Mixed Reality Air Refueling Training – Part 3

A week before we were to ship the simulator, we were saved by 2 Air Force pilots/instructors. They came to tune the many software parameters that controlled the simulator’s behavior and to stress test the sim. The hard stress testing they supplied provided our most challenging problems to date. The electromagnetic actuators, specifically the one that controlled roll, was overheating. Overheating to the point of crashing the software. The team came together quickly and designed a cooling system that was effective in resolving the heat issues. We would have liked another month for testing, but it was time to ship the simulator to the Cyber Innovation Center (CIC) in Bossier City, LA just outside of Barksdale AFB.

Flyoff week! The simulator was shipped in 2 custom-made containers and arrived a few days before setup. We reassembled, tested, and tuned the simulator on Monday and Tuesday in preparation for the actual event on Wednesday and Thursday. The event was extremely well planned. There would be 24 pilots in groups of 2 coming to test each simulator over the 2 days. One would fly the simulator and the other would serve as instructor/observer. The entire project was supervised by former B-52 pilot instructors who were serving in the reserves. They helped write the testing rubric that the test pilots would grade our simulator. In addition to the pilots, we had Air Force Distinguished Visitors (Generals and Colonels), members of different bases, contracting officials, the Chief Scientist from the Air Force Global Strike Command, and members of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Everything went exceptionally well. The pilots had been reluctant to take time out of their busy schedules but after flying the simulator were very excited about where this new mixed reality technology could help them. They absolutely saw the benefit of practicing on the ground instead of taking up the 60-year-old planes. The simulator performed wonderfully. It was incredibly rewarding to have designed and built a simulator that could help our airmen train in a no-risk environment that could save money and wear and tear on the amazing B-52. Thank you to all the Air Force personnel that help design and manage this challenge and the team at the CIC that ran it. A big win for everyone.


Mixed Reality Air Refueling Training – Part 2

With changing requirements in the SOW and final negotiations, it took until December to sign the contract. Once signed we began ordering our components and laying out our plan. Immediately our first of many challenges came up. We needed to rescan the interior of the B-52. Originally designed with a 6-month duration it became an 8-month project. Since the specially ordered B-52 yoke, throttle quadrant, and the seat wouldn’t be available until late spring, we focused on refining the Varjo mixed reality experience.

In MR the user can see real objects, such as their hands or the yoke and throttle, in a virtual space on a moving platform as they focus on flying to the tanker and boom. There are many keys to accomplish that goal including the screen material, lighting, and tracking the user’s head in space. Perfecting these features on a moving simulation platform was challenging, but the team did the work. In June the parts began to appear. We needed to integrate 6 different components – motion platform, electromagnetic actuators, pilots’ seat, motors, Ultraleap tracking sensors, HTC Base Stations, and the Varjo XR-3 headset – into the simulation software. Plus, the engineering required to combine mechanical components from the different vendors was all new.

The final Flyoff was scheduled for the 2nd week of August. By early July we had most of the parts. In addition to the components received from Bugeye Technologies, we designed and sourced the construction of our green screen which was mounted on the moving platform. The frame that supported the green screen was designed to include the lighting and the grab bar to get into the simulator. The almost-finished simulator was finally ready for testing. The problem was that we weren’t pilots, certainly not B-52 pilots, and whatever testing we could do would not be able to replicate their skills.

more to come….


Mixed Reality Air Refueling Training (i.e. We build a B-52 simulator!)

As we wrapped up our effort to move forward in the Aircraft Maintenance Operations Challenge last year, we geared up for our next Challenge; Mixed Reality Air Refueling Training. This one was all about building a B-52 simulator to help train pilots in the tricky Air-to-Air Refueling maneuver. Once again, we assembled a team of other small businesses and suppliers to support our submission which we submitted in April 2021.

