Up until recently, virtual reality (VR) has widely been viewed as more of a consumer gimmick than a functional industrial tool. While much has been predicted about the potential impact of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the industrial space, the reality is that most of the applications that came to the fore in 2017 were related to gaming, virtual tours and the occasional marketing stunt. In 2018 however, we expect this to change, with advancements in processing power and reductions in hardware size making the possibility of more portable, and more cost-effective, applications a growing reality within the electronics and manufacturing space.
Devices such as DAQRI’s smartglasses are already starting to bring overlaid simulations into industrial settings, using AR to guide users safely through complex manufacturing procedures and industrial processes. In addition to AR, VR is also starting to provide some genuine use-cases within the industrial space.
One area where such real-world applications are starting to appear is within datacentres. Last year at Future Facilities, we developed our first VR ‘virtual facility’ – a 3D data centre accessed via the Oculus Rift – as part of our flagship 6SigmaDCX simulation suite.
Taking advantage of improvements in the resolution of VR headsets, the virtual facility will allow data centre managers to explore their simulations, seeing visual representations of temperature and flow throughout individual racks and the data centre as a whole. When looking at cooling performance, site staff could use this system to visualise the airflow around overheating devices, helping to fully understand the thermal environment – before going back to the desktop and making improvements to the model. In the future, we aim to allow a user to make interactive changes whilst still in VR. Such improvements wouldn’t be feasible to test in the real-world without significant costs or risk of downtime.
While there are already desktop-based simulation suites that allow data centre managers to test such changes, the ability to physically interact with the data centre provides an entirely new perspective, helping to identify potential issues and solutions that may not be immediately clear on a screen. With as many as 75% of unexplained issues in data centres being the result of human error, such simulated data centres could also provide a useful training tool for employees. By making changes within the sandbox of a virtual simulation before attempting changes in the physical data centre, VR could significantly reduce the number of human errors.
And it’s not just data centres that are trialling such VR technologies. On a smaller scale – quite literally – Future Facilities is also testing the idea of using VR within the simulation and development of individual electronics components, devices and designs within our market leading 6SigmaET thermal simulation tool.
As with data centre designs, the results of thermal simulations have traditionally been viewed using a desktop or laptop computer. Results typically come in the form of 2D results planes or 3D streamlines. We believe, however, that we could soon see VR used to visualise the flow of air and heat within such designs, by allowing engineers to shrink themselves down and ‘climb inside’ their electronic devices. Such technology may sound like science fiction, but it is already being trialled in 6SigmaET to help engineers immerse themselves in a design and identify any potential thermal complications.
Previously, such technology would have proved impossible, due to the hardware limitations of many virtual reality headsets. In order to be useful simulation results, and other geometry, must be rendered in extremely accurate detail – something that the blockish graphics of older VR headsets simply couldn’t provide. Now however, as VR technology advances, and high-intensity processing hardware grows smaller and more portable, using virtual reality to interact with complex electronics simulations is rapidly becoming a feasible reality.
While there is still a long way to go before these technologies are adopted into the mainstream, such trials are an important stage in considering new and innovative solutions to electronics prototyping and design. The biggest benefit of VR – or AR – is that it offers engineers a completely new perspective, encouraging them to think differently, ask different questions, and ultimately generate different solutions. It also offers a new way to engage with non-technical stakeholders who may have previously been intimidated by trying to interpret results on a screen.