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 £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 £70 million operation was complete, Conoco reckoned it had saved £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 (£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. They have experienced faster time to market, fewer mistakes than when using computer-aided design technologies, greater efficiencies in working methods and improved quality in final products.'
There are certainly numerous trial projects. J Sainsbury, for one, has begun experimenting with VR to cut time and money involved in the design and layout of its stores. It has built an interactive 3D model of its Salford branch through which users can 'walk', picking products off the shelves and taking them to the check-out. The system allows designers to adjust shelf, aisle and gondola lay-outs instantaneously and to experiment with different formats for delicatessen, bakery or cheese counters. And planners can mix 'n' match layouts from different stores.
There are numerous other applications in marketing and promotion. Potential sponsors, for example, can be shown how their logos will look on the side of Formula One cars, and travel agents can entice tourists with visions of luxurious hotel rooms. VR also has a role to play in creating promotional videos or presentations for use in competitive tendering. Lever Brothers has deployed VR in the development of a new Persil kitchen cleaner while British Steel Tinplate has demonstrated it in the design of packaging for Carling Black Label cans.
Like Conoco, many of VR's early adopters are among industries with large-scale engineering and design costs such as pharmaceuticals, car-making, shipbuilding, aircraft and engine manufacturing concerns. These companies are attracted by the huge potential savings in eliminating the need for prototypes and in trying out complex operations on screen before attempting to do them for real. Using VR, Rover has detected several design flaws on a new flexible production line for the engine and gearbox for the Defender, Range Rover and Discovery vehicles. Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is working with VR Solutions to apply the technology to aero engine design.
And Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering is exploring VR as an alternative to its vast physical models of submarines.
VR has helped Merck, the pharmaceuticals group, make numerous economies in plant design, according to Mike Galloway, director of computer-integrated engineering. In one case, a food process manifold wouldn't have fitted into the building it was intended for. 'VR probably saved us $500,000,' Galloway says. In the recent construction of a Merck plant to manufacture a new AIDS drug, VR enabled six months to be cut from the usual design and construction time, representing a 30% reduction in the time taken to get the product to market.
VR is particularly valuable when dealing with contractors because it enables client specifications to be much more accurate. 'Clients can spot problems much sooner and (their comments) come at the point in a project where something can be done about it,' says Martin Williams, a member of the strategic development team at Brown & Root, the main contractor for Conoco. Williams draws an analogy with building a house. 'If someone could show you beforehand how it would look on the big screen, you could spot design modifications that would be costly or impossible to make once the building was constructed.'
Training is another obvious application for VR. Shell, for instance, has been putting oil-rig operators through their paces without flying them out on location. In one two-hour session, operators can practise their skills in every type of environmental condition including darkness, fog and thick smoke. The fine detail available with state-of-the-art VR allows the smallest patch of rust or detailed wiring to be represented on the screen so that awkward maintenance and repair tasks can be thoroughly tested. This is a big advantage for operations in hazardous areas or in cases where the exposure of engineers to heat or chemicals needs to be minimised for health reasons.
VR's relative youth means there is still active debate about the form in which it is best presented. CadCentre is pioneering the theatre approach where the virtual image is projected onto a huge wraparound screen so that it can be viewed by perhaps 25 people. The VR theatre promotes team work, according to Brown & Root's Williams. 'The benefit is that you can get a multitude of different designers and companies sitting in front of the screen. You can present the issues with no confusion about what is being discussed and can quickly home in on a solution.' The other advantage of the wraparound screen is that life-size figures can be represented whereas on a desktop monitor, they might be just five or six centimetres high.
Unfortunately equipping a VR theatre costs around £670,000, or £4,000 in rental per half day. And even where the expense is not a problem, some organisations would have too much difficulty getting everyone working on the same project together in the same room. Hence Merck's decision to help fund the development of software that offers similar facilities to the theatre but can be provided anywhere in the world simultaneously on networked PCs. Engineers, operators and designers can use the system to hold virtual teleconferences viewing the VR image on their desktop screens. 'The trouble with the theatre approach is that you need everyone in the same place,' says Galloway. He points out that for a new factory Merck is building in Ireland, part of the design is being done in Philadelphia, part in New Jersey and part in Cork. 'The key issue is to get the plant workers themselves to review the design, because they know a whole lot more about how it will work than the designers,' Galloway says.
The other advantage of PC-based VR systems is price: they cost around £15,000 each, including software. Additional packages to control glove features such as touch and smell cost £5,000 each, but headsets are down to under £500. Workstations currently account for 43% of the VR market and Ovum predicts this figure will rise. Most applications will be based on computer screens rather than headsets, it says. In fact, it predicts VR is ultimately likely to become a standard feature of a business PC.
Such enthusiasm is good news for the UK which has pioneered many of VR's business applications and which is the most advanced market in Europe. Companies such as Superscape, based in Hook, Hampshire, and Division, of Bristol, have developed much of the software behind today's leading applications.
However, the UK's trail-blazers are small companies and have yet to make a profit. Their image isn't helped by high-profile VR companies such as Virtuality whose shares recently dived following problems over headset supplies.
In fact scepticism in one form or another is the main hurdle the VR industry has to overcome. Many potential business users still view VR as a gimmick.
Even Longdon admits that part of CadCentre's reason for introducing VR was to give its computer-aided design products 'a more modern, upmarket image. To repackage them would have been very expensive, but to add VR would get lots of attention and look very sexy.'
Malcolm Preston, technical consultant for process safety and systems at ICI Engineering Technology, believes there could be significant cultural hurdles to overcome before VR is accepted on a large scale. 'It might put off some people who associate VR more with playing games than serious business tools.' There is also an issue about the absolute view of the world that VR provides.
The industry is keenly aware that, despite widespread experimentation, there's still a shortage of case studies which demonstrate real business benefits from using VR. 'It has been a long, painful process getting people to adopt it,' says Stone. 'We're still fighting against the "toys for the boys" syndrome.' VR is finding its place, but it will be at least two years before the battle for the hearts and minds of business and industry is won. Until then, the sceptics are likely to remain in the majority, with VR viewed as little more than a fancy addition to traditional 3D modelling.