The initial problem statement was developed by Strikewerx, the innovation arm of the Air Force Global Strike Command based at Barksdale AFB. Significantly more complex than any other Challenge, this one included flight simulation software, flight physics, an AI instructor, an LMS, a mixed reality high fidelity headset, and a full motion simulator. In addition to that, we added in electromagnetic control loaded actuators and a green screen to enhance the pilots’ views of their hands in a virtual space. 105 companies submitted solutions and we made the initial downselect to 25 companies, and the last downselect to the final 5. During the downselects the requirements were edited to a final configuration consisting of a hardware simulator, integration of all of the sim mechanical components and the Varjo XR-3 head mounted display (HMD).

Finally, right before the Labor Day weekend, I was asked to call into Strikewerx at which point I was told that we were one of 2 (!!) companies to compete in the simulator challenge.

more to come……


Catching up!

It’s been quite a sprint for us since early last year. At that point, we started to pay attention to the US Air Force ‘Challenges’. Different from the AFWERX SBIR/STTR solicitations that my company had been successfully pursuing, the Challenges, essentially crowdsourced solutions, were advantageous to how we wanted to move the business forward. The Challenges consist of the release of a Problem Statement (what problem the USAF wants to solve), Initial Submissions (your initial proposal), Downselects (reduction of the number of companies that continue in the process), Video Pitch (as you would do in front of pitch competition judges), potential additional downselects (further reducing the field), Selection to submit an SOW or Statement of Work (what you plan on building and what it will cost), Final Selection, an lastly, Contracting. Amazingly enough from the beginning to end, that process is completed in approximately 6 – 8 months.

Our approach to the Challenges is to augment our skillset with additional partner teams. The Air Force actively supports teaming and usually has sessions where companies can add expertise as the Challenges move forward. We did this for the first Challenge we took on last year to Improve Airfield Operations which began in May of 2021. The Challenge has 3 subsets and we went after the Aircraft Maintenance Operations topic. Our concept was good enough to make the first Downselect but we didn’t make the next cut and were out of the competition.


Our R&D work for the US Air Force

For the last 2 ½ years we have been building immersive technologies (augmented, mixed, and virtual reality) Research and Development projects for the Department of Defense (DoD). Our initial effort was a Proof of Concept project for the Navy with their NAVSEA group in Philadelphia. That project and the ensuing presentation of it at the 2019 Augmented World Expo conference ultimately led us to work with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

We are extremely proud of the opportunity that we have of working with the Air Force and the AFWERX program. Between the Air Force personnel, the program itself, and the other small businesses in our cohorts – It’s been an incredible and rewarding experience.

The Air Force created the AFWERX program in 2017 with the goal of fostering a culture of innovation within the service. In many ways, the program merges startup culture into the process of adding technological innovation rapidly into the Air Force to solve problems, advance the latest technologies, and increase the base of small contractors that support the service. The brilliant approach combines the existing US government Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs with the needs of the Air Force to make many small bets on new solutions, which lead to larger bets on innovations. Over our time in the program, we’ve won 3 Phase I contracts and been selected to move to Phase II for 2 of them. Phase I contract is all about finding a customer for your tech, Phase II is where you build a prototype of your solution to gauge its viability.

The AFWERX program is unique in the world of government contracting. It has disrupted the traditional models of DoD contracting. I first learned about it from the CTO of Keesler Air Force Base. He introduced himself after I spoke at the ’19 AWE and was instrumental in getting us started in the program.

We have been able to attend numerous meetings, conferences, Challenges, and other events. While most of them have been virtual, we have had time to work closely with both enlisted and civilian Air Force members. Everyone has been dedicated to helping the warfighter in any way possible. In our active Phase II contract with the 338 Training Squad at Keesler, we work closely with the lead civilian instructor and our TPOC (Technical Point of Contact) on our project. Another benefit of the AFWERX program for our ‘customer’ is that the AFWERX program has removed the burdens of contract administration and management from the hands of the customer. They have been excellent partners in helping us build Network Training Next, a virtual reality tool to help data center technicians learn how to perform discovery on an air force base’s network.

