Sunday, 16 April 2017

A virtual reality experience that changed my view – really!

I hold a Non-Executive Director role at a local NHS Trust. I chair the Trust Boards sub-committee on Quality and Safety and I am immensely proud of the achievements of all of those who work so hard to ensure patient’s safety is put first and foremost at the centre of the care that is provided. Over many years I've been associated with the NHS, I have been exhorted on numerous occasions to look at how the airline industry has successfully developed an approach to quality and safety that many organisations could do well to emulate. And there is good reason to. There is only a 1 in 9785 chance you will die from a airplane crash, whereas there is a 1 in 7 chance of dying by heart attack or 1 in 672 chance of death occurring as a consequence of walking.

It’s safe to fly. Pilots spend many hours in a flight simulator so real that moving from the simulator to flying a real plane is relatively easy. The safety checks and routines are an all pervading part of every stage of a flight. The decisions taken by the pilot, and the equipment they use are all monitored and recorded. Quality on the other hand can be a different thing. I have experienced both the quality experience that is Business Class travel as well as flying with no frills airlines. However it was still a shock to read about David Dao, the 69 year old grandfather and doctor from Kentucky who suffered humiliation, distress, concussion and lost 2 teeth when he was dragged off a United Airplanes plane at Chicago airport last weekend. Undoubtedly and rightly so, there will be a court case with punitive damages being made against the airline.

I found quality and safety featuring large in my world last week. On Tuesday afternoon I was on the 8th floor of St James House in Salford. The view across what is a rapidly changing and rejuvenated city-scape of Salford to the Manchester city centre sky line beyond was wonderful. I was