Like other booming technologies such as the electric car and unmanned aerial drone, virtual reality (VR) is no longer the clunky pipedream it was in the 1990s.
In the early 2010s, the technology finally started catching up with developers’ ambitions, and thanks to companies like Google, Oculus VR (purchased by Facebook in 2014) and Taiwanese tech giant HTC, VR gear is becoming more affordable, accessible and — crucially — wearable than ever before.
Augmented reality (AR), which involves the use of computer-generated overlays in a real-world environment, is also taking off. Although the most well known example of AR tech probably remains the Niantic-developed 2016 mobile game Pokémon Go, the mining industry hasn’t failed to take notice of the technology’s practical applications.
For example, one company that has made strides in this area is New South Wales-based Safety Compass, whose mobile-compatible technology of the same name allows workers to view real-time geospatial pop-ups of safety hazards that have been tagged onsite.
According to SeePilot chief executive officer and co-founder James Tibbett, AR is well suited for such onsite applications, while VR tends to be better suited to offsite viewing and training programs.
A mining engineer that studied his undergraduate and PHD at the University of New South Wales, Tibbett founded startup SeePilot at the start of 2018. The company enables mine site workers to create 360-degree virtual workplace tours that can be layered with real-time information from co-workers to help improve safety and productivity. SeePilot refers to this process as “collaborative spatial communication”.
“VR really comes into strength when you’re trying to view a workplace from another environment or training externally for a classroom, or having people look at the same space from anywhere in the world,” says Tibbett.
“At the moment the technology of VR is a bit further ahead in terms of experience and field of view, but AR is catching up and I think there’ll be a bit of a blur between the two sometimes.
“People are starting to use mixed reality, or XR, extended reality, to group some of them together, because there’s a bit of a spectrum.
By using modern gaming-spec VR headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, or alternatively, smartphone-based VR headsets such as Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR, users can become immersed more easily in their safety training than ever before.
The technology currently manifests in two primary ways. The first is game-like simulations created using computer graphics technology, and the second is footage of real scenarios viewable in three dimensions.
“I was trying to bring together a range of different data sets — a bit of a big data problem — and VR was a potential solution to help integrate all that data, visualise it and play it back in real time,” he says.
“So, kind of like Iron Man in the movies, you can view the data in front of you, spin it round and play it back.”
As it happens, Tibbett’s alma mater is an early pioneer of VR technology as a training tool, having implemented an early iteration of the technology at the turn of the millennium. The intention of the project was to teach students and industry professionals ways to learn about hazards in a high-consequence mining environment without actually exposing them to dangerous environments.
The coal mining industry was the first to get on board around 2005 and the program has continued to expand since, eventually culminating in UNSW’s VR simulator AVIE, which uses a 360-degree, floor-to-ceiling screen that completely encompasses participants for maximum immersion.
The VR environment allows for effective repetition to learn how to deal with a scenario that is otherwise too rare to train for in real life.
It includes training modules for coal gas outbursts, stress-related coalbursts, hazard awareness, self-escape and, as of 2009, a working at heights module, which was originally developed for BHP’s Olympic Dam project.
“The 3D content is really good for training and immersing people into situations that you couldn’t film with a camera or don’t occur very often and also where you want people to experience the consequences of that and have a bit of a cause and effect understanding,” says Tibbett.
“It’s really good for training and you can have group scenarios or individual scenarios.”
Tibbett says that it is becoming increasingly common for mining companies to want in-house simulators rather than seeking out external companies. An early example of this was Rio Tinto, which implemented a 360 VR training simulator at its Northparkes copper-gold operation in NSW before it sold it to China Molybdenum in 2013.
And as accessibility and price has improved (a decent PC with an Oculus Rift setup will currently run users around $1500–$2000 a pop), the fun doesn’t even have to stop at the site.
“People don’t want to have to leave site, and with some of the VR headsets and gaming computers becoming much more accessible, we’re even seeing it go to the homes as well,” Tibbett says.
“We’re visual beings to start with – we are taught in a visual way and virtual reality is the perfect solution for that.
“It can present you with so much info that is contextually relevant to your job in a matter of minutes.”
This article also appears in the January – March edition of Safe To Work.