Magazine article Management Today

Not Just Toys for the Boys

Magazine article Management Today

Not Just Toys for the Boys

Article excerpt

Virtual reality may have saved some companies millions but those trying to sell the technology are still suffering from a real credibility problem.

Virtual reality or VR has done much to enhance the excitement of horror movies and zap 'em games, but has yet to find a serious business application. So, at least, thought a Dutch barge captain involved in the erection of a 2,400 tonne gas compression platform for Conoco in the North Sea earlier this year. Until, that is, a VR simulation of the operation showed him that temporary scaffolding around one of the platform's legs would obstruct the operation to weld on the new superstructure. With operational costs running at more than [pounds]100,000 a day, he was delighted to be able to sort out the problem before it arose rather than have to halt activities for two days while it was fixed.

'The VR simulation enabled a decision to be made there and then to move the scaffolding beforehand,' says Richard Longdon, sales and marketing director of Cambridge-based CadCentre, which laid on the VR simulation. By the time the [pounds]70 million operation was complete, Conoco reckoned it had saved [pounds]3 million thanks to monthly VR project reviews.

Despite such results, the Dutch captain's scepticism is by no means unusual. Many industry experts believe that VR has yet to prove itself as a business application. So far, they argue, it has demonstrated little more than some fancy embellishments on traditional 3D modelling.

The development of business applications for VR dates back to the skilfully built plastic models of the '70s, models which fell out of favour because of the speed of their obsolescence. During the '80s, these models were succeeded by 3D imaging systems which allowed a more flexible approach. If, say, a plant had been built to produce chemical X, it was possible to re-plan the processing machinery on screen to show which modifications would be needed to tailor it for manufacturing chemical Y.

Since then, computer imaging in 3D has progressed from simple line drawings through plastic-looking shaded images to photorealism. What takes the technology on to the level of VR is its interactivity; with VR, the viewer can explore the computer-generated world as though it were real life, either by wearing a headset and special gloves or by wielding a joystick in front of the screen. The more detailed the graphics, and the faster they respond to the viewer's movements, the more effective the VR seems. 'This technology is ideal for designing things to fit human beings,' says Professor Bob Stone, director of VR Solutions, which was spun out of Salford University. '3D simulation is fine for planning factory automation such as modelling a line of robots or conveyor belts; it is the human element that is very difficult to simulate because it is so unpredictable.' VR can be used to explore how people might move around a factory, carry out repairs to an oil rig or select items from supermarket shelves. With VR, flaws and related improvements in the design are much easier to spot much earlier on than with other technologies. And if today's VR systems do not feel quite true to life due to limitations in computer technology, industry experts believe significant advances will be made by the end of the decade thanks to the increasing power and functionality of microprocessors. Techniques such as holography and photogrammetry, a method which involves building VR images from photographs, will also help.

Some analysts are predicting huge market growth although admittedly from a tiny base. A report from Ovum, the London-based market research company, reckons the international VR sector will grow 40% a year, from $134.9 million ([pounds]86.3 million) in 1995 to just over $1 billion by 2001. 'Companies are finding virtual reality an important source of competitive advantage,' says Jean Leston, the report's author. 'Many have made cost-savings of more than $1 billion. …

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