Health and safety has often lagged behind other departments in its adoption of information technology. Whilst maintenance management systems, payroll and procurement systems are widespread, and CRM (customer relationship management) is so common that there are now conferences devoted to the topic, systems to manage occupational health and safety have been adopted more slowly, and often in a more piecemeal way. Some organisations have a computer-based accident reporting system, but their risk assessments are still in Word, whilst others have auditing systems on mobile devices, but rely on paper systems for near misses.
So, what’s the difference between AR and VR, and how can they be used to support workplace health and safety?
Virtual Reality (VR) has been around for longer than many people think, with heavy, disorientating helmets available in the 1990s. Miniaturisation, wireless technology and lighter, longer life batteries have made headsets smaller and lighter, and they are no longer tethered to a computer via cumbersome cables. Leaders in the market include the Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as cheaper versions such as Google cardboard, designed to incorporate a mobile phone.
At the Safety and Health Expo Lloyds Register demonstrated their VR “Safety Simulator and gaming experience”, developed with Polar Media. The user is placed in a virtual oil rig environment, where they are challenged to identify and fix safety breaches. The impact of failing to fix the problems is illustrated with crash-test dummies stumbling, falling from height or being crushed. For less hazardous environments, Wallmart are using VR to train staff to deal with situations that would be difficult or dangerous to recreate in the workplace – like spills in the aisles or managing the Black Friday hoards!
One of the current limitations of these VR systems is that the user has to point and click with a remote control – it still feels like wearing a computer on your head with a mouse in your hand. The future for VR could see haptic interfaces, where the user can control the interaction with normal hand and body movements and receive physical feedback, so that it feels as though you are touching the objects you can see. New developments in this area include work using ultrasound vibrations to create “mid-air tactile feedback.” Instead of a remote control or a vibrating joy stick the developers tell us you will be able to feel the texture and shape of surfaces, even water, making interaction with the VR a more natural process.
Augmented Reality (AR) became a more familiar term during the Pokémon GO craze. What makes AR a very different experience from VR in that you can still see the real world around you. Hence, it is also referred to as “Mixed reality”. Just as the Pokémon creatures could “appear” to be walking on a real pavement in front of you, so AR can be used to overlay safety-related information on a workplace when viewed through a mobile device such as a tablet, or through special glasses. Existing products include Epson’s Moverio range, and the Microsoft HoloLens.
Example applications for this tend to be focused around maintenance:
- Text can be overlaid on equipment, showing step-by-step instructions, eg for an annual service.
- Status information (temperatures, pressures, speeds, volumes, valve opening status) can be displayed next to each component in a plant room.
- Some glasses can measure and overlay temperature readings as the user moves their head.
- “X-ray” vision images can be overlaid on equipment, so for example you can see the schematics for complex systems, or strip away layers of components to see what lies underneath.
Combined with voice-activated controls, this technology reduces the need to refer to paper manuals or to return to an office to check something on a computer, allowing hands free operation in environments where both hands are needed.
Barriers to implementation
The buzz around new ways of applying AR and VR is exciting, but we must keep our eyes on the goal – safer and healthier workplaces. Here then are a few questions we should ask as this technology develops.
- Some users report motion sickness when using VR – how will your workers respond? What impact will this have on the maximum duration of training sessions?
- Will VR be accurate enough for learning about safety critical systems? For example, if smoke in the virtual world is modelled inaccurately workers could underestimate the hazard in a real fire.
- Will VR learning go the way of some online e learning courses – compliance training to be done in a worker’s “spare” time to tick a box, without real workplace assessment of competence?
- Can AR be safely incorporated into existing PPE? Heavy helmets could increase musculoskeletal pain, and clumsy gloves reduce dexterity.
- What does AR do to situational awareness? Will it enhance it with system information – or distract users from the hole in the floor they’re about to step into?
- If AR encourages people to follow a step-by-step approach for procedures, will they maintain the ability to improvise appropriately in novel situations?
For more related articles and infographics, please check out our Ultimate Guide To Health and Safety Software.