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Virtual Reality goes mainstream... or not?

Published on  19 June by Caroline Camilli-Gay , Program Manager, SITA Lab
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“This is the year Virtual Reality (VR) goes mainstream” has been the mantra for several years now, probably starting as far back as 2014 when Facebook bought Oculus Rift.

Since Apple announced ARKit, and Google announced ARCore, you can swap Augmented Reality (AR) in for Virtual Reality (and don’t forget Mixed Reality (MR) HoloLens experience from Microsoft!). In truth, they are intriguing technologies with some high profile uses, but still largely in search of their real purpose.

In an effort to move the dial from ‘curiosity’ to ‘useful’, IATA hosted the Aviation Virtual and Augmented Reality Summit (AVARS) in their Geneva headquarters. For two days around 20 companies, mainly AR/VR manufacturers and developers, shared their best practices, use case studies, and presented their products to the audience. This included my SITA Lab colleague, Kevin O’Sullivan, presenting the Helsinki HoloLens project. IATA thinks that AR/VR has reached a sufficient level of maturity to be of interest to the air transport industry and would like to encourage greater adoption among airlines.

Top of the list

Over the two days, three use cases seemed to be at the top of the “maturity” list. 

1 - Training 

In an industry full of large, complex and expensive equipment, training is the standout use-case for Virtual Reality. The fully immersive environment of VR allows trainees to gain not just visual familiarity with an aircraft, but they can also learn the physical movements required to interact with the aircraft. American Airlines have built a sophisticated VR environment for cabin crew training which they say helps to build the muscle memory for tasks such as disarming the aircraft door. Airbus also have a program to train airline pilots on cockpit operations. VR won’t replace training in real aircraft, but it can cut the amount of training time required which is an important factor for airlines with a large number of crew to be trained across a mixed fleet. Some other wins for VR training are being able to train more students in a limited space; easy data capture for debriefs and analysis; and for trainees to be free to make mistakes as it doesn’t cost anything to break something!

2 - Designing and demonstrating

AR and VR are very realistic ways to prototype new product concepts and to demonstrate products in customer environments. Compared to building physical prototypes, they are also generally a lot cheaper. VR can be used to replace traditional 2D storyboards and allows product manager and engineers to give a very realistic view of their new concept. This is the value proposition of German company Trotzkind which has specialized in storytelling.

A few companies (Airbus, Materna, AkzoNobel) explained how they use AR to help their customers visualize their products in their own environment: for example, the seat configuration with the full airline branding of an aircraft, or the check-in kiosk layout in an airport. Lufthansa have used VR to sell upgrades to premium class at the gate. By building a VR model of the premium cabin, they provide a very compelling visualization of what the premium experience will be.

3 - Maintenance and remote assistance

AR is a powerful tool to support remote technicians and engineers performing maintenance, repair or production tasks. By holding a phone or tablet in front of an aircraft part, static instructions become interactive, showing the worker where the new parts should go on top of what he actually has in front of him. Labels can be added to indicate the name of a part or actions to take.

One presentation from PTC showed the potential of mixing IoT and AR. They have a solution which can overlay data changing in real-time, collected from sensors such as temperature or the pressure of a liquid in a pipe.

AR also allows more experienced staff to remotely assist junior staff preventing key engineers from wasting time in transport. TAE Aerospace has developed a special wearable allowing the senior staff to see what the remote staff sees and can point out physical objects using a VR hand, or marker, that will be visible on the wearable screen worn by the person on site doing the work.

As I mentioned, Kevin presented SITA’s 3D virtualization of an airport command centre. This allows an airport manager to stay connected to the airport management and monitoring systems to handle disruption or emergency situation, even when roaming in the airport.

Not all plain sailing

Most companies agreed on the main challenges to VR/AR adoption:

  • User experience: Wearables that are too heavy or too immersive are not fit for industrial use. Vuzix are producing some slimmed-down headsets but they come with the trade-off of performance and battery life. TAE has developed wearables with a focus on safety and compatibility with physical work.
  • Costs: It can still be expensive to develop a VR/AR app compared to traditional web or desktop apps. In addition, finding companies with the appropriate skillsets and experience is still hard to do.
  • Education: there is still little awareness of the potential of AR/VR especially among senior executives and this makes justifying the ROI a difficult thing to do. Responding to this, Berlin University has launched training programs targeted to top executives. A number of companies are creating internal AR/VR communities to evangelize the technology internally.

So, is 2018 the year? 

No, not quite yet.

It is still early days for AR/VR (and MR) and the hardware required remains a point of friction for users. While mass VR adoption continues to remain ‘a year away’, there are compelling use-cases in the enterprise, particularly around staff training.  The fact that Apple and Google are promoting the use of augmented reality through their smartphones means that AR will seep into daily usage and ultimately into the enterprise more readily than VR, even though the immersive experience is less compelling.

Events such as this one that IATA hosted are important for the industry to keep up with the evolving hardware, and to share the compelling use-cases.

This blog was also published on travel tech news site, Tnooz.

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