This is a case study from the team at Mediasquad, their project “Pharmaceutical Line Clearance VR Training” made the shortlist for VR Education and Training at the VR Awards 2018.
How Mediasquad Came to Produce the World’s first Pharmaceutical Line-Clearance VR Training
Most people outside the Pharma sector will not know this, but pharmaceutical companies have to hold mandatory training sessions for their employees on a regular basis – there is no way around them. Since the equipment and machinery used in this industry is highly specialized, production staff have to train and practice on the actual equipment itself. The upshot of this is that every time a member of staff is trained, the equipment or machines in question need to be stopped and the entire drug production on that line comes to a standstill. Add in the hours that go into meticulously cleaning the machines and rooms before production can resume, and these training sessions are costly in far more than just time, effort and staff resources.
That is why back in October of 2016, VR/AR studio Mediasquad and their partners at VR training startup Innerspace were approached by André Karrer, the Head of Training Austria for Sandoz/Novartis. André’s vision for a VR-based training was clear: He needed a tool to reduce equipment and production downtimes by moving regular trainings into the virtual world.
From Gamification to High-end Graphics
Why was Mediasquad the ideal company to make this happen? The answer is simple. We already knew how to combine the worlds of game development and app development with the needs of industrial clients. That is because for more than 10 years we have based our business on two pillars: producing high-end 3D graphics and animations and working on real-time game and app projects.
We knew that when it came to interaction design, gamification and high-end graphics in a “serious” environment, we could use our know-how from both fields to solve the difficult tasks ahead. Having done a couple of experiments in VR prior to being approached by Sandoz/Novartis, we also knew that any kind of high-end VR training would be a totally different beast than what we had done in the past.
Know What You Need and Want to Do Before you Start Doing It
For Mediasquad, this meant a lot of research up front. We had to start from square one and find out what kinds of training would even be suitable for implementation in virtual reality. For this purpose, our partners at Innerspace came up with a way to identify high-fit, medium-fit and low-fit cases for VR trainings. Using this technique, we found that the process of Line Clearance is actually an optimal fit. To explain, Line Clearance is the process that has to happen when a given production line changes from producing drug A to drug B: the whole line has to be meticulously searched for any kind of debris, which can include anything from a label to a stray bottle or a forgotten clipboard. Our goal was to make this Virtual Reality Line Clearance Training as engaging and as fun as possible.
Key Points for the Success of the Project
Then came the hard part, transferring the real-life training experience into VR. We isolated a couple of key points that we knew we had to nail down in order for this to work: The UX design needed to be clear enough that people ages 18-55 would have no problem understanding it. The visual representation of the production line needed to be as close to the real thing as possible.
The training design needed to be simple and comprehensive. Last but not least, we knew we would have to go out of our way to make sure people wouldn’t suffer motion- or simulator sickness during their training sessions. After defining these key points, Mediasquad and Innerspace started working on various tasks simultaneously: the visuals, the game design, the back-end development and the training design.
Getting People of All Ages on Board with our VR training
So how do you get a 50-year-old non-gamer to move fluently around your virtual world and perform tasks within it? For us, the answer was building a tutorial that did not try to educate, but let people experience the scope of VR hands-on, one step at a time. It took us about 30 iterations of the tutorial until we were satisfied with the way people got acquainted with VR. The most important thing at this stage was to get new people to try each iteration, since we wanted test subjects with no previous experience each time.
So what do you do once you run out of friends and family? Recruit complete strangers. We’re lucky that our office is based on a fairly busy corner with a few other businesses and lots of foot traffic, so we simply approached unsuspecting passersby and asked them if they wanted to try out VR. It worked surprisingly well.
Overall, we watched more than 1,000 people go through the tutorial (both before and after it was released). The takeaway is that there seem to be two thresholds that define how fluently a user moves and interacts in VR. The first threshold is crossed when users start moving around the VR space without fear and the second when they start interacting with stuff fluently. In our training, it typically takes between 15 and 25 seconds until the first threshold is passed and then about 90 to 120 seconds until users are over the second threshold. Once users pass the second threshold, you can see that VR itself is no longer a barrier for them.
