How National Highways Improves Road Safety Using Varjo Mixed Reality
Traffic Officers are often faced with demanding and high-stress situations in their work, so preparing them through training is crucial.
VR solutions provider MXT is working with the UK’s highway authority, National Highways, to create a cutting-edge mixed reality driving simulator designed to help officers to better handle real-life scenarios while on patrol.
National Highways is a United Kingdom government company which plans, designs, builds, operates and maintains England’s motorways and major A roads, known as the strategic road network. This means they patrol over 3500 miles (~5600 kilometers) of roads, so officers spend considerable hours behind the wheel and need to be able to rapidly respond to all kinds of demanding situations such as major accidents.
This also places many demands on the officers. For example, they need to be able to execute professional driving maneuvers and techniques that are way beyond the requirements of most drivers. From driving safely along the hard shoulder of a motorway, to navigating their way through gridlocked traffic and even performing moving roadblocks, the job requires a significant level of individual skill. This presents major challenges to effectively training these professionals.
The challenge: how to cost-effectively train officers for demanding scenarios
So, how does National Highways keep their officer’s skills sharp without causing unnecessary expense to the taxpayers or causing too much disruption to other road users? For example, you simply can’t close down a section of a major highway for training purposes. This is exactly the challenge that the pioneering VR company MXT is working on with National Highways, developing a state-of-the-art mixed reality driver training simulator that can help prepare officers for what they might encounter out on patrol.
“The challenge that National Highways have is that most of their most important scenarios are hard to replicate in the real world for various reasons,” explains Josh Thompson, MXT’s Program Manager who is overseeing the development of the simulator. Of course you can teach the theory in a classroom, but that can’t really replicate the stresses of being out on the road.
For MXT, the challenge was how to develop a simulation that mixes the attributes of available technologies in a way that can deliver National Highways’ needs most effectively and appropriately. They initially considered using either 2D screens or VR, but found that both technologies have their limitations when it comes to either immersivity or the ability to perform physical interactions.
This is why MXT chose to explore mixed reality. “What XR allows you to do is split the difference and take the best of both approaches,” adds Thompson. “It puts the user in the car and allows them to interact with it as they would normally, but it also allows the trainer to control a simulated scenario, whilst keeping that vital sense of presence that is key to effective experiential training.”
“The key for effective training is ensuring that the experience is as realistic as possible. The simulation needs to replicate the pressures of the job and make the user believe that there’s a sense of jeopardy.”
Josh Thompson - Program Manager, MXT
The solution: a mixed reality driving simulator
As Traffic Officers work in high-pressure and high-stress environments, training plays a vital part in helping officers manage in these situations. To achieve this, MXT is creating a custom experience that combines a Varjo XR-3 headset, a motion rig and immersive sound design to put the user right behind the wheel. Once strapped in, a trainee will find themselves right behind the wheel of a National Highways’ Traffic Officer Vehicle (TOV), with access to all the controls, switches and buttons found in the real thing. From there, the user will be able to navigate a series of different road layouts.
“Realism is the name of the game here, so we want to create an experience that approximates the real situation as close as we can,” says MXT’s Lead Programmer, Cat Flynn outlining the main technological hurdles the team are navigating as part of the build. “At the most basic level, if a driver needs to reverse and do that using only their side mirrors, we want them to be able to do that accurately. It is important that we get well into the weeds on this one and really understand what they need to do, how, and in what circumstances.”
To ensure that National Highways have a tool that can help prep their officers for almost anything, MXT has sought to make an experience that’s as accessible and flexible as it possibly can be. In terms of hardware, the Varjo XR-3 headsets ensure that the experience is as detailed and immersive as possible. Additionally MXT is collaborating with Motion Systems to create a state-of-the-art motion platform that replicates the conditions inside a National Highways’ TOV.
On the software side, MXT’s in-house software has been designed with flexibility and utility in mind, in order to deliver the right service to the client quickly and effectively. For example, the team can swiftly build accurate sections of UK roads as needed, while the in-built traffic management and environmental tools allow the accurate recreation of most conditions – from a quiet stretch of the M62 at 4 AM to the roar of the M25 during a rainy Friday morning rush hour.
The result: a highly immersive and flexible driving simulator experience
The result is a training solution that is extremely malleable, cost effective, and able to render large numbers of different scenarios and incorporate various levels of hazard.
Right at the very heart of the project are the users themselves. While the simulation can deliver realistic scenarios that recreate most conditions, true effectiveness stems from its ability to break down the barriers between trainer teaching and trainee executing. Throughout the process, MXT is working hand in hand with Traffic Officer Trainers and ensuring that they feed back and shape the exact functionality they need.
For MXT, the goal is to create a general purpose tool that allows the trainer to craft their scenarios as much as possible. Once completed, it will be able to effectively replicate real-world situations, such as an overturned lorry or other common scenes. “These events are not always your average Tuesday for a Traffic Officer, but neither are they completely out the realms of possibility either, and I think the power of this tool is being able to strike the balance between the everyday experience of the user while providing enough immersion to demonstrate the importance of a job done well.”
“It was vital that we worked with a headset that can deliver an experience as detailed and immersive as possible. The Varjo XR-3 is without doubt the best.”
Cathal Flynn - Lead Programmer, MXT
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