like the real world.”
“As readers, we can truthfully appreciate the borderless spaces that virtual reality allows users,” Brendan said.
“The ideas of free speech and expression are increasingly challenged in our world.
“While it may not be too close a concern among western society, people are still imprisoned or sentenced to death for singing and dancing in strictly orthodox or extremise nations.
“The technology is a symbol of hope and an outlet of expression that can unite humans around the globe.
“In the realm of training and education, freedom is of utmost importance. The freedom to fail. In learning environments, pupils are often terrified of failing or doing something wrong, meaning that they don’t properly take in their task. With the freedom to continuously train and attempt the task, they can achieve outstanding results.”
Brendan said that while virtual reality was undoubtedly vitalising industry training, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It will go far beyond learning and hazard awareness.
Viewport has already created sales tools for the mining industry, and we have sights set on the planning and monitoring of mines, even on product development.
“As technologies continue to emerge and enhance our practice, we must embrace the progress,” Brendan said.
“If, while reading this article, you felt a concern that we’re going to lose connection to real life, worry not.
“In an interview with the Guardian, Lanier asserted that real life, our world, will always be more important than the virtual ones.
“That priority was always clear to me, virtual worlds can be a part of real life, but this notion that they could be on an equal footing is really abhorrent to me.”
“Virtual reality came from humans, so did the technological ideas used to create it. The thought that it is disconnected from who we are, a species, is ungrounded.
“There is so much to come for what the extended realities will bring us. The likelihood is that a majority is not even conceived yet. One thing that is for certain; it’s here to stay.
“There is a term applied to the feelings students, trainees, well, everyone gets after a virtual reality learning experience, it’s “Positive anchoring”.
“Repeated situations and gestures give us sensational reactions. It means that when we practice, we achieve. Our actions result in solutions, and we get a sense of accomplishment.
“It makes our brains happy, so we anchor it positively, and remember it. When compared to learning in a plainly theoretical sense, they are worlds apart.”
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