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How virtual reality became everyday reality

There was a time when stories about virtual reality were consigned to the graveyard of the nightly television news bulletin — after the weather. Cue story of a nursing home using a Nintendo Wii to keep residents active.

This year US retail giant Walmart will train staff using VR. Google is rebooting its ill-fated glasses with augmented reality glass (General Motors already uses Google glass to train workers). And there is serious discussion of how to deal with ‘VR sickness’ in people who use the technology too much. Welcome to the new reality.

If you can’t handle the heat

It feels like 1000 degrees in the suit. Turning on the hose triggers a jet reaction from the force of the water. The flames are everywhere, screaming aloud.

Only it’s not real. At all.

Welcome to Deakin University’s firefighting simulator the FlAim. The virtual and augmented reality system replicates the physical and psychological effects of being in a raging blaze from bushfires to car, aircraft, mine and building fires.

The trainer was designed and developed by volunteer firefighter and Deakin University Associate Professor James Mullins, who says the technology was developed to try and overcome one of the biggest problems in fire training – access to facilities.

‘Take the navy. Everyone on a ship is a firefighter. But they have no access to realistic training when at sea – and that can be for eight or nine months.’

The system uses ‘haptics’ feedback to realistically replicate a range of fires with a breathing apparatus kit complete with a head mounted VR display and audio, heat generating protective clothing (which Assoc. Prof. Mullins describes as a ‘super powered’ electric blanket) and ‘kick back’ or force generating nozzles and hoses.

The augmented reality component can superimpose within any environment, replicating multiple fire types.

'We’re not trying to replace the reality, we’re trying to augment and add value to the reality to give people as close to the real experience as possible before they are exposed to potentially dangerous situations.'

Associate Professor James Mullins,
Deakin University

Melding the virtual with the physical

Assoc. Prof. Mullins says the days of ‘Powerpoint on a projector’ training are short-lived. Soon we’ll all be training in a virtual environment.

The main difference between the Deakin system and other virtual trainers is tying the physical to the virtual. Others are doing game development using virtual reality or augmented reality but stop there, he says.

‘We take that a step by introducing the physical – force, heat, realistic weight,’ Assoc. Prof. Mullins says. ‘We provide external stimuli to improve the fidelity of the situation.’

‘We’re not trying to replace the reality, we’re trying to augment and add value to the reality to give people as close to the real experience as possible before they are exposed to potentially dangerous situations,’ he says.

The training system has applications in defence as well as mining, and refresher training, Assoc. Prof. Mullins says.

Firing up on commercialisation

In a speech to the European and Australian Business Council, the chair of Innovation and Science Australia was critical of Australia’s record in turning publicly funded research into commercial products.

‘The OCED statistics have Australia near the very top in terms of research excellence, but at number 33 out of 33 countries in terms of collaboration,’ he said in the speech last year.

‘Indeed, less than 5% of Australian business collaborate with universities.’

The FlAim trainer is part of Deakin’s push to turn research into useable products and technology through commercialisation.

To do so the University established a start-up, FlAim Systems, with Assoc. Prof. Mullins the company’s Chief Technology Officer.

The global market for such training simulators is estimated to be worth $3 billion globally.

Assoc. Prof. Mullins says Australia as a whole has not been good at realising its intellectual property, rather than taking technology overseas.

‘We don’t generally have a culture of taking technology out of the university sector and seeing it through commercialisation,’ he says.

‘This is a big focus of Deakin.’

Interested in studying virtual reality? Consider studying information technology at Deakin University.

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Associate Professor James Mullins
Associate Professor James Mullins

Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation, Deakin University

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