When virtual reality enthusiasts talk about the technology's ability to put a person in any experience imaginable, they're not wrong. Experiences include just about anything someone could think up, from a music festival, to an alien planet that doesn't exist, to something practical yet maybe unexpected—like the driver's seat of an airplane de-icing rig.
Industrial simulator maker ForgeFX is doing just that. The company has been around for 12 years, and was founded with the idea of using video game technology to develop industrial training simulators.
As virtual reality has matured in the past several years, bypassing many old problems like insufficient computing power, prohibitive costs, and even the sheer weight of the hardware, ForgeFX made a bet that VR would be the next evolution of their simulators, said president and co-founder Greg Meyers.
In the past, they'd used technology like wrap-around screens and motion platforms in their simulators.
"It was doing its best to put you in the environment, but it just always fell short," Meyers said.
So—take that scenario of de-icing the wing of a plane.
The user can sit in a seat with joysticks in each hand. When using the Oculus Rift Developer Kit 2, she can look around herself, and thanks to positional tracking, even lean forward, or to the side, to peer over edge down at the wing.
In the simulation, the weather is nasty, as it would be—gray, snowy, windy. But instead of waiting for those weather circumstances to occur in real life when effort and resources would need to be devoted to actual planes, trainees can conjure a storm and practice the job without delaying anyone's flight, wasting the valuable de-icing fluid, or even just pretending that it's a blustery day when it's really August in Dallas, Texas.
And, it's not just a matter of learning to use controls and building muscle memory, it's a matter of learning spatial awareness, Meyers said. In the de-icing example, the user not only has to de-ice the wing in a certain amount of time, but keep safe on the tarmac while other vehicles—including the plane—are nearby.
"With a traditional 2D screen format, you just can't replicate that experience," he said.
Learning that spatial awareness has real world consequences, said Jeff Walsh is the executive vice president of worldwide sales, service, and marketing for a company called Global Ground Support, which is a manufacturer of products used by the airline industry, airports, and U.S. Military. Their main product is aircraft de-icers. He said if a de-icing rig bumps into the airplane, that airplane isn't going anywhere.
"Hitting a single airplane can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, but additionally, the length of time the aircraft is out of service costs the airline an additional loss of revenue of not being able to use that tool to fly people around," said Walsh.
Early in the training process, real planes are not used because of the likelihood of accidentally hitting one. That means that the first time an employee might de-ice an airplane, it's a live aircraft with people on board.
The simulator goes a long way toward making that process safer, more efficient, and faster, Walsh said.
Along the lines of consequences, in mining, for example, when using a mining shovel, you can't hold a giant dipper of iron ore over an operator's head. If it gives way, it's a loss of life and a multi-million dollar lawsuit.
"We're able to figure out what are the most catastrophic events that could happen if the machine is operated poorly, and let's produce a simulator that targets the training to specifically avoid those accidents," Meyers said.
VR isn't always an immediate sell, Meyers said, but businesses understand the idea of mitigating risk and saving money.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.