Virtual training for real situations

Innovative technology helps save lives

Virtual reality (VR) is being used across many industries to improve business and enhance workplace safety. The industries include aerospace, advertising, automotive, construction, energy, defence, medical, mining and tourism. Increasingly, emergency services are using VR programmes to improve the disaster response and recovery performance of staff.

Training for terrorist attack
VR training for a biological agent attack (Photo: Randy Montoya)

The tech behind VR

Behind the VR scenes, software drives components such as displays, sensors, images, maps and tracking technology, which link to the hardware (headsets or helmets). A number of IEC technical committees (TCs) and their subcommittees (SCs) produce International Standards and have testing systems which help ensure the reliability, safety, efficiency, interoperability and quality of the components within this technology.

ISO/IEC JTC 1, the Joint Technical Committee of IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), covers standardization for information technology. ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 24 works on interfaces for information technology-based applications relating to computer graphics and virtual reality, image processing, environmental data representation, support for mixed and augmented reality, and interaction with, and visual presentation of, information.

Sensors and microelectromechanical systems are vital to VR technology. The work of IEC TC 47 and IEC SC 47F ensure they work reliably and efficiently. IEC TC 100 produces Standards which contribute to the quality and performance of audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment and their interoperability with other systems and equipment.

Living a disaster before it really happens

When disaster strikes, whether in the form of an earthquake or a production plant going up in flames, the actions and decisions of first responders can affect directly the number of lives saved. But how well can anyone prepare for a situation without actually experiencing it?

The answer is quite well, thanks to state-of-the-art VR training programmes, which immerse users into a seemingly real disaster scenario. Background noise, visual and auditory cues create unique settings and incidents which require users to respond to the specific situation. This hands-on approach is far more effective than learning check lists for a number of possible disasters.

Practice makes perfect

Skills and knowledge are not the only things required when it comes to responding to disasters. How you feel at that moment could affect your decision-making process. The more familiar you are with a scenario, the more likely it is that you will be able to perform effectively. VR programmes could replace real-life drills. Some are like games, allowing people to use them multiple times until they feel confident about responding to each situation.

Benefits of hands-on training

There are many advantages to using VR training:

  • Safe – trainees can practise real-life skills in a safe environment
  • Efficient – individuals and large groups can train alone or together
  • Comprehensive – predesigned modules cover all types of situations
  • Cost effective – VR training doesn’t require special environments to be built or people to be transported, can be used multiple times and may be offered for free to emergency services
  • Tailored – response agencies will be able to tailor open source platforms to suit their requirements, infrastructure and available resources
  • Scalable – agencies can train alone or together for a coordinated response with other emergency services

Containing disease outbreaks

Between 2013 and 2016, several West African countries experienced the most widespread outbreak of Ebola virus to date. The Integrated Management of Adolescent and Adult Illness (IMAI) Alliance, a charity working with the World Health Organization decided to use VR to update its training. The Ebola Training Project VR medical training simulation is a serious game based on a 3D model of the space and structures of an actual Ebola hospital. With the addition of sound effects and unique aspects of the working environment, users have the impression they are in a treatment unit in the field. They experience giving medical care to patients through fogged over glasses – one of the real life effects of sweating in required full-body protective clothing. Trainees also wear this clothing to get a better understanding of the limitations on movement it provides.

Putting out fires

In recent years, fire protection and fire safety engineering have drastically reduced the number of fire-related injuries and fatalities. This means that fire officers have less operational and hands-on experience. In many countries, fire, rescue and emergency services have been using VR training programmes, which factor in the many and changing variables of real disaster situations.

Making light of heavy lifting

The exoskeleton, or mechanical outfit, is a wearable mobile machine that is powered by a system of electric motors, pneumatics, levers, hydraulics, batteries or a number of technologies that allow limb movement with greater strength and endurance.

Though mainly tested in military and medical rehabilitation contexts, this technology is starting to be used by delivery services, which often require heavy items to be lifted and moved.

Exoskeleton wearers work faster, achieve more thanks to their increased strength, and are themselves protected from injuries that might otherwise occur when lifting heavy weights.

A report published by Grand View Research says that the exoskeleton market is expected to reach USD 3,3 billion by 2025. This growth comes partly due to increased funding and broadened use, which could include public works, construction, agriculture, and forestry.

Improving first responder performance and safety

Nature can leave a path of destruction in the wake of floods, hurricanes and landslides. Equally, man-made disasters, such as explosions or the collapse of substandard buildings, require the removal of tangled, heavy rubble in order to reach survivors or recover the deceased. 

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which led to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, a Japanese R&D company for medical, rehabilitation and disaster rescue support has developed a hybrid assistive limb (HAL) for disaster recovery, an exoskeleton suit designed to aid users working under harsh conditions.

In addition to significantly enhancing the wearer’s strength, this particular model claims to reduce radiation exposure by 50%, and includes a cooling system to prevent heatstroke. Equipped with sensors, it monitors heart rates and vital signs in real-time, while most of the suit’s weight is carried by the skeleton’s mechanical legs.

Exoskeletons use onboard, real-time computer systems to enhance user safety by detecting unsafe motions which could harm users if limb movement were not limited.

IEC standardization work also contributes to the safety and reliability of a number of exoskeleton components. It includes IEC TC 2 for rotating machinery, IEC TC 21 for batteries and IEC TC 91 for electronics assembly technology.