The largest Defence, Simulation and Training conference descended on London (DSEI) and immersive technology specialist, Kevin Williams, took the time to traverse the massive convention space and return with observations on VR and AR impact in this sector.
The reality of VR in commercial training, simulation and education is often overlooked or side-lined. The enterprise or commercial aspect of VR has proven a very lucrative part of the technology’s deployment, with many consumer headset manufacturers pivoting from a consumer-centric focus to broadening their investment to include a commercial business focus.
What has been coined by me as the “Serious VR” landscape, comprising commercial applications using more powerful hardware and a focus on a core deliverable (such as training, marketing, or out-of-home entertainment). While the “Casual VR” scene is focused on consumer requirements and a price-sensitive, home gaming approach.
The best example of Serious VR was amassed in London, with the holding of the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2021, covering all the ExCel exhibition centre, and even taking up the riverside births for presentations of the latest Naval craft. The show gathering more than 30,000 attendees from the international military services, and operations that support them.
Along with warfighting, the convention gathers security, medical, training and infrastructure elements, and the show floor proved a valuable litmus of the actual penetration of immersive technology into the aspects of the commercial scene. Previous DSEI attendance has seen a growing interest in VR, but this years’ shows a definite re-evaluation of the hype over the reality of the value of the technology.
The first aspect of VR application on observation can be described as “Direct Training”.
One of the largest military providers, BAE Systems, used DSEI to launch their new SPA-TAC platform, a solution for sophisticated training, and mission rehearsal suite of tools, using virtual reality visualisation. These allow multiple user support and are deployed on the latest high-end VR hardware. On the booth, the company presented both the latest VRgineers XTAL professional headset, with its impressive field-of-view. Alongside the HTC Vive Pro series.
Another developer at the defence event was VRAI – a specialist dedicated to combining VR and Artificial Intelligence (AI) towards providing enterprise and public service organisations remote training. The ability to use the latest VR technology to create a mobile training solution in the field driving many of the applications seen. On their booth the company had a flight training solution, employing the HP Reverb G2 headset. HP is one of those manufacturers that has seen the opportunity in commercial development support. And alongside this, was a Cleanbox Technology headset sanitizing system offering a much-needed hygienic approach to usage in this environment.
Across the way, on the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) stand was a demonstration of high-level immersion for training UK soldiers, employing the latest Varjo VR-3 professional VR headset. DASA is a government fund that invests in exploitable innovation for a safer future. The usage of VR in this application cutting the time for training, and offering better information retention by new recruits, with the control interfaces mapped to offer realistic weapon interaction.
The latest Varjo headset hardware was also seen on many other booths – the platform focused wholly on high-end commercial VR applications, offering an impressive performance beyond consumer headset specifications. The professional headset is deployed in automotive, aeronautical, CAD design and training. This marks a new phase of development in VR deployment, with the commercial sector at such as scale that it can support its own unique hardware development. On the Inzpire booth, the latest Varjo XR-3 was employed promoting its mixed reality capabilities.
The company had on one of their demonstrations a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) training platform, that was incredibly portable and rugged. Powered by two high-end PC’s the user could wear the VR headset and see the actual binoculars and physical controls, as the MR capability dropped the real-world imagery into the virtual environment through sophisticated tracking. This was a compelling demonstration of the versatility that VR training can bring, and the level of immersion was extremely high compared to consumer applications. Also promoting their portability of training simulation, the company showed a helicopter simulator, using both VR (from an HTC Vive Pro) and conventional screen, able to be broken down into a small case.
Simple to install and operate VR training aids were also on display at the Lockheed Martin booth, showcasing their Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) gunnery simulator. Employing in the VR configuration the Varjo headset and offering a means to be deployed anywhere for training units. Previously, this level of training would have depended on crude flatscreen alternatives, or expensive dedicated simulators, unable to be deployed in the field. VR applications beginning to be seen as a strong middle-ground alternative.
On the British Army stand was developers and solution providers QinetiQ – developing realistic training environments for mission rehearsal, and procedures. The company presented their latest environment for infantry training and army warfighting scenarios in urban conditions. Deploying the latest VR hardware with their setup of Varjo headsets. The level of visual realism and performance from their VR setup far surpassing anything comparable on consumer hardware.
The second aspect of VR application seen in this sector can be described as “Promotion and Visualisation”.
While there were seen some Standalone VR headsets, such as HTC Vive Focus, and an Oculus Quest 2 – these applications were more for promotional means, allowing visitors on booths a glimpse at simple information or applications. In previous years VR headsets on booths were ubiquitous, but now the focus was more on the high-end application, steering away from the casual approach.
Visualisation also saw the appearance of augmented reality (AR) on the show floor. To be more accurate the services have been employing AR in its basic form since the 1980s with the use of helmet-mounted optics supporting IR night vision or even heads-up telemetry displays. The latest AR technology has generated a lot of headlines in defence procurement, with Microsoft awarded a $22b deal to supply Hololens headsets in the evaluation of battlefield support for the US Army.
AR was represented at DSEI with the appearance of the Microsoft Hololens 2, being fielded on another part of the British Army booth, and with the developer of the application, Atos. The company is a world leader in digital transformation, providing cloud-based and information handling solutions. Their infrastructure used the Hololens to allow the user to have tactical awareness of the battlefield and deployment of resources, communicating with other users in real-time. Offering a demonstration of the future strategic planning aids that this technology represents.
Overall, the new trends on display at DSEI 2021 were clearly the explosion in investment into Unmanned Vehicles and Autonomous support – ranging from Naval based helicopter drones, and UAVs – with the first appearance of UAV land vehicles for support and casualty retrieval. Great advances in this sector are expected, and the use of augmented displays to track and direct these vehicles is expected to grow.
As mentioned previously, from the great hype and promise, VR has entered a more pragmatic phase in this industry. Its ubiquity replaced at this point, for a focus on more grounded high-end simulation, using the newly available high-end headsets. A new phase of development is about to take place, ejecting Serious VR into the next level of immersion.