As the colorful confetti rained down around me, I put my hands up and wiggled in a small victory dance. No one around me knew why I was celebrating; all they could see was the white Vive Focus headset covering most of my head. But I knew: I had successfully passed through three training tasks at a car plant.
Except I was actually in a warehouse in San Francisco where virtual and augmented reality company HTC Vive had just announced its expanded Vive Focus system for companies to use in fields like health, entertainment, automotive, aerospace, and retail.
For months we’ve been hearing about “production hell” for Tesla as it struggles to make enough electric cars. The idea of applying an interactive digital experience to train workers how to build cars sounds like it could be like a silver bullet for car production.
I was at the Vive VR event to see how it all worked. Also at the VR event was German company Innoactive, which uses the Vive VR tech to build out software to create virtual training worlds. The company hasn’t worked with Tesla (yet), but it teamed up with the Volkswagen Group to set up virtual training sessions for its car manufacturers located around the world. With the Vive Focus system and now its new updates, workers can interact in a virtual car factory and practice and train together.
Innoactive founder and CEO Daniel Seidl set me up for two demos with the headset and 6DoF controllers so I could click and point at various things that only I could see behind the screen. Before my confetti shower, I used my bluish, gloved virtual hands to pick up parts and put them on a shelf. I scanned codes and pushed a car frame together. A friendly robot named Ida explained what I needed to do, and guided me along with reminders about which buttons to push. I earned that celebration.
Seidl’s company is working with Volkswagen to train 10,000 employees across 30 simulations within five Volkswagen brands. He knows the simulated training isn’t the same as the real thing, but it shows the process and factory layout and gets people familiar with what they’ll be doing. As he pointed out, you don’t go in cold.
After having gone through the training, I did have a better sense of what equipment was on the factory floor. During the experience, I could view in up-close detail what each machine did and how it moved and behaved. If I had been paying better attention, I would have learned a lot more about the factory. The risk was low — even if the robotic arm hit me on the head, I wouldn’t need to visit the factory medical clinic. But even if I better understood the job, the virtual experience felt like it was diminishing the importance and skills of the role. This is a real job, not simply moving up a level in a RollerCoaster Tycoon-esque video game.
Innoactive builds the content management system and software that lets customers like Volkswagen run training sessions and workplace simulations. Training costs add up — Statista estimates 93.6 billion was spent in 2017 on in-person training throughout U.S. industries. But Seidl can boast that beginner mistakes in the VR trainings don’t ruin a workflow or destroy expensive inventory — it’s all digital and can be reset at the push of a button. Travel time and costs don’t really exist.
A VR training program isn’t free, however. The Vive Focus is priced at $599 for one standalone headset to be used for commercial purposes only.
Other similar companies Vive highlighted in press materials after the show that use the VR system for business were Raymond Corp for virtual forklift operations, and Airbus, which creates virtual mock-ups and 3D models of aircraft models to speed up inspection processes. Bell Flight developed a virtual model for a helicopter and looked at issues in VR before building out the real craft.
My vote: This isn’t going to solve production hell for car makers. But it was a fun, friendly way to get introduced to the overwhelming task of producing car parts on the assembly line. More confetti showers for everyone.