THURSDAY, MARCH 29, 2018
FREDERICO TOMÉ

 

Smartglasses and Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, like the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Google Glass, are quickly becoming the technology trend to dominate the market for the next several years. These immersive technologies provide new forms of interactions that haven’t yet been observed in traditional smartphone or computer devices. This post discusses the potential of these technologies, and how they can be used to improve workplace health and safety today.

 

What are Immersive Technologies?

Immersive Technologies is an umbrella term encompassing all digital technologies that enable either the integration of virtual elements in the real world (Augmented Reality) or the creation of complete new virtual worlds (Virtual Reality). These virtual representations are displayed with a great level of realism in order to provide fully immersive experiences that engage users.

Although the technology isn’t exactly new, the release of new consumer products like commercial smartglasses and VR headsets is driving the development of a wide variety of applications and tools for these devices, ranging from the pure entertainment of immersive games and movies, to more serious applications, such as learning, simulation and training apps. Immersive technologies are not only attracting consumers, but also improving workers’ overall safety and performance, and are rapidly becoming a game changer in today’s workplace.

 

What are the Workplace Applications?

Virtual Training Environments

One of the most promising uses for immersive technology is the creation of in-depth and safe training experiences. Using virtual reality, dangerous tasks or environments can be explored in a simulated, yet realistic virtual environment. This allows workers and trainees to experience and navigate potentially hazardous scenarios, providing them the opportunity to apply and develop skills without compromising their actual safety.

VR systems have the capacity to recreate risk scenarios for any type of workplace, although they have been used most frequently in industries where workers are commonly exposed to hazards derived from the environment, tasks or equipment. Researchers from Sant’anna University in Italy, for example, explored the use of simulated power plant environments for maintenance purposes and inspection of confined spaces, among others. These simulated environments contain real case scenarios where workers can train all pertinent exercises and visualize the consequences of their actions (Avveduto et al., 2017).

The use of simulated virtual environments can also be seen in the healthcare industry, and is becoming a standard for some types of medical training. University medical students are able to practice surgical procedures with higher fidelity using immersive virtual reality training, with their performance being automatically assessed in real time by the application.

Immersive technologies also permits the creation of complex scenarios that would otherwise be unfeasible for traditional training. Further, the technology provides flexibility for workers and trainees to apply and practice skills more often due to the portability of VR headsets. This approach to training can also be more cost-efficient in the long run, as once a virtual training scenario is developed, it can be used continually without any additional costs.

 

Real Time Support and Guidance

The second most common use for immersive technology is the delivery of real time support and assistance when conducting specific tasks, such as the maintenance of machinery. Virtual information can be easily displayed to workers using smartglasses, which can help them solve specific problems or provide a list of steps that are required in order to safely complete a task. The system’s online connectivity also allows for hands-free, real time communication, which can be used to provide the worker with remote support regarding specific safety issues, such as how to handle unexpected situations that may arise.

This approach not only allows workers to improve their capabilities of conducting certain tasks, but also gives companies more flexibility when developing instruction manuals, as digital interactive manuals can be developed to be easily accessible and up to date, with comprehensive instructions that use video, image and audio.

Researchers from the University of Niš in Serbia have recently developed a system for a thermal power plant that uses augmented reality to display instructions and a virtual checklist to workers when conducting tasks. The system intends to prevent mistakes that may happen to both novice or experienced workers due to the monotonicity of the job, avoiding important procedural steps to be forgotten, overlooked or performed incorrectly (Tatić et al., 2017).

 

Hazard Identification

The use of immersive technologies can also be a powerful tool for identifying potential workplace hazards. Wearing smartglasses, workers can record what they are seeing when conducting activities, which can then be promptly reviewed to identify any potential hazards, making the continuous assessment of a task’s risk faster and easier.

Smartglasses’ cameras can also help workers dealing with sensitive materials by detecting and highlighting possible dangers involved. For example, simple tags can be attached to hazardous machinery or environments that, when scanned by the  camera, can project detailed information or warn the worker if extra care is needed, such as the requirement for specific personal protective equipment or particular safety procedures.

 

How Can we Start Using these Technologies?

Each organization has to assess its readiness to use immersive technologies to support their health and safety program. Early adopters in the aviation, defense and energy industries have been using these technologies to train for a number of years in high risk environments, and they are felt to be effective in teaching and testing the skills needed to manage rare, high risk or critical situations.

When looking at the use of immersive technology in your organization:

  1. Identify one opportunity or process within your organization where the use of immersive technology could be a good fit (e.g. training programs, hazard identification processes, just-in-time safety instruction).
  2. Think about why this might be the right move for your organization. Ask yourself if it aligns with your business goals, organizational values and reputation. Consider:
    • How will immersive technology help your organization achieve something beyond what is currently done? What is the gap you are trying to close?
    • What are the benefits of pursuing this type of technology solution as part of your health and safety program? For example, is this a safer way for a new worker to learn a complex task? Does it provide an opportunity to provide ongoing support to workers in high risk environments? Does it help bring policies and procedures to life?
    • How will this help your company financially?
  3. Find out what resources (money, people and expertise) you have to put into your immersive technology project. If required, engage experts to help you navigate this step forward.

 

Where Can I Find More Information?

To learn more about immersive technologies, take a look at the following academic papers and webpages:

Safety Training Using Virtual Reality: A Comparative Approach
Giovanni Avveduto, Camilla Tanca, Cristian Lorenzini, Franco Tecchia, Marcello Carrozzino, Massimo Bergamasco
June 2017

The Application of Augmented Reality Technologies for the Improvement of Occupational Safety in an Industrial Environment
Dušan Tatić, Bojan Tešić
February 2017

Why Virtual Reality Will Transform a Workplace Near You
Logan Kugler
August 2017

About the Author

Frederico Tomé is a User Experience Designer intern at PSHSA, and currently an MSc student of Computer Science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. His current research topics include accessibility, human-computer interaction, user research and immersive technologies.