Lastly, the AFWERX program has been brilliant in fostering a congenial supportive environment amongst the small businesses that have become part of the program. They built a social platform specifically for the companies to learn about each other, solve problems, and communally answer questions.

We can’t speak highly enough of the benefits that programs like AFWERX bring to small businesses, members of the Air Force, and all of us as citizens and taxpayers.


Oculus Quest and Facebook’s ridiculous decision

Oculus Quest and Facebook’s ridiculous decision.

Over the last 2 years we moved our development work and VR hardware choice to the Oculus Quest.  As the first untethered headset (not connected to a computer) with a reasonable combination of power, memory, and UX/UI its weaknesses could be overlooked.  Over the last year and a half, the developer community was pleased with Oculus’s regular release of software releases.  The headset was reasonably priced, and the eco-system filled up with new games that sold well.  Consumers bought the headset to the point where stock was an issue at times.  The Quest is a good machine but at its core it’s still a using a chip that was made for cellphones.  The expectation was that the next headset would have the new Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chip which is specifically made for immersive technology.  As we moved through the year everyone was excited about the prospect of the Oculus 2 and in the summer it became apparent that it would be announced at the Facebook Connect in September.  But before that happened, Facebook shot itself in the foot.

Facebook announced in early August that they will require the use of a Facebook account to use the Quest.  This was the first part of their blog on August 18th:

  • Everyone using an Oculus device for the first time will need to log in with a Facebook account.
  • If you’re an existing user and already have an Oculus account, you’ll have the option to log in with Facebook and merge your Oculus and Facebook accounts.
  • If you’re an existing user and choose not to merge your accounts, you can continue using your Oculus account for two years.

After January 1, 2023, we will end support for Oculus accounts. If you choose not to merge your accounts at that time, you can continue using your device, but full functionality will require a Facebook account.

From parents to developers to current owners of the Quest the reaction was the same. NO.

When it comes to hardware choices every presentation and proposal for new projects now includes the statement that we will employ Oculus Quests, or similar untethered equipment.

While the opportunity to bypass the FB sign-on with an Oculus Business account may still exist, we are still going to try stay away from this unnecessary level of complication placed upon users and developers alike.  Next moth we’ll see the release of the HP Reverb G2.  Interestingly they advertise it as “The no-compromise VR headset”.

We’ll certainly be getting one right away.


Top 10 Reasons to for VR for Training – Part 1

VR Training.
Building the workforce of tomorrow.

Virtual reality is the paradigm-shifting technology that has a significant, measurable impact on how you train, or re-skill, your workforce. The sensory immersion within a VR experience is key to its effectiveness. When things look and sound as if they are real, the brain processes virtual reality as if it were a real experience. Increasing learning receptiveness and retention.

This list could even be longer, but here’s the first half of my top 10 reasons why virtual reality is the tech you need to accelerate your business.

  1. As an HR tool VR can be used for applicant evaluation and new employee onboarding.
    • Evaluation – Let’s say you have an industrial application where an employee needs to differentiate between 2 objects and analyze their condition. In VR you can quickly explain the range of conditions as real objects and then give the application the opportunity to quickly put that information to work by running a number of examples in front of them. The data on how long it took to complete the process and their success rate could be used as part of a larger evaluation process.
    • Onboarding – A week before a new employee starts working you send them a VR headset that includes all of the visual 360 information about their new office, where everything is located, and all safety, health, and security information they need to start. You could also include interviews with their new coworkers and other company information.
  2. VR teach people physically for higher impact and retention.
    • There’s a statement that has been attributed to a number of people that basically says, “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” Which is similar to a chart that I have seen about information retention.
  3. The basic point is that we learn when we actually do it. Virtual reality simulations permit users to do that. We can simulate almost anything correctly repairing a toilet, to assembling a turbine, to maintaining a radar installation.

  4. It simulates real-life situations.
    • If you really want to understand how powerful VR is, take a look at this video of people walking across a perfectly normal piece of wood, in VR. You can swim underwater, climb Everest, or spend time in the International Space Station. You can also learn how to take care of someone who is having a heart attack, fire an employee, or speak in front of a full audience. The ability to be present in a unique, one-of-a-kind situation, where you actually believe you are there in real life, is what makes virtual reality so powerful.
  5. VR Training absolutely improves employee engagement.
    • With a recent project for the Air Force, we face the fact that their current population of students have not been able to easily connect with the maintenance curriculum as they have grown up in a digital mixed media world. Instructors are trying to teach highly technical and visual subjects in lectures, manuals, and PowerPoints.
    • In a 2018 study from University of Warwick, Learning in virtual reality: Effects on performance, emotion and engagement.“Overall, VR does seem to be a potential alternative to traditional textbook-stylelearning, with similar performance levels and improved mood and engagement.These benefits may have a longer-term impact on learning, such as improvements resulting from the learning experience”. “VR was also found to have a very positive impact on mood, with participants having an overall increase in positive emotions and an overall decrease in negative emotions”.
  6. There’s a much faster time to training competency.
    • If you combine the immersive presence that users feel in virtual reality along with the fact that they can repeat learning a task as many times as the want it’s no surprise that they will learn faster.
    • A recent (6/20) PwC study found that that they “were able to train employees up to four times faster in VR than in the classroom and 1.5 times faster than e-learning.”

Top 10 Reasons to for VR for Training – Part 2

VR Training.
Building the workforce of tomorrow.

Here’s the second half of my Top 10 Reasons why virtual reality is the tech you need to accelerate your business.

  1. VR provides training in a risk-free space.
    There are many kinds of risks that can be avoided by learning and practicing in a dynamic, real-life simulation.   Here’s just a few:

    • How about learning how to use an incredibly expensive piece of equipment that has limited access and is never turned off?  We’ve been working with the Air Force to train maintenance technicians how to maintain the ASR-11 airport radar.  It costs close to $10 million, is never turned off, and has an extremely small maintenance room with the capacity of 2.
    • Physically Dangerous situations. If you had to be trained to maintain a wind turbine, would you want to be at 200’ for your lessons?
    • Emotionally or socially challenging situations.  We refer to them sometimes as soft skills in contrast to the hard skills of learning how to fix a solid piece of equipment.  We are seeing a significant amount of benefit in teaching managers how to work with employees by practicing first in VR.  For anyone who has been anxious about public speaking, imagine how much easier it would be if you had the opportunities to practice in front of a (simulated) live audience?
  2. VR Training experiences are scalable.
    • Once you produce an experience it can go on as many headsets as you want to buy.  That includes being able to be unlimited number of locations.  Since many of the experiences are self-contained in a un-tethered headset (not attached to a computer) we often send a headset to a potential customer for them to see a demo.
  3. Brings instructional consistency to training.
    • Instructor led training is one of the best ways to learn.  But unfortunately, the skill of instructors can vary greatly.  Besides having good teachers and bad teachers, even the best can have bad days.  Virtual reality can essentially digitize a student’s instructor, providing scalable, consistent, and uniform instruction for everyone taking the training and removing one of the variables at the core of the training experience.
  4. Every business wants a great ROI.
    • ROI can be measured in a number of ways so let’s look at a few of them.
      1. Saving time, or, reduced time to competency – Boeing helped its wire harness workers decrease the assembly time by 25 percent
      2. Headsets can be shipped anywhere – no travel expense or time away to attend training or for an instructor to visit your location.
      3. scalable – can amortize the expenses over more people
  5. VR Delivers unique, actionable data and insights.
    • Every action the user takes within a virtual reality experience can be recorded.  How long it takes to accomplish an item on a checklist, what they focus on, how may attempts to complete a task, whether they follow instructions, and how well they retain the information they have been taught.  Imagine the insights gained from a training program and your workforce if you remove the variables in the training process and have complete transparency about employees’ efforts.
      Get in touch and let’s talk about how we can help your business achieve its training goals.