Virtual reality has long been the stuff of research, and in recent years, has been used in computer gaming, as well as for more serious endeavors such as surgical training in the medical industry. Now, Invensys Process Systems (IPS, www.ips.invensys.com), the Plano, Texas-based unit of global automation conglomerate Invensys plc, is moving to bring the technology to the world of process operator training systems.
“From our perspective, virtual reality has reached a point where it is mature enough to be adopted in the process industry,” declared Tobias Scheele, IPS vice president of advanced applications, during a Feb. 25 press conference unveiling the company’s Immersive Virtual Reality Process technology.
Billed as “a next-generation human-machine interface (HMI) solution that will revolutionize the way engineers and operator trainees see and interact with the plant and the processes they control,” the technology is planned for introduction during this year’s second half. IPS already has a prototype running at one customer site, Scheele said, and has engaged with three other clients to develop the Immersive Virtual Reality Process for use in their facilities.
Scheele identified “major oil companies” and “major chemical companies” as the primary early adopters of the technology. IPS has received “a very positive market feedback,” he said. “We are expecting, over the next one to two months, having, in total, 15 to 20 additional clients who will work with us on further investigation of this solution, and further possibilities that the solution could offer them.”
How it works
The IPS Immersive Virtual Reality Process can create a 3D computer-generated representation of either a real or proposed process plant. Users wear a stereoscopic headset to enter a totally immersive environment in which they can move through the plant in any direction. Such freedom is possible because the virtual environment is rendered at 60 frames per second, IPS said, significantly faster than what can be achieved by traditional, non real-time rendering.
“The ability to simulate complex processes in connection with virtual actions allows the user to directly experience an environment that changes over time, making it more effective at transferring skills learned in training to the work environment,” said Maurizio Rovaglio, director, IPS global consulting. “And because rarely performed volatile tasks such as plant shutdowns can be rehearsed in a stable, realistic environment, users and operator trainees have the opportunity to learn and make mistakes without putting themselves, the community or the environment at risk. In addition to that, using computer models of real equipment allows endless experimentation without ever taking the equipment off line, mitigating risk to production as well.”
Key to the Immersive Virtual Reality Process is IPS’ proprietary Dynsim software, which emulates the plant environment, linking process simulation models with physical-spatial models to create virtually any scenario that a user could encounter in real life, according to the company.
An additional level of information can also be provided through so-called “augmented reality,” in which 3D graphic images such as charts or drawings, text or videos can be superimposed onto the virtual scene, as a way to increase process understanding. A photorealistic virtual environment of a plant could be overlaid with graphics to provide information on process conditions, for example, such as the temperature of the fluid in a pipe. Or a schematic could be superimposed on the scene that shows how a piece of equipment operates.
For training purposes, the Immersive Virtual Reality Process will provide capabilities beyond today’s training simulators by enabling team training involving coordinated activities of both control room personnel and outside field workers, IPS said. Further, the company expects to see applications for the technology that go beyond training. The solution has been designed to encompass a wide range of scenarios, including process design, maintenance engineering and plant safety, IPS said.
And by linking a virtual reality environment not just to a simulation system, but to real-life data, the technology will also one day be used as an HMI for actual plant control, IPS executives predicted. Scheele declined to speculate on when that might occur. But he did say that IPS has a “timeline and a vision” for the technology, adding that the control room system of the future “shouldn’t be flat.”
Invensys Process Systems