Virtual reality not just for gamers anymore


Editor’s note: This story pairs with a main story headlined Virtual reality as entertainment: how fast will it catch on?

Virtual reality has long been associated with gaming and entertainment, but the technology is expanding into other industries. Aerospace company Lockheed Martin recently awarded a grant to BYU’s mechanical engineering department to further research using virtual reality for engineer training.

Jeffery Smith, BYU engineering student, demonstrates the virtual reality work he has been doing with Lockheed Martin. (Morgan Allred)

BYU student Jeffery Smith, who interned at Lockheed Martin last year, helped bring this coalition together and is excited about the project’s potential.

The program allows students to build, install or repair items an engineer would, but within a virtual world. The virtual realm allows trainees to fast-forward, pause or rewind the three-dimensional instruction. It also allows students to put themselves in the shoes of the teacher, explaining the process and seeing exactly what they do.

“Everything is trying to get away from written, video and even live instructions,” Smith said. “In virtual reality, you can scale a model really big or you can scale it really small and you can’t do that in a physical world. You can only do that in this virtual environment.”

BYU mechanical engineering professor John Salmon is also involved in the project and hopeful for the future.

“We absolutely want to make a difference in the world. It’s good that we’re playing around and we’re discovering things,” Salmon said. “The goal is to transfer this technology to industry so that they can actually use it on a daily basis.”

Ian Freeman is currently working on his master’s thesis in engineering . He is also working on integrating virtual reality into the training modules. Freeman is designing a virtual reality program that integrates computer-aided design, which engineers commonly use with virtual reality. He said putting on the headset can “make you feel like Iron Man.”

From left: Students Ian Freeman and Jeffery Smith are working on integrating virtual reality into training for engineers. (Morgan Allred)

Freeman said engineering revolves around 3-D data.

“Everything that we interact with in the world is three-dimensional and we have all of these 3-D models, but we’re forced to interact with them on a screen that is two-dimensional,” Freeman said. “Virtual reality is the perfect opportunity for us to interact with our 3-D data in 3-D.”

Similar training applications with virtual reality are now in place for surgeons, FBI agents and police forces. Virtual reality is opening worlds and possibilities for training that weren’t an option before.

“The main difference with all of this hype is that it’s only been in the past year where now any company could purchase this hardware,” Smith said. “Before it’s only been automotive industries or companies like Lockheed Martin who have been able to afford these huge million dollar systems to do all of this. But now, it’s way better and way cheaper.”

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