The trainee is perched on the nacelle of a windmill in the white desert of Kutch. The nacelle is a small 3x2m compartment behind the hub of the large blades turning in the wind. It’s cramped space housing the electricity generator, gearbox and other equipment.

The trainee peers nervously down the open hatch through which he climbed. The hatch stays open as cables from the windmill blades have to hang down the tower; otherwise the rotating blades would jam. It’s a sheer drop of over 100m.

The trainee takes off a headset, relieved to have done that session in virtual reality (VR) instead of atop the real windmill.

Apart from the hazards to life from a fall or a fire in the nacelle, windmills are mostly in remote areas without easy access. That’s why a maker of wind turbines, like Siemens Gamesa, prefers to use virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) for its training.

On-site training is limited to occasional visits with maintenance or repair crews. Earlier, the trainees had to rely on lectures and presentations. But now VR brings them closer to the real experience.

“Trainees with VR headsets have dashboards with which they can simulate different situations, including an arc flash accident in the nacelle. They can also wear haptic gloves and be fitted with other neurosensors to get a feel of the environment and react the right way," says Srivatsan Jayashankar, co-founder and CEO of Chennai-based startup XR Labs, which provided the VR training solution to Siemens Gamesa. “It’s gamified in a way that trainees can fail and learn, just like you would in a PlayStation VR game."

Behind the scenes

Consumer VR is yet to live up to the great expectations after Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, although last month’s launch of the new Oculus Quest headset could move the needle on that faster. Enterprise VR, on the other hand, has been making strides quietly, away from the limelight, as it finds real uses.

Global expenditure on AR/VR-assisted training and industrial maintenance will reach $12.8 billion in 2023, which compares well with the $20.8 billion expected to be spent on VR/AR games and films that year, according to IDC. Just as astronauts train for a walk on the moon in simulators, a wide range of professionals and technicians, from surgeons to shop floor assemblers, are donning headsets to hone their skills.

One of XR Labs’ major clients, for example, is Hyundai Motors. The South Korean automotive manufacturer is using VR to train workers in specific jobs like brake assembly and engine testing. “We broke down the entire SOP (standard operating procedure) and mapped the process flow into VR," says Jayashankar.

Apart from enhancing the training and reducing its time and cost, VR throws up new possibilities because it’s much easier to try out different designs or methods digitally in the virtual world. For example, one can find how assembling something can be better ergonomically.

If holding a screwdriver in a particular direction causes the hand to start hurting, the layout of the assembly workstation can be changed to be more productive.

Retail showcasing

Another area where VR adoption is growing fast is retail showcasing. When furniture giant Ikea wanted to test the Middle East market, XR Labs helped set up pop-up stores with VR. People could go there, put on headsets and try out various selections of furniture in different layouts and spaces.

This proved a hit in Dubai, says Jayashankar. Apart from the wow factor which drew consumers, it saved Ikea the cost of transporting large inventories for full-fledged showrooms. Ikea even won an award for it from AIXR (Academy of International Extended Reality) for creative use of VR in marketing. Ikea has also developed an iOS app called Ikea Place for iPhone users in more developed markets like the US to virtually place furniture in their homes to see how it looks.

The Chennai startup, founded in 2015 by “a bunch of mechanical engineers who wanted to apply VR," as Jayashankar puts it, has taken up 70 projects related to training and marketing in five countries so far.

Locally, it has introduced VR training for emergency response in the event of a crash at Chennai airport. Rescue personnel practise how they would approach the crash, see which direction the wind blows a fire, and deal with whatever’s required.

Apart from simulating such an environment, VR also gives a person psychological and muscle training. An old army trick for training boxers, for instance, is to touch the ground with your index finger, run 20 times around it, then get up and throw punches. That puts the boxer in a similar giddy state he might find himself in the ring after taking some hard punches. VR can similarly train a fire-fighter or maintenance worker to gain muscle memory for an instinctive reaction in a confused state during an emergency or accident.

Interacting with real world

While XR Labs has been providing customized VR solutions and services to clients, it has visions of becoming a VR/AR software product company. Its first product is XR Assist which uses AR. Unlike VR which immerses a person in a virtual world, AR interacts with the real world on which digital notes and images can be overlaid.

XR Assist is a platform that will allow annotations to appear on machines seen through AR glasses, just as one would see Pokemon characters through an AR-enabled smartphone camera or AR glasses. This can be used in various ways, such as pulling instructions from a stored manual and overlaying them on specific parts of a machine to make it easier for a worker to follow the steps. An expert in a different location can also guide on-site workers with such annotations. Users can draw on real world objects in a shared video for collaboration.

The services business has kept the bootstrapped startup going without having to resort to funding so far. This has also been paying for the parallel line of developing products. “We didn’t want to dive straight into products," says Jayashankar. “We wanted to first understand the business requirements and technology in training and marketing."

When the time is right, funding will be raised to scale up the sales of XR Assist. It will face stiff competition in the global market. Boston-headquartered PTC, a leading player in IoT (Internet of Things), which acquired Qualcomm’s AR subsidiary Vuforia, entered the training space with PTC Vuforia this year.

But it’s an emerging market with scope for nimble startups like XR Labs and Hyderabad-based Imaginate, which is also deploying AR/VR in training and collaboration, to adapt to a variety of environments and requirements.

Sumit Chakraberty is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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