Simulation and/or virtual reality have proven to be highly effective approaches for training our workforce to operate complex, high-value systems. Today’s latest simulators use technology borrowed from the gaming and movie industries to create highly effective, lifelike training experiences in a safe, offline environment, which minimizes both safety risks and concerns about losing high-value product due to operator error.
Training simulators that incorporate virtual reality are based on 3D digital models of physical environments. These models can provide the user with a perspective of the virtual models based on real-world limitations. Along with the visual experience that incorporates the physics of the actual system, simulators often add sound to further engage the user’s senses. Augmented reality, in turn, superimposes additional information onto a real image.
Using a systematic approach to combine virtual and augmented reality, companies can create a safe, but highly realistic simulated environment in which to train employees and/or test new products. By incorporating haptic technology to recreate the sense of touch for users through force, vibration or motion, the experience becomes even more lifelike and thus more effective for training purposes.
The origin of haptics
Cybernetics—the study of how people, animals and machines control and communicate information—universalized the notion of feedback systems and expanded it to include the interaction between humans and machines. In the 1980s, the scientific field of haptics was incorporated into cybernetics, increasing the need to incorporate control sensitivity and feedback into guidance systems used by human operators. Though haptic technology was initially applied to the control sticks used in flight trainers to improve the realism of the flight simulation environment, haptics is now also being used for a broad range of applications, including trainers for operators of aerospace, medical, underwater and mining equipment.
For trainers, haptic science has expanded to include virtual environments and human psychophysics. Human psychophysics aids human manipulation by creating a haptic illusion, or knowing what it takes to fool the hand and the eye. This critical element of the technology has elevated realism in virtual environments. The degree of realism, a subjective value, is used to communicate how effectively the entire haptic solution imitates the actual environment in which a human operator would function based on the critical elements of interaction, immersion and imagination.
The realism of a haptic environment depends on two distinct technologies—machine dynamics and operator controls—that work together to construct a training environment that accurately reproduces the actual behavior of the machine and the associated hand controls. The challenge system designers face is that the training equipment needs to present operators with machine control manipulators that look, feel and accurately reproduce the behavior of the actual equipment while being subjected to external forces. Thus, the convergence of the machine simulation and the haptic operator controls ultimately dictates the quality of the operator experience.
Digital computer simulations added a whole new dimension to haptics by combining a full simulation environment with virtual reality. The mathematical models of the simulated machines/systems provide the state of the machine as input to haptic controls and the physical compartment controls. The industry has incorporated virtual reality into training systems. 3D simulation tools simulate the interaction of both a machine and the environment, while simultaneously synchronizing with the dynamic changes in the haptic controls and physical compartment.
Today’s advanced gaming engines demonstrate the significant progress that has been made in virtual reality systems that rely on physics-based simulation. A physics-based simulation system designed to analyze the physical interaction between machine and environment allows the systems design engineer to simulate machine motion while detecting collisions and interference—all within a virtual environment. Virtual reality enables the industry to create a training environment that fully immerses the user.
Highly effective training simulators create lifelike experiences like those provided by today’s computer gaming environment. Training simulators that incorporate virtual reality are based on 3D digital models of physical environments. These can provide the user with a perspective of the virtual models based on real-world limitations. Along with the visual experience that incorporates the physics of the actual system, simulators add sound to further engage the user’s senses.
Virtual and augmented reality are both being used today to train the workforce and evaluate new products and techniques before they are launched into the market. Gaining experience in using complex systems (without the risk of losing human life or high-value product) provides the workforce with skills and understanding that otherwise would not be possible without using the actual systems.
The addition of haptics technology improves on virtual and augmented reality to make the training or product testing experience even more lifelike.
>>Sal Spada is research director for discrete automation at ARC Advisory Group. His responsibilities include studies in the worldwide CNC, North American general motion control, and servo drive markets.