Whether it's walking into an engine to examine inaccessible parts or peering inside the kidney of a mouse – all in a simulated environment – hospitals, labs and manufacturing facilities across Connecticut are stepping up investments to turn virtual reality, an old technology, into a new kind of reality for training students, employees and customers.
A term coined by Jaron Lanier in the 1980s, virtual reality has taken a new avatar since the days of the View Master, patented in 1939. Today, as Microsoft, Intel and Facebook work to advance user experience while lowering costs, companies in Connecticut are adopting VR to fill training needs in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, and healthcare.
“Silicon Valley is looking to develop the VR sector as a whole; here companies are looking at specialized versus broad-based applications,” said Courtney King, marketing and communications manager at the Connecticut Technology Council. “For example, gaining experience in a virtual lab at a manufacturing space where real estate is at a premium and [real-world] training costs a lot of money.”
Manufacturing applications abound, but cost is an issue
East Hartford-based airplane engine maker Pratt & Whitney, part of the $57 billion United Technologies Corp. juggernaut, is beta testing a training program for participants to virtually walk inside its Geared Turbofan engine to study the machine in motion. Currently, customer training takes place in a classroom with real engines. In the VR simulation, participants wear headsets to interact with the engine, allowing them to see the inner workings of a valve or visualize the air flow, for example.
A few miles away in East Hartford, VRSim Inc., a 12-year-old, small software company that designs and makes VR training units for customers like Boeing Co., is in the process of rolling out its next product – a VR training unit for powder coating called SimSpray, priced at $15,000 to $18,000. SimSpray will add to a suite of seven products, including VR training sets for welding and regular painting. One-time costs to install a single unit for paint range from $25,000 to $40,000.
Matthew Wallace, CEO, said it’s been a slow ride for the company to expand its user base. Declining to divulge revenue, Wallace would only say: “We can’t break $5 million yet. Gross margin for hardware is 30 percent, but development is expensive and painful.”
In contrast to the optimism surrounding the VR industry today, Wallace’s voice is one of caution over what he calls “a hype.”
“We have hundreds of units out there at community colleges and at Boeing, but the acceptance rate is much slower than you would think,” he said. “I have no users in Connecticut. When you bring this to a workforce development program, you find an objection to cost.”
Wallace’s struggles underscore the challenge that small companies face in the education space on the cost front, user adoption and experience, and hardware delivery.
“People want a level of fidelity, a level of accuracy, a level of knowledge conveyance. They want the lathe to really look like a lathe in the real world, perform like a lathe in the real world, have every bit as much fidelity as they would expect in the real world, and still be able to get an experience of the thing for 50 bucks,” Wallace said. “You can’t get that. It’s why educational training doesn’t look as good as games because the budget isn’t there and you would never get those sales."
The company is working to develop a business in the augmented reality space for remote diagnostic and testing of machine parts.
While augmented reality headsets can work well, cost is an issue again, Wallace said.
"We’re more oriented around tablet and phones using some sort of AR.”
Matthew Atwater, CEO of IT firm Tsunami Tsolutions in Glastonbury, which consults in the aerospace industry, agreed with Wallace's assessment of augmented reality headsets. Atwater said he’s “eagerly waiting for platforms to stabilize” to be able to apply VR in diagnostics.
“What are the headsets going to look like? Is Oculus going to win over [Microsoft's] HoloLens or are we are looking for applications that are immediate?” he said. “It’s an expensive investment if you’re unsure about the ROI.”
Hospitals and labs take to VR, too
VR applications have gained more traction among larger organizations and in the medical and research fields.
At the Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation (CESI) at Hartford HealthCare Medical Group, simulation technician Chris Madison helps oversee the delivery of a virtual reality training environment for medical professionals, in partnership with the University of Hartford.
CESI in June completed a 25,000-square-foot, state-backed expansion where clinicians use VR to practice diagnosing and treating patients with symptoms that are difficult to reproduce on physical manikins, such as the facial drooping associated with stroke, Madison said.
Users walk around the space and interact with the patient and equipment using the system’s hand controllers. In 2016, CESI’s staff trained more than 11,000 caregivers from Europe, Asia and South America, as well as members of the Army National Guard and U.S. Navy.
And earlier this year, students at Yale University developed a virtual reality platform that allows researchers to examine more closely the kidney of a mouse.