VARPU is integrating multidisciplinary research on virtual reality with industrial solutions

Submitted on Mon, 09/04/2017 - 16:32

The VARPU consortium, directed by the University of Tampere, is integrating multidisciplinary research on virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) with industrial solutions.

The University of Tampere is leading a large research and development consortium in the field of virtual reality. The VARPU project is investigating how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can better benefit industrial solutions. VR/AR technologies contain very promising possibilities for example for architecture and facility management as well as maintenance in the processing industry.

VARPU is one of the winners of the Challenge Finland competition organised by Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation. The consortium involves twelve companies and five research institutes, each with their own parallel subprojects, with a total budget of more than EUR 10 million and funding from Tekes of around 4.6 million. TAUCHI, the Tampere Unit for Computer-Human Interaction at the University of Tampere, is coordinating the project. VARPU will be carried out in 2017–2018.

The development of VR is speeding up worldwide. New Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) sold to consumers have inspired software developers to experiment with the potential of virtual worlds in industrial production. The commercial growth in the field seems to be extremely rapid. Thus far, the greatest efforts to exploit VR have been made in the gaming and media sectors, which act as engines for developing consumer devices. In Finland, the strong manufacturing industry sector is a pioneer in the field, and the VARPU consortium will give it a competitive edge through the close cooperation between researchers and businesses.

However, there are still several gaps in the research in the field. “Interaction with virtual worlds is still not very common and the applied technologies are often quite cumbersome. Our goal is to find interaction techniques that can be generalised in different applications, which would advance industry standardisation,” says Professor Roope Raisamo, the director of TAUCHI and the VARPU consortium. With the growing realism of virtual worlds, natural interaction methods are needed to provide a powerful and enjoyable user experience.

According to Raisamo, there are still problems with haptic feedback and control tools, for example. Virtual objects are manipulated with handheld controllers and this leaves our sense of touch, which is essential to perception, without a feeling that would correspond to what our eyes can see. Natural speech is also still very little used. This is why the virtual experience remains incomplete and distant to the user. In virtual worlds, combining speech, the direction of the gaze and haptic feedback enables a fundamentally more natural type of interaction.

Eye tracking is one promising technology for improving interaction. Cameras integrated with virtual devices can recognise the target of the gaze making it easier to identify the user’s interests and to design a natural interface. The VARPU consortium is developing methods for the efficient utilisation of accurate eye tracking for industrial needs.

Research conducted in the VARPU consortium is based on the extensive cooperation of TAUCHI and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd with industrial companies. “Rapid adoption and continuous efficiency and safety are no longer the only things essential in industrial applications. We are now increasingly thinking about rich user experiences,” says Professor Markku Turunen from TAUCHI. Without a profound understanding about the conditions and work processes, it is impossible to build technical solutions that would enhance the performance of tasks whilst providing a pleasing experience. In virtual worlds, a key factor affecting user experience is immersion that is widely explored in different contexts in the project.

In addition to user interfaces, VARPU is particularly focusing on effective automated content production methods. At present, the construction of virtual environments is largely done by hand. The Centre of Excellence in Laser Scanning Research of Aalto University and the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute (FGI), which are partners, is responsible for developing new automated technologies to transfer the real world into a virtual one. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd is conducting research on the new application opportunities provided by the combination of AR and 360-degree video. The Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland contributes with expertise in industrial design.

The corporate partners of the VARPU consortium include Ruukki Construction Ltd, Fortum Power and Heat Ltd, Nokia Technologies Ltd, Granlund Ltd, Rejlers Finland Ltd, Kii Ltd, Stereoscape Ltd, 3D Talo Finland Ltd, Finwe Ltd, FinCloud Ltd, Sky High VR Ltd and Whitepoint Ltd.    

For example Fortum, one of the partners in the consortium, has used VR/AR technologies in power plant environments for some years already. “The experiences have shown that the current technologies are already very useful and can cost-effectively both increase the efficiency of work and improve safety. Further improving the user experience and ergonomics will make the technologies even more accessible and open a whole lot of new opportunities,” says Miko Olkkonen, Fortum’s Head of Nuclear Sales.  

According to Olkkonen, the VARPU project has proved to be an extremely efficient platform to co-create new solutions with the research institutes and participating companies. Fortum’s network of corporate partners has also expanded, which has accelerated problem solving, research and development.

The small and medium-sized companies in the project mainly operate in the fields of 3D-design and media production. Within the field of gaming, there is a wealth of experience in the development of interactive environments in Finland. This expertise is now harnessed to be used in industrial VR/AR applications. The VARPU consortium is combining VR/AR with multidisciplinary research and industry applications in order to take the competitiveness of the Finnish industry to the next level.

For more information on the VARPU consortium, please contact:

Professor Roope Raisamo, Director of the Consortium
roope.raisamo@uta.fi, tel. +358 50 570 2007
Project Manager, Dr.Tech, Pertti Huuskonen
pertti.huuskonen@uta.fi, tel. +358 40 517 0198
Please visit the VARPU website at https://varpu.info or follow the consortium on Twitter https://twitter.com/ProjectVarpu @Project Varpu and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/varpuproject/