Comment & Analysis

Academic insight: Using virtual reality to improve processes

Professor James Ritchie

Professor James Ritchie
Professor James Ritchie

Professor James Ritchie, Dean of Science and Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

Our digital engineering group carries out research into digital tools, including virtual reality (VR), and evaluates how these can support engineers. 

In the 1990s, we contended that, rather than using VR just for displays and walkthroughs, it would be interesting to use it to output usable manufacturing information. So for virtual assembly tasks, we analysed chronological, time-phased user logs generated during system interaction to automatically output practical, shopfloor assembly plans.

Since then, this approach has been at the heart of our work. Using head-mounted displays, interactive wall displays, bench-top VR, flat screens, non-haptic and haptic devices, we have demonstrated that VR can be used across a range of engineering applications. 

Also, the technology is ideal for human factor research, since monitoring and logging user activities provide a rich data source for analysing a range of engineering applications and behaviour, and for capturing knowhow. 

To support our work, we have developed a plug-and-play ubiquitous, synchronous, time-phased logging framework, which handles lab-based and remote devices. For research studies, individuals or groups can be monitored when studying CAE and/or virtual engineering activities, with cause-and-effect relationships identified and analysed in a way not previously possible.

For example, for design reviews we have a virtual environment where we can record, monitor and time-phase multiple inputs, identifying these relationships during interactive product reviews, automatically producing review meeting reports, and allowing quick access to historical meeting knowledge. Centring the approach on interacting directly with the product structure data means it can also be used to update PLM or BIM systems. 

Led by my colleague Theo Lim, our group also has interests in ‘serious games’ for engineering, using cyber-physical systems, sound and motion capture, data-information fusion, visualisation and analysis, as well as biometrics and neuro-metrics to evaluate user performance in engineering-associated domains. We have applied our logging framework to engineering behavioural analysis for applications such as game interfaces for conventional CADCAM systems, monitoring driver performance/learning in a virtual driving game simulator, and proof-of-principle haptic medical applications.

Most importantly, we have seen how we can use these tools to capture and formalise understandable, accessible engineering knowledge. We’ve found that VR is an ideal medium through which we can intuitively capture engineering knowhow and impart it to engineers. 

Remember, VR isn’t a panacea; we still have to determine where it best fits. There are gaps – for example, real-time numerical analysis interaction.

Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar now use VR regularly in some form. However, just as in the early years of CADCAM, the technology is expensive. We need off-the-shelf, practical solutions for engineers with its functionality properly embedded in CAE packages. Should this happen, then such systems in the future will look very different indeed.


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