Can AR and VR Change the Energy and Utilities Industries?
For Shell and other companies in the energy and utilities sectors, the idea of remote repairs or a technician with easy access to all the information necessary is what is driving the interest in AR. With the right augmented reality solution, “we can have on demand information in a digestible heads up display provided to an operator when a certain event is triggered,” Stroud said. A dead gauge is always problematic, but if it’s located in a remote or hard to reach location it’s even trickier, Stroud said. But AR can not only provide location information to a technician, it can also suggest the best route to reach it, he said, and then provide the necessary schematics and overlays to troubleshoot the repair. “There’s certainly an attraction to something that offers over-the-shoulder coaching,” he said.
The case for investing in VR is less clear-cut, at least at Shell. Stroud, who called VR “a bit of an enigma,” said the company is experimenting with the technology largely for training. “I think we’re seeing some real uptake using VR as a training environment,” he said. For out of the way or deep water environments, VR training can bring recent graduates up to speed before they are sent in to the field, he said. The company also has a Center of Excellence with a small team tracking how VR is used around the world, and then bringing those ideas back for consideration. Shell’s looked at VR for crane instruction and other scenarios “where we could provide level one instruction without actually having to be on site.” But the company’s most unique use of VR so far is internally. “We’re using it as kind of a culture change tool,” Stroud said. Environmental and other factors will force sweeping restructuring in the oil and gas sectors, he said, which will be hard for the large percentage of long-term employees. So the company is having “immersive” staff meetings where employees can experience what new facilities and new roles actually look like. “Seeing is believing and if you put a headset on and move around I think you get a better, more immersive understanding of what we’re driving towards. I think that’s a very powerful tool for change.”
But the changes will happen gradually. Harding-Rolls estimates the AR/VR tipping point is still three to five years away in most industries, including energy. And he and Stroud see a number of hurdles that must be overcome before these technologies move out of the proof-of-concept stage. The infrastructure barriers – access to Wi-Fi, a power source/battery, or security – are significant, Stroud warned. “It’s easy to overlook but if you’re out in West Texas you don’t have access to Wi-Fi,” he said. “You’re lucky to have cellphone service. If you want to truly operationalize this (technology) there are a lot of co-dependencies.”
Form also has to follow function. An HMD built-in to a hard hat can’t weigh 20 pounds because no one is going to walk around all day wearing that, Stroud says. And Gartner’s Hype Cycle report backs that up, citing cases of product offerings not matching actual customer needs. “AR is currently struggling with mismatched expectations (vendors promising solutions beyond current capabilities) and poor implementations (for example, solutions delivered without immersive development knowledge or workflow integration, or not mapped to business value or need),” the report said. Also, energy and utility companies will need robust AR headsets that meet the protective standards for the so-called Class 1 Division 1 risk factors. Stroud said Shell is working closely with a number of manufacturers to refine designs and improve safety.