woman with VR headset (TierneyMJ/Shutterstock.com)

How agencies tap VR/AR for knowledge transfer

At first glance, the office looked like any other: a small desk, some bookshelves, flat-screen monitors mounted on the walls and boxes, papers and folders lying about. Then Trey Reyher, lead producer of Digital Reality at Deloitte, plopped an HTC Vive headset on me.

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Suddenly, I was in a courtyard looking at apples and tools on a table. I practiced using joysticks to grab and throw the items before choosing from five virtual reality test scenarios. First was a biomedical lab -- complete with beakers, petri dishes and a syringe -- that lets testers create various concoctions in the safety of the virtual world. Next, I worked on the flow of industrial gas through a truck to an external tank, following step-by-step instructions that, translated into the real world, would prevent me from creating a massive disaster. The presentation was so realistic that as I moved around the truck, I could see pipes freeze over and even look inside the pipes to see which direction the gas was moving -- a benefit not available in reality.

Government entities such as the Defense Department, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and federal health agencies are using VR for knowledge transfer and operations optimization. Deloitte's staff interviews government employees readying for retirement to capture as much of their experiential knowledge as possible. It then builds scenarios and vets them with the interviewees using the headset, Reyher said.

“We’re able to transfer that knowledge from a retiring workforce to a newer workforce using modern technology that a younger audience is probably a little bit more invested in, a little more interested in,” he said.

We also walked through an augmented reality scenario. The difference between the two is that in VR, the user is fully immersed and not seeing the outside world, whereas AR provides real-world context with a digital overlay, or a digital twin.

Using an iPad paired to a compressor physically in the room, I was able to learn about the device by clicking on components and reading text in a pop-up box. Then I fixed a pretend overheating problem following the steps on the screen but touching the actual compressor.

“I think a big part of all of this is multiplying the efficiency of training and performance process on the job,” Reyher said. “This type of thing allows the learner to experience it much faster, come to terms and understand the machine much quicker.”

Very much an emerging technology, VR and AR come with challenges to agencies interested in taking advantage of their benefits. “Having an infrastructure that supports this type of modern development is obviously key -- having the right workforce, having the right types of opportunities and requirements identified,” Reyher said. Another challenge is cultural: An organization needs to be ready for this.

Although most interest comes from the federal level, state and local organizations also are paying attention. For instance, a type of AR called model or image-target tracking can turn a 2D image of local roads into a 3D one, including arrows indicating traffic flow that change as users make adjustments, such as introducing road closures because of traffic accidents, major events or construction. City officials could also use a headset to see under city streets, finding water, sewer and power lines to identify potential risks before digging up asphalt.

In its “Government Tech Trends 2019: Beyond the digital frontier” report, released Feb. 26, Deloitte puts macro technologies, including digital reality, at the top the trends list. That’s because digital reality combined with cloud, analytics, blockchain, core modernization, cyber and cognitive technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence  “can compound the effect of purposeful, transformational change,” according to the report.

Other trends it cites include organizations fueled by serverless computing, intelligent interfaces and DevSecOps.

As for the future of VR, Reyher and the Digital Reality team are working on human interaction training -- learning how to conduct interviews with persons of interest in the law enforcement arena, for example.

“Something that we’re starting to explore is 360 video simulation, so you can do interview training or walking through human resources [processes] -- any type of human-to-human interaction. You can put somebody in a full immersive experience and let them talk through scenarios,” he said. “When you’re putting yourself into the shoes virtually of a person or of an agent, we find that you’re able to build empathy, you’re able to build a much better rapport and remembrance of those types of experiences.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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