Virtual reality for aviation training: The IATA Demo

In November 2014 Brightwave’s Learning Technologies VR lab partner Tim Fleming of Future Visual was invited by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to speak to their symposium in Prague about 3D simulation and the opportunities of using virtual reality as a training platform. We’re proud to present this overview of Tim’s presentation.

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of those rare mediums that you have to try to really appreciate just how radical it can be: the realism, the feeling of presence, the massive disruptive potential of the first truly new viewing format for over 100 years.

Whilst there have been hundreds of new visual content technologies in the last century (vinyl, 8mm film, VHS, Hi8, cassette tape, CD, DAT, Blu-ray, Zip disks, LaserDisc, Betamax, DVD etc. etc. etc.) there has really only been one viewing format: the flat screen as used by the Lumière brothers in 1895.

This surprisingly versatile tech turned into the TV, IMAX cinema, flat screen home cinema, and 3D TV, but they all have the single unifying factor of a 2D plane viewed from a fixed distance.

VR is content you move through and around in – you could attempt to describe this dynamic experience in a million ways, but the point remains: you really have to try VR to appreciate it. The best way to educate an audience is to make a VR experience that they can relate to, that puts their familiar world into this radical new setting. So Future Visual set about building what would eventually become the IATA Training Demo.

The demo was an eight minute experience starting in the kind of training room that all aviation students would be familiar with, and then going on to demonstrate how VR could be useful in the training of cabin crew, ground crew and pilots.

When we started the project I presumed that we wouldn’t be able to offer pilots much in addition to the training they currently receive in simulators. But I knew there would be certain areas where we could surpass the current level of training. One of these was external aircraft inspection. These are usually taught in a single 40 minute session, and if there is nothing wrong with the aircraft then they are not going to be able to experience that sensation of identifying a fault.

I also knew by being able to simulate external inspections in a range of conditions (rain, nighttime, ice issues etc.) we were offering a significant improvement over the current training. After meeting pilots it became apparent that there were actually a number of procedures that they were unable to replicate in the simulator, and that VR offered a unique ability to create those scenarios.

Once the learner has been introduced to the training demo by an instructor via an in-sim screen, a wall drops down to reveal a complete, to-scale aircraft hangar.

The first area – after heading through security – is a departure area staffed with two moody-looking ‘mechs’ who will hold your gaze as you walk past them.

The airside tour begins from the perspective of a pilot, running through features relating to the standard outside inspection, including undercarriage, wing, tail and aileron inspection.

As you head back to the nose of the craft we assume the POV of a member of ground crew. We are able to inspect the hold of the aircraft and by using the positional tracking of the Oculus Rift DK2 headset, the viewer can actually lean forward into the airplane’s hold to check that it has been loaded with correctly balanced weight distribution.

As we head to the rear of the craft a set of stairs that materialises and we assume the POV of a member of cabin crew.

As we enter the craft, several key areas are highlighted to show where fire extinguishers, life jackets etc. are situated. In the middle of the cabin you can interact with a fire extinguisher using the ‘gaze’ function to find out more information about that device. Gaze is a great way of allowing people to interact with objects until a standardised VR input system is solved and built upon.

As soon as delegates tried the Airline demo it was apparent that this training platform offered a much quicker route to competency. Compared to classroom training the ability to quickly familiarise yourself with a cabin layout was obvious, and the ability to drill down into what objects were used for meant that users could access a wealth of information at their own pace. This greater realism coupled with adaptive learning and the ability to spend unlimited time in areas that are usually restricted, has generated much interest in the aviation world.

It’s in scenarios like this, with hard-to-access spaces and equipment where VR-for-learning will make the biggest splash in the short term. Further ahead, as the tech becomes more accessible within the consumer space, likely driven by investment from the entertainment industry, VR will become the definitive medium for learning and potentially all other forms of content. Looking around from inside this new technology, it’s easy to imagine VR becoming as important to the development of 21st Century culture as the Lumière brothers’ flickering screen was to the 20th.

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