Virtual reality and manufacturing seem about as far apart as industries can get. One deals with the creation of real, tangible objects while the other immerses the user in a limitless digital world. And yet, they both share one crucial aspect that makes them perfect partners in the decade to come: the third dimension.
Although today virtual reality is used primarily for entertainment purposes, it represents a massive change in the ways we use computers. Ever since the invention of the Graphical User Interface, we’ve interacted with computers almost exclusively in two dimensions. Any type of 3D interaction had to be done by turning objects, rotating viewpoints, and changing scale. But with virtual reality we can finally interact with a 3D computing environment in the same ways we interact in the real world.
This means that traditional processes in manufacturing like design, training, and marketing no longer have to rely on 2D representations. Instead, virtual reality will allow manufacturers to more closely mimic the real world versions of their products any time they are interacting with them digitally.
Creation and Collaboration
Product design in most industries is a collaborative process involving a number of different stakeholders and designers. Especially when these people are in different locations, it can be incredibly difficult to coordinate the design process.
With virtual reality, 3D product models can be shared, worked on, and discussed as if all the relevant parties were together in the same room. This is due to a feature of virtual reality called Social Presence. Because virtual reality makes a person believe their virtual surroundings are real, they also feel that the 3D representations of other people in that space are real too. It functions much like a multiplayer video game, but it feels like talking and interacting with people in real life.
Imagine designing a new engine in virtual reality. Not only could a person construct the engine by literally drawing it in 3D space, they could have multiple designers working on the engine together. When input is needed from people of different departments, no matter their location joining the design session is as easy as donning a virtual reality headset. As soon as a draft of the design is finished, potential clients can be brought in to see if the engine meets specifications.
This doesn’t even address the number of ways that virtual reality will change the design process itself. Rather than using 2D tools to design 3D products, virtual reality will allow engineers to construct products by putting together, manipulating, and reshaping virtual 3D parts. Simulations of how the product will look, feel, and act in real life can all be run in virtual reality during the design process and then iterated upon quickly. 3D products finally have a 3D design process.
Training in the Virtual Era
Training is the main area in which manufacturers might already have some experience with virtual reality. Especially when dealing with dangerous and expensive equipment, it makes sense for people to first learn on simulations before moving to the real thing.
Right now, many of these training modules involve specialized equipment and large setups complete with a number of screens that mimic the real world. With the latest virtual reality technology, much of this can be replaced by a virtual reality headset and controllers.
Using a virtual reality headset, it’s possible to exactly recreate not only the equipment that a person will be training on, but also a number of scenarios that they will have to face. The improvements in virtual reality controllers make them flexible enough to simulate using a wide variety of equipment.
With Social Presence, it’s also possible to do training that involves multiple people. From disaster preparedness to HR training, virtual reality can allow employees to act out real world scenarios in a safe, virtual environment.
Always Be Virtually Closing
Virtual reality can also help close the deal. Sales in manufacturing often involves long sales cycles complete with trade shows, site visits, and lots of traveling. Using virtual reality, we can finally bridge the distance between sales teams and potential clients.
With virtual reality, a salesperson could meet a promising lead without either ever needing to leave the office. Not only that, they could bring the product in for a full virtual product demo. If a technical expert is needed to answer questions, all they need to do is put on a virtual reality headset to join the conversation.
But this is only the beginning. In virtual reality, the rules of physics don’t necessarily apply. Products can be exploded to show component pieces. The environment can be changed instantly to show how the product could fit in the customer’s workflow. Parts can be scaled up or down to show detail. And if the salesperson needs literal fireworks to close the deal, they can add them at the push of a button.
It’s still early days for the virtual reality industry, but this technology is moving fast. Manufacturers need to be aware of how this virtual technology will affect their very physical business. If applied correctly, virtual reality has the potential to save money, increase efficiency, and drive revenue growth. And in the end, isn’t that what all industries, whether physical or virtual, are about?
Matthias McCoy-Thompson is the COO and co-founder of AgoraVR where they build 3D communication tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to interact and share information in virtual reality. He also organizes the DC Virtual Reality Meetup Group, the leading virtual reality organization in Washington, DC.