Paper goes virtual
Immersive, engaging and immediate – virtual reality has a lot to offer. Thomas Holzer, President Business Line Projects, Division Paper, explains why the trailblazing technology is a great fit for the paper industry.
Why virtual reality, why now?
Virtual reality is a fascinating tool. It enables complete and immediate immersion into an artificial world that feels incredibly real, without the physical need for a factory or a machine. And the tools are all available: established gaming industry experience, hardware and data formats for virtual reality applications, an engaged industry, an enthusiastic development team, and, of course, more than 150 years of industry know-how. It is the right time to combine everything and bring the results to our customers.
What is it like to step inside a Voith paper machine, virtually speaking?
You put the glasses on and, suddenly, you see the machine as if you were inside a real factory. You experience a 300-meter-long machine: the depth, the length, the height. We added sound, so you can hear the production. If you do a procedure, such as a sleeve change, the tools are at hand – you can actually take a drill to fasten a bolt. And it is fun! We’ve also included video enrichment so if, for example, a crane has to move a 50-tonne roll, this procedure is played on video to supplement the whole immersive experience.
Is it hard to adjust to the virtual environment?
Not at all, virtual reality technology is very intuitive. Learning how to use its functions and controllers only takes a few minutes. The biggest challenge exists in suppressing the need to walk. You see a big machine before you but, in reality, only have limited space to move, so you have to learn to jump virtually. This doesn’t take long, however, and once you know what you are doing, it is really exciting. We have had several customers experience our virtual reality applications and they all emerged with smiling faces, excited by the potential.
How do customers benefit?
Virtual reality eliminates spatial and temporal challenges, offering customers unique opportunities at every stage of the process – from planning to training. When they put on the virtual reality glasses, they can see and experience their machine and take ownership of it before it is built.
Training is another important area for our clients. By using virtual reality, customers can familiarize their team with a machine and conduct maintenance and safety trainings ahead of time. In markets with an older installed base, such as North America, the training technology can be used to bring the current generation of users up to speed with the latest developments, as well as train employees who have less experience in the industry. In regions where machines are fairly new, for instance in Europe, safety applications attract the most interest.
Are there also benefits for Voith engineers?
Of course! First of all, there is the joy in seeing and experiencing the results of your work so early on. In the past, you had to wait until the machine was built. Now, you draw it on the computer and can try it out immediately. Virtual reality also provides insights into the customer experience. Are the bolts too high to reach? Do customers risk hitting their heads? By walking through and seeing things from the customer’s perspective, engineers have an opportunity to optimize the designs, resulting in much more user-friendly results.
How does gamification play into the equation?
Traditionally, training takes place in a classroom environment, where it can be a challenge to keep people interested and motivated through longer sessions – and for them to apply their knowledge in the real world. Virtual reality removes ambiguity because users have to complete each task correctly or it won’t work, just like in reality. Gamification – including timing or problem-solving components – enriches engagement and provides a way to test the quality of training. You can build random mistakes into the training, challenge users to find them and then assess whether they were successful. As a result, the learning curve is much, much quicker than in a traditional setting.
What about augmented reality?
We have both worlds – virtual and augmented reality – and both systems have their place. For augmented reality, we have OnCare, our maintenance support system. It is a great tool that can provide pertinent real-time information. For example, it can tell you how to change a valve or offer prompts for a specific installation process. However, you still need a real object in front of you. With virtual reality, you can do things up front and in a small room, without the need for a physical factory.
If a customer has maintenance to do, it can be supported by augmented reality at the machine. If, on the other hand, a group of people need to train for a maintenance procedure in advance, virtual reality makes it possible. The two technologies complement each other.
So, what’s the next step?
Everyone will eventually have a pair of virtual reality glasses at their computer. There will also be developments that make the experience more immersive: gloves with haptic feedback instead of controllers, applications that recognize real hand movements and more realistic sound.
One area that will certainly develop is how we interact, with a move away from physical and towards virtual reality rooms. The norm for future generations will be for both sides – the customers and Voith – to meet in a virtual environment instead of traveling to physical facilities. Some changes are coming faster than we can imagine right now – but we are staying on top of them.