VR has been a very hot topic in the shipbuilding industry this last year. The increase of presentations at conferences is one sign that VR has (or will have) a significant positive impact on our productivity. There are also many clients I have engaged with who have invested in the relatively inexpensive VR hardware such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The cost of VR hardware continues to drop with Oculus Rift and Touch controllers only being $450 CAD. However, the people I have talked to have yet to leverage VR in their production environment. There are many reasons for this with the major one being that the hardware is only one of the foundational pillars for a useful and value-add VR environment. Software and the integration with current information platforms that contains the source information to be displayed in VR are the other key pillars. This leads many these clients to attempt to search and in some cases, create custom solutions to leverage VR in their organization.
The Big Picture
I believe VR will be a significant contributor to shipbuilding by improving the way we communicate information to customers (e.g. Owners), train crew and communicate with classification societies etc. It will also help as we collaborate with the entire team during engineering, design and construction.
When we see examples of VR, we see a perfectly manicured VR model with all the information we could ever want tied to the geometric part artifacts. This generates several ideas of how we can leverage VR in shipbuilding and gives us the illusion that VR is already perfectly suited for the shipbuilding industry.
However, this VR model that has been crafted for the demonstration hides the fact that it has taken days or even weeks to generate. The vast amount of effort required to generate an equivalent VR model with the rich CAD information we have in our organization is the key reason why the value of using VR is outweighed by the cost (effort and skills).
For the value of VR to outweigh the total investment we require the VR environment to be an extension of what we do today. The analog I usually provide is that a VR solution should be similar to how we create a lightweight model of our entire ship. Every single company has a solution that will allow them to seamlessly create a lightweight model of their entire ship without any complex workflow. These lightweight models are always up-to-date, will update automatically when the source CAD or related meta-data changes and do not require any special training. Until this happens we will not see wide adoption in VR.
Current State of play
Even with VR not being a natural extension of what we do today there are some use cases where people are getting value from using VR. Every single use case that is being widely adopted in the shipbuilding industry does not require the VR environment to be updated when the ship model updates. These use cases only require the VR model to be created once and it is “ok” to have a VR expert on staff to spend the days or weeks needed to generate a VR scene. Some use cases that are/can be used today:
- Training Crew: We see a lot of examples already today on this.
- Training Engineers: Either new employees at a company that have little experience with shipbuilding or a type of ship they do not have experience with.
- Sales & Marketing: Very easy to convey concepts to owners or potential clients.
- Milestone Internal Design Reviews: VR is used for spatial awareness. It is very easy to see something will not work, or is out of place in VR.
- Customer Design Reviews: Communicating the design in VR will get the customer to better understand the design without requiring them to operate a CAD model. Getting feedback early and aligning customer expectations with what is going to be built reduces the amount of late changes.
These use cases have value and for some companies are good enough to invest in VR. However, if we were able to create a VR model seamlessly in seconds or minutes, the possibilities and benefits would be endless. In pursuit of capturing the true benefits of VR companies are looking at various possibilities.
General Gaming Engines (Unity, Unreal)
One possibility that companies are looking at is leveraging a general gaming engine such as Unity or Unreal. These gaming engines are relatively inexpensive and support VR relatively easily; however, they require the company to invest in software development. There are some shipbuilding companies that have succeeded in creating an “Ok” VR solution after spending years and a lot of $ on software development. This is a strategy that I do not think will work for most of companies in our industry, mainly because they are not in the business of software development. Our industry has transitioned from custom-built applications to more commercial applications because it is overall more cost effective and more importantly, you will continue to get more innovation from software vendors that are focused on VR. I know I am biased on this topic; however, if you look at the trends in the last 30 years you will see that it supports my comment.
There are a lot of VR applications on the market and depending on your VR platform (Head Mounted Displays (HMD), virtual wall, virtual cave, multi-site) will narrow down the available options.
They are some very interesting applications out there which I will write a review for in my next blog post. The key things to look for in a VR application are:
- Can it handle a ship model?
- Does it seamlessly create a VR model with your current information platform?
- Does it seamlessly integrate with the all your information not just geometry?
- Do you require VR expert to create your VR model?
- Can you use the VR application as a natural extension of your current workflow?
It should be noted that a VR application does cost money but in my opinion, is one of the required VR platform pillars and therefore required for any VR solution you want to implement. This is what most people that invest in VR forget to consider.
Future Blog Posts
I will be creating a future blog post on some of the VR applications I have used which are scalable for our industry. I will also share the experience SSI has had with attempting to create our own “simple” VR solution with the gaming engine Unity.
The cost of VR hardware will continue to drop in the coming years and we will continue to see the shipbuilding industry invest in these devices. Unfortunately, the VR hardware is only one piece that is required for a strong VR platform within companies. Having a VR application that can leverage your VR hardware as well as tie in seamlessly into your current workflow are the other pillars. To gain any benefit from your VR hardware you will have to also invest in the right VR application.
The good thing is that VR applications are improving in capabilities very rapidly and even today can provide some great VR experiences for you. Game engines such as Unity and Unreal are VR capable but require a lot of software development to create even a basic solution, which will not scale for most shipbuilding companies.
In future blog posts I will review some of these applications and gaming engines to provide you more real-world insight on where VR can be used today.