Creating a 1:1 Replica of the Production Line
The production line that we had to recreate digitally was about 26 meters long, 13 meters wide, extended across three rooms and was filled with different machines of various complexities. Our virtual version needed to be as realistic as possible in order create the illusion for the trainees that they are standing in front of their real workplace.
Turns out there were no CAD plans for the machines available. We briefly thought about doing a 3D scan of the whole environment but had to scrap that idea because most of the surfaces were made of glass and could not be penetrated by a laser. Even if we removed the glass panels, the interior still could not be scanned in a suitable way. Instead we decided to recreate the models manually, based on more than 32 GB of reference photos that we took.
When we started modelling, we knew that we had to create highly detailed models in order for the training to work. At the same time, there were basically no best-practice guidelines available regarding things like the optimal poly count for a VR scenario of this kind. Mediasquad’s past experience in producing content for real-time apps helped, but still there was no way around building a new production pipeline in which to create our 3D models in Maya and build a system that would let us easily swap similar geometry with higher-poly or lower-poly versions of it.
Then there was a lot of performance testing involved. At the end, we knew that in our case, one NVIDIA Gforce 1080ti would suffice to render 5 million polies complete with nice PBR materials, one realtime directional light and about 26 baked area lights at constant 90fps. Now we also know that in VR it greatly pays off to use high-quality anti-aliasing in order to reduce flickering and that downsampling further significantly enhances the graphics quality of your 3D scene. Just make sure that your FPS don’t suffer!
Training in VR: Adding Value that Real Life Training Cannot Offer
For the design of the training process, we decided to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. Each training session spawns a random number of leftover items hidden in the equipment that the trainee needs to find. Like in reality, nobody knows where those items are hidden, so employees need to search the production line for them area-by-area. In order to get from one area to the next, we first implemented classic free teleportation (valve-style) as the means of moving around.
It turned out that 9 out of 10 people who were new to virtual reality had a super-hard time with this kind of locomotion: They would either getting stuck near walls, would wind up in the middle of machines or were just not able to teleport where they wanted to go. Only after we set up fixed teleport points in our scene, with each point roughly covering the area that needs to be searched (about 4 x 4 meters each), did we have our big breakthrough. Suddenly, those who were new to VR had no problem navigating around. In order to not clutter the scene with teleport points, we decided that only the nearest one would be generally visible and the others would only become visible once the trainee steps this marked spot in the VR scene.
Once a trainee thinks that they have found all the hidden items, they can push a button in VR (and yes, it is big and red just like in all the game shows, cartoons and Cold War-era movies). If they really have found all the items, their training session ends. If they have missed any, we decided to add an extra layer of information, now all the remaining items that the trainee missed turn red and start to blink. There is even a third escalation that adds floating arrows that point towards missed objects.
It turns out that these hints – which are unique to the VR version of Line-Clearance Training – are a major help for people new to Line Clearance.
Trainee Feedback was Invaluable
After the training went live, we watched many trainees go through the VR training. One interesting effect was that people who already trained or worked on the real production line immediately know their way around the VR production line. They knew exactly where to look for leftover items and nearly all of those people had no problem finishing their training without missing even one item on their first try. This showed us that the learnings from past trainings seem to be transferable from the real and the virtual world, and probably vice versa.
Another highlight for us was a situation where we found out that a 55-year-old woman who doesn’t like or play computer games and doesn’t even own a smartphone told her friends at a private BBQ about her positive experience with “a totally new kind of training”. After enthusing about her training, she told them: “Today, I have seen the future.” We know this because one of our friends happened to be present at this party and standing next to the group at the time.
For other developers who are looking to produce VR training experiences, one crucial bit of advice, it may sound counterintuitive, but be aware that VR can get too realistic. We had two occasions where people were so immersed and evidently felt so comfortable in our virtual production line that they tried to lean on a table or grab a chair (which, unfortunately, weren’t really there) and nearly fell over. We therefore advise that in training environments where people move around untethered, there should always be a person close to the VR trainee who can spot if someone is getting dizzy or might trip.
The whole production of the VR Line-Clearance Training lasted from November 2016 to June 2017. In total, 12 people (artists, coders, training professionals) from Mediasquad and Innerspace worked on it (three of them full time).