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One of the company’s next projects is to develop a well control VR simulation that would serve as an alternative to the more expensive well control schools. Down the road, Higgins wants to simulate well cementing and routine operations such as the inspection and maintenance of blowout preventers.



Many of those in this space like to point out that not only are younger workers in need of the most training, they are also the most likely group to embrace this new approach. Since they grew up playing the very video games that helped drive the technology to commercial readiness, Higgins said young people intuitively adapt to VR. “They get in there and they learn almost immediately using virtual reality,” he added.

In terms of adoption and development, VR currently has the edge but AR is not far behind. AR technology can be used on computer tablets or with the emerging group of smart glasses that tend to look like safety goggles on steroids. With the glasses, AR gives users a hands-free ability to follow instructions or seek guidance while performing a task.

For example, a field technician equipped with AR glasses loaded with gigabytes of information could walk up to a broken compressor unit, and with a glance to his/her left, be shown an easily readable and scrollable repair manual.

A look to the right, and now the worker sees a 3D model of the compressor that can be virtually disassembled to show all the internal bits with a simple hand gesture. They can even play an instructional video specific to that compressor model before turning their focus back to the repair job.

If the machinery has sensors or an Internet-of-things device, then the AR glasses could allow the worker to see temperature, pressure, and other safety-critical data before even touching the compressor. And if there is a camera built into the glasses, the worker can have an impromptu video chat with a supervisor whenever he/she runs into trouble. Higgins envisions a future in which AR technology enables a single equipment expert to collaborate remotely with 50 or even 100 field technicians a day.

The big idea is that all of this will cut down on mistakes and downtime. Last year, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, which coined the term AR, presented a study it did with Iowa State University that backs those claims. The study showed that nontrained university students using AR to assemble a mock airplane wing got it right on the first try 90% of the time and 30% faster than the groups who did not use AR technology.

With the hardware becoming widely available, the focus will soon turn to the software developers who will ultimately be charged with making VR and AR devices indispensable tools of our modern age. But to achieve ubiquity, those developers need companies from all sectors to start using the technologies and help uncover their most valuable applications.

This chicken-and-egg situation reminds Higgins of the time when another smart gadget was first rolled out into the market before eventually taking the world by storm. “I waited in line in 2007 to get the first iPhone and I used it mainly for email and texting,” he said. “Now, I use it for 50 or 60 different things because the apps became available. It’s become part and parcel of everything we do.”