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Welcome to the future of transport innovation

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Photo credit:

Maurizio Pesce

Martin Pett, principal technologist at Catapult Transport Systems talks to Hot Topics about the VR city it has created to improve transport systems

Welcome to Virtual Reality (VR) city, the future of public transport innovation.

If you were looking for a virtual device to help you improve transport systems in a British town, looking through military simulation hardware might not be the most obvious port of call, but that’s exactly what Catapult Transport Systems has done.

Using a mixture of virtual reality headsets and Omnifinity’s multidirectional treadmill, which is more commonly used to help soldiers simulate combat situations, Catapult has created a VR city focused on transport innovation.

Catapult has re-created a small part of Milton Keynes, the town in the UK where it is based, so that, amongst other things, human VR users can interact with virtual versions of one of the LUTZ pathfinders, a driverless car, which the tech company also develops.

Part of the transport innovation Catapult focuses on is to make sure that its driverless cars are familiar with human interaction.

By seeing how users react with the driverless vehicles in a their VR city, Catapult can adapt the ‘behaviors’ of the Pathfinders to minimize the possibility that a driverless car would be involved in a pedestrian collision.

Martin Pett is the principal technologist of human factors at Catapult Transport Systems.

He’s in charge with overseeing the transport innovation that occurs and making sure the interaction between humans and Catapult’s tech creations is as safe and effective as possible.

He spoke to Hot Topics about the uses of Virtual Reality in driving transport innovation.

So why is VR so exciting right now? Improvements in audio systems and video resolution has helped says Pett:

“3D audio is very interesting and I think is a critical part of getting that in-depth experience, from what I’ve seen about the new Oculus and it’s competitors that the improvement in screen resolution and having 3D sound is coming and that’s fantastic.”

VR is also becoming more accessible. VR has been through some “peaks and troughs” of interest, but as we escape from the early years of VR and computer software, “the cost of electronics and computing capabilities are so much better.”

“The ability to share ideas using the Internet to resolve issues, using various forums is something that we’ve never had before.”

The recent developments can be attributed to the tech giants, such as Facebook and Sony, getting involved in VR.

They’re, “creating so much revenue and so much interest means that we’ve got a huge amount of brainpower thinking about what we can do with virtual reality.”

Gaming has been the primary driver behind VR in recent years, but the developments that the entertainment industry have helped to fund are having a knock on effect for its other uses, including transport innovation. Pett says:

“I think at the moment it’s fair to say there isn’t a key application outside of gaming, but I personally see, and a number of people I’ve spoken to agree, that actually [VR is] helping in the design of environments, and its becoming a tool to help civil engineers, architects and local planning authorities to better understand the designs that have been created.”

The reason 3D technology is helping architects and other designers is that it allows them to move away from traditional planning methods:

“To move away from a 2D paper-based planning and communication tool to something that’s 3 dimensional, that you can interact with, and see in context is hugely powerful.”

So what’s the future of VR? It’s difficult to predict where the next innovations will come from says Pett:

“There are a lot of people in a lot of bedrooms experimenting with it and there’s a lot companies who’ve bought Oculuses and other types of technology, I don’t want to predict where they’re going to go.”

Although, Pett certainly knows where he would like the technology to go:

“From our point of view, the critical things that are still yet to be developed from a transport innovation point of view and integrated into our facility is bringing your physical self into the virtual environment.”

Immersing a person physically into a VR city would improve the sort of testing that a company like Catapult would be able to do.

“Being able to see your legs, your torso, your reflection and your hands and arms in VR is a critical element to getting that sense of presence and to make immersion that much more real.”

“Regardless of how it’s achieved, being able to interact with your environment is absolutely critical.”

Since creating its VR city, Catapult has found a number of ways of developing products to drive transport innovation, alongside testing human behavior and the LUTZ pathfinder.

In the VR city they can simulate crowded environments, which can be useful when creating public transport systems that are convenient for people with a number of different disabilities.”

This allows developers to experience public transport issues from the perspective of someone with a disability, with the view to improving the service in the future.

Pett uses the example of the crowds at Euston train station with hundreds of people moving across the station en masse as a train platform is announced. With VR you can simulate such a scenario:

“How does that look, how does that feel? If you’re small, if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re elderly, if you’re disabled in any way.

“Allowing people to gain that appreciation of being in that space, either with one that hasn’t been created, or re-creating one that exists that they’re looking to modify is hugely powerful.”