Virtual Reality (VR) has struggled to move too far outside of gaming circles and specific industrial use cases like medical training, but with the burgeoning metaverse movement championed by tech heavyweights like Meta, there is renewed hope (and hype). ) around the promise that virtual worlds bring.
Yesterday, Los Angeles-based AmazeVR announced a $17 million tranche of funding to scale up its virtual concert and “music metaverse” platform. And last week saw the mighty Epic Games invest in UK metaverse infrastructure company Hadean, as part of the Fortnite maker’s broader metaverse expansion plans. Hadean powers simulated environments itself all spanning from Minecraft to go to war, have recently signed a contract with the British Army.
And it’s against that background that six-year-old Irish startup QUESTION aims to capitalize on the surge in VR interest by raising a new tranche of funding to expand its flagship “hazardous environment awareness training” (HEAT) product to more environments — starting with the offshore wind industry.
Founded in Dublin in 2016, VRAI has built a simulation platform that combines VR with data collection, analytics and machine learning (ML) to give customers measurable insights and improve training outcomes. The company already has a number of notable clients, including British multinational arms and defense contractor BAE Systems, who: recently signed a deal with VRAI to provide military training through VR.
Aside from warfare, it becomes clear what benefits VR can bring to hazardous environments that are inherently dangerous to human life – recreating such scenarios in a virtual space reduces the risks and many of the other costs associated with traditional training.
“Traditional training for high-risk, remote and rare operational environments is expensive, difficult to scale and very difficult to measure in terms of effectiveness,” VRAI director Pat O’Connor told australiabusinessblog.com. “Traditional simulators are only available for elite roles, they are not scalable and are often just as expensive as the actual device.
Wind turbines, often located far out to sea, are becoming larger and more complex, cause significant occupational hazards for maintenance and installation workers in the field – be it extreme weather conditions, falls, drowning and more. While VR cannot replace the need to be physically present in a location, it is can reduce the amount of time it takes to be there for training purposes.
With that in mind, VRAI is focusing its efforts on sectors other than aerospace and defense to target the offshore wind industry — a timely maneuver given the European energy predicament, exacerbated by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The British Government recently revealed plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by raising its target for offshore wind by 10 gigawatts (GW) to 50 GW by the end of the decade, and also pledged to reform planning processes and cut approval times for new installations.
Other countries also want to improve their offshore wind game – earlier this week, Portugal increased its offshore wind energy debut auction target at 10 GW, having previously been set at 6-8 GW. Meanwhile, the wider European Union claimed about 14.6 GW of offshore wind power last year, a figure that it says will grow 25 times by 2030.
However, any market looking to increase its wind power capacity must also increase the resources it puts into it, and this includes upskilling its workforce – so VRAI’s entry into the fray could hardly have come at a better time.
“We believe our technology can help scale the offshore wind workforce faster, safer and with more insights,” said O’Connor. “We initially focused on industries with long traditions of simulation, such as aerospace and defense, but our vision is to democratize simulation training by providing high-end simulation capabilities – once the only realm of elite positions such as pilots, surgeons and F1 drivers – for whom need it, when they need it, wherever they need it.”
While VRAI is open to partnering with any industry, it aims to address a specific pain point in the renewable energy sector, with some studies suggest that one of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing oil workers from moving to adjacent industries such as wind energy is training costs – a cost they often have to bear themselves. And VRAI goes some way into this.
“The Wind Power Industry” Global Wind Organization (Training Standards Organization) has stated that 500,000 trained technicians are needed over the next four years to meet the rising demand for renewable wind energy worldwide,” said O’Connor. “Current training for this industry is very traditional and requires people to travel to remote locations to train on physical equipment. At VRAI, we can train those people in VR instead, providing ‘at the point of need’ simulation of target fidelity offer.”
What this means is that training comes to the person, rather than the person having to take time out of their existing schedules to travel.
“We believe that industries that have an above-average expenditure on training and focus on safety, where the work is risky, remote or infrequent, will benefit the most from this technology,” said O’Connor. “VR simulation has the added benefit of lowering the cost and carbon footprint of traditional training.”
To extend its reach in the offshore wind industry, VRAI announced today that it has raised £3 million ($3.2 million) in a funding round led by Northstar Venturesa VC firm based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, near VRAI’s UK hub in Gateshead.
VRAI employs seven people at its current headquarters in Dublin, and the recently launched UK subsidiary in the North East of England is home to four full-time employees – with ten more in the pipeline over the next year.
“This investment allows us to scale the offshore wind workforce, which is critical to society’s plans to move away from fossil fuel dependency,” said O’Connor. “Our products will also ensure that our military personnel receive the very best training and insights, at a lower cost and with a smaller environmental footprint, in the face of increasingly complex operational environments.”