Start-up VRAI is extending reality to save lives
Perched high up in the turret as the tank rumbles slowly along the dusty road, you scan the roadside for signs of an unexploded bomb.
Your heart is pounding in your chest and you tell yourself to ignore it. Stay calm. Do your job. The United Nations Mine Action Service is here to decommission improvised explosive devices, the lethal consequence of decades of civil war, and you must help eliminate this threat to civilian life.
The bomb explodes, rocking the tank and leaving your colleagues maimed upon the road.
It is a brutal introduction to the work of Dublin start-up VRAI. “Back in 2017, the UNMAS had personnel being deployed on to these dangerous routes on a daily basis,” co-founder and co-MD Pat O’Connor explains to BusinessCloud.
“Because it was such a high-threat environment, a lot of the civilian support staff couldn't leave the base in Mogadishu. And yet their operational colleagues were going out every day and one in 10 of them were being hit by an IED.”
In 2017 alone almost 2,300 people were killed or injured by IEDs in Somalia, highlighting the importance of the mission.
The UN turned to VRAI to produce a training simulation which would help limit the danger posed to its staff by improving their ability to identify ground signs that indicate a roadside bomb.
“We drove the routes with the African Union troops and created a hyper-realistic, 3D 360-degree video of the routes,” says O’Connor. “And then within that we built high-quality, high-poly 3D assets so that essentially the environment you're interacting with is real footage.
“That helped us to show how difficult it is to spot indicators of roadside bombs. Not only did this help to reduce deaths and serious injuries, but it also created an empathetic link because for the first time the support staff could see how difficult it is for the deployed troops to do this job.”
VRAI, founded in August 2017 by O’Connor and co-MD Niall Campion, an experienced director and content creator, looks to combine concepts from videogame development and cinematic special effects to create what it terms ‘extended reality’. It provides services to the defence, security, energy and utilities, aviation and construction sectors.
“Those industries are very serious businesses, which are dangerous by nature,” says O’Connor. “If you're going to train people, it can't look like a game – it has to look for real. Immersion is key: you need to forget that you're in the virtual environment.”
Early big-name clients include International Airlines Group at Heathrow and Samsung UK. “These are large organisations who have lots of people being trained and put a high value on making sure they're trained properly and safely,” says O’Connor.
According to the ERM Global Safety Survey, 52 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have suffered a death or serious injury in the past 18 months, despite spending £80 billion per year on employee training. “That tells us that the training can be improved,” says O’Connor.
“About half of that training is conducted by lectures – how much do you actually remember from a PowerPoint lecture? The science would suggest you retain about five per cent of information per hour of lecture, whereas if you practise by ‘doing’, you recall about 70 to 75 per cent of that information.
“The challenge with high-hazard environments is that practice by 'doing' is in itself inherently dangerous; it can be costly to bring people from remote locations to one area; and there can be a rarity of equipment or instructors.”
VRAI’s aim is to reduce workplace deaths and serious injuries to zero through its main product, Hazardous Environment Awareness Training (HEAT), which aims to improve the quality and safety of high-hazard training through AI reporting and analytics. “We've developed a sophisticated data pipeline, where approximately 100,000 data points per minute are captured about what you're doing, how you're doing it and also the movement of your hands, head and body,” explains O’Connor.
“The back-end of our platform then takes that rich data set, correlates it to your individual training record and starts giving you insightful reports on how people are performing in certain areas, allowing you to make the training bespoke.
“But where it gets very exciting is when you have, say, more than 500 people passing through the same training experience and the system has enough data to start applying artificial intelligence. It will then start finding insights and correlations between behaviour and activities, which can improve the product over time and therefore reduce deaths and serious injuries in the workplace.”
An example he offers is training for maintenance work on an offshore wind farm. “The UK is the largest offshore wind market in the world. All the easy spots near the coast are gone so the new farms are like 100 miles off the north coast of Scotland.
“Put yourself in a maintenance person's shoes on the first day on the job: you're put on a boat somewhere in Aberdeen; you have to go 100 miles into the North Sea; the waves are bigger than your house; the turbines you're climbing to the top of are 110 metres high and sway three metres left or right in the wind. So you tell me: are you going to be focused on your essential maintenance tasks or your own feelings of anxiety?
“What we can do is recreate those environments onshore in a highly safe environment without having to stop a turbine generating electricity.”
Key to that sense of immersion is haptic feedback, where people act within the simulation as they would in real life instead of using videogame-type controllers. However VRAI is looking to go even further. “We're now building biometric sensors into our haptic gloves so we can judge how you feel," says O’Connor.
"Let's say we both land an aircraft inside a training simulation fine: what you don’t know is that inside, my heart is pumping and coming through my chest. It's important to identify that we're having different reactions: could I land that aircraft repeatedly without having a serious problem?
“If we can identify how people are feeling in those high-stress environments, we can almost inoculate against that feeling in the real world. The equivalent concept in the military is called ‘battle inoculation’: at a very simple level, before you deploy overseas, they stick you in a hole and they blow stuff up all around you and shoot over you so that when you go to that war zone, you can operate safely when it's happening for real.
“We're always trying to push the bar – we pride ourselves that we innovate on behalf of large companies because we have the nimbleness to do that.”
The military analogy comes from a very personal place: O’Connor spent 20 years in the Irish Defence Forces including more than three years’ experience of overseas operational deployments in high-threat environments including the Syrian Civil War.
“One of my last roles was as squadron commander of a cavalry unit,” he reveals. “Training was always a challenge: if you have a unit in the south and you need to move it towards the middle of the country to do an exercise, organising a lot of people to move is difficult and costs a lot of money. I always felt there must be a better way to do this.”
Headquartered in Dublin, VRAI has built a high-quality team of 12 with a diverse skillset. “One of our 3D artists comes from a fine art background in Ireland while we also have data engineers from India and a strategy consultant from Japan. Diversity is a mindset as much as anything else,” says O’Connor.
“We've got five different nationalities and we're gender-balanced. And that, for me, counterbalances the complexity of the tech landscape, because the pace of change is so fast.”
The company has €575,000 funding including backing from the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start Up Programme and is now also registered in the UK. “We just started our first major job there on the ground with HEAT at IAG and Heathrow,” says O’Connor. “We certainly see the UK is a big focus for us in the next 12 months.”
It is exploring potential bases on these shores: “There are some interesting clusters in the in the North East of the country. We're also looking at London and up in Scotland as well.
“There are lots of potential areas with great clusters of highly innovative companies.”