NSCA Foundation

Simulating: a VR safety training trial

Saturday, 29 February, 2020

Simulating: a VR safety training trial

Virtual reality (VR) technologies look set to transform safety training. VR enthusiast DAVID McILVEEN trials one provider, ParaSpace, operating a mobile elevated work platform and reflecting on safety training’s technological future.

My experience of safety training to date has usually involved being confined to austere training rooms for hours on end, complete with PowerPoint slides and instant coffee. Most companies want to provide ‘hands on’ training experiences, but this often requires access to expensive equipment, the use of site resources and travel time for trainees. What if it were possible to provide an element of the ‘hands on’, but without the expense? ParaSpace is offering just that. Having been selected to join the University of Queensland’s ilab Germinate PLUS Program, which provides funding and a collaborative space for tech entrepreneurs, the Brisbane start-up has developed safety training experiences using virtual reality and is pitching it as a step up in the way industrial safety training will be delivered in future.

Virtual reality (VR), in its modern incarnation, is a growing and developing technology, which is still in the process of finding its full potential. The latest iteration of VR hardware offers high-resolution visuals and cable-free experiences that engage the user through the use of touch-sensitive hand controls and the freedom to move around in all directions. By providing a multi-sensory depiction of any conceivable scenario and environment, the possible applications of VR are as wide and varied as one might imagine. The technology is already being used in areas as diverse as: gaming and entertainment; in education and as a classroom aid for teaching; stress reduction, therapy and behavioural change; and naturally, in training and simulation. The potential of VR as a training tool is demonstrated by the interest the technology is already generating among researchers and organisations in the field.

David Chaseling, the co-founder of ParaSpace, and a multimedia design graduate of The University of Queensland, saw the potential of VR technology early on. He has been working with VR since its renaissance in 2014. “I wanted to do VR,” David told me matter-of-factly. I caught up with David and his business partner Ryan Pousson after finding their website and booking one of ParaSpace’s demo training experiences, which involves learning to drive a mobile elevated work platform (EWP). The simulation is being developed with input and feedback from Pinnacle Safety and Hutchinson Builders, and is intended to be used both as a training tool and a means of re-certification — or “verification of competency” — for those already qualified to operate an EWP. David points out that this would, above all, save on lost time that businesses would otherwise incur from workers taking training leave in order to undergo recertification with an RTO.

Soon after arriving at ParaSpace HQ, David offered me a VR headset, and within seconds of donning it, I found myself standing in a typical training room, awaiting instruction. Being a VR enthusiast, this was exciting enough. I love the sensation of being transported from one world to another, without leaving the couch, so to speak. This is the magic of VR. But the most impressive part of the experience was yet to come. Following a quick briefing from a virtual instructor, and having signed a virtual waiver with my virtual hand, the scene soon faded, and I materialised in an enormous industrial workshop, arranged with all the interactive elements of the safety experience, including an EWP. Over the next few minutes, following instructions given over a virtual walkie talkie, I guided an EWP around the workshop, rotated the bucket, inadvertently knocked over a few bollards and scaled to the top of the workshop ceiling.

The EWP, David explained, is carefully modelled on a standard machine: the replica buttons are arranged just as they are in a typical EWP, and the mechanics, with regards to speed and movement, are accurately replicated in the simulation also. David explained that, with feedback from industry, the simulation has been gradually refined and made more lifelike. For example, as the platform goes higher, lateral movements become more exaggerated, and the platform gives a lifelike jolt and wobble when it comes to a stop. The experience was genuinely exciting. I found myself nervously peering over the edge of the bucket, and looking up to the ceiling of the workshop as I raised it, feeling a sense of scale and height. Part of the purpose of the exercise is to highlight the dangers of using an EWP in a confined space and around fixed structures, where the risk of crush injuries is a serious concern.

After completing the demo, I was struck by how the simulation managed to give just the right amount of ‘reality’: enough to make me feel as though I had had an experience with the real thing, and yet not so much that I was intimidated or hesitant to step right in and engage with the scenario. I imagine I would already feel more comfortable stepping into an EWP, if I had to. Moreover, the experience definitely felt like a huge step up from slides and handouts. We know that training is more effective when learners are actively engaged, and not mere passive observers. Studies show that training in an immersive and interactive virtual reality environment can significantly increase retention and learners’ motivation.

David explained to me that the simulation can also be used to provide analytical data in relation to the trainee’s behaviour and performance during the experience, to identify trends and specific skill gaps. This data could be used to enhance the simulation and provide useful feedback to both the assessor and trainee, providing more than a simple ‘pass or fail’ outcome. Over the coming months, David said ParaSpace will continue working with industry partners in construction and mining to refine and grow their content library, including training experiences for first aid and fire safety. And as virtual reality technology continues to grow apace, we can expect to see more of it finding its way into the workplace.

David McIlveen is a VR enthusiast and Environmental Consultant at EMM, Brisbane.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/franz12

NSCA Foundation is a member based, non-profit organisation working together with members to improve workplace health and safety throughout Australia. For more information and membership details click here
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