What it’s really like to use VR – BIM+ tries it out

Stephen Cousins finds his head for heights as he tries out a virtual reality training system developed by Skanska.

I’m on site at a major multi-use development in Knightsbridge, central London, to test out a new VR system developed by Skanska to teach operatives the risks of falling from height and the dangers of untidy workspaces. 

I’ve been told the realistic graphics and sound will make the experience super-immersive, and this fact is confirmed when I walk into the staff canteen, where the equipment is set up, and see a worker in VR goggles glancing around gingerly pleading: “No, please, help, no!”

Behind him on a large screen is live video of what he is seeing – a vertigo-inducing 3D view of a city seen from the top of a high rise scaffold with no edge protection. Now I’m worried, “surely, it can’t feel that real?” I think.

Skanksa has invested more than £40,000 in the technology, developed in collaboration with South Africa-based company Jincom, to enable staff and the supply chain to experience an emotional response to dangers in a safe environment.

Another objective is to overcome the language barriers associated with teaching site operatives with a limited understanding of English, explains Darran Sly, head of health, safety and wellbeing, who is taking the system on a roadshow of all Skanska’s projects: “Jimcom already produces all our pictorial standards for non-English speakers, turning words into pictures to make messages more easily understood, and we see VR as a the next evolution of that.”

The experience lasts around 10 minutes and covers two scenarios. The first takes viewers up in a lift to the top of a scaffold to experience hazards such as loose edge protection and missing barriers.

In the second scenario, viewers are issued with a permit to work and collect and must inspect a harness and pick up a lanyard for tools. They must then navigate through a poorly set-up site with various types of hazard to spot and avoid or make safe, such as a trailing cable, a tool that needs a lanyard attached and planks of wood that need stacking.

My moment of truth arrives and I don the HTC Vive headset (plugged into a high end gaming laptop) slightly concerned about the large gathering of workers who have assembled to watch me as they eat lunch.

VR could soon become part of Skansk’s formal induction process

I pick up the left and right hand controllers, used to navigate and interact with objects in the environment. Most actions are performed with the right hand, such as pointing and clicking on yellow circles to navigate around the space and select potentially hazardous objects. A pair of earphones delivers realistic stereo sounds that match with the 3D.

It’s fun to swing my head around and examine the world which looks very vivid and lifelike, with realistic light, textures and shadows. I get in the lift and, as it rises to the top of the building, I have the uncanny physical sensation of my legs turning to jelly due to vertigo. Slightly unnerved, I edge along the top of the scaffold, when suddenly a plastic screen swings out in the wind and I instinctively hold up my hands to protect my face.

Further along, to the right above my head, a tag line for a harness hangs down outside the scaffold edge barrier, I reach for it and suddenly fall from the scaffold and plummet to the ground. The sensation is overwhelming, the moment before I “hit” the pavement, and become a virtual corpse, I go into a crouch reflexively as if bracing for impact. I hear laughter in the canteen, knowing it’s now too late now to avoid embarrassment.

The second scenario is a much calmer affair and in no time at all I’m happily moving around one of the floorplates in the high rise, zapping hazards and flicking on spotlights to improve visibility.

The difficulty threshold is relatively low and it is easy to spot hazards because they are clearly highlighted with a yellow circle. However, Sly says he plans to make the experience more subtle and challenging in future: “In the system’s next incarnation it will be improved to make it more difficult and closer to reality. Rather than go through each hazard one by one in a sequence, we might have three or four hazards scattered around an area to spot and put right.”

Back on digital terra firma, I remove the VR goggles and readjust to reality. My experience may have been vivid but I learn that others have had even more extreme reactions. “One of our senior project managers refused to grab the tag line at the top of the scaffold, saying, ‘No, get me out of this, I’m not doing this, I know I’m safe but I’m petrified of heights.”

However, the experience is not designed to be upsetting and I am told that users soon become accustomed to the simulation.

But what about learning? Is VR a mere distraction or does it actually help drive safety messages home? I accost another Skanska worker at the end of his session to find out. “It was good, something new that I’ve never done before. At first it was a little bit scary, but after a while I got used to it,” he says. “It’s better than reading about hazards because you can you see with your own eyes what could happen and how dangerous it is, which helps you to understand.”

The VR system took around four months to build and Skanska owns the software so, for a relatively small investment of £3,500 in hardware, any project can implement it in future.

According to Sly, VR could soon become part of the contractor’s formal induction process and tie in with existing health and safety standards. “We already assess trade contractors’ capability in a formal interview, but it may be possible to build the technology into that in future,” he says.

In addition, it could be adapted to include health-related risks, such as a worker using a grinder without a mask, or other quality assurance and quality control processes such as snagging, or benchmarking. “The possibilities are almost endless,” he concludes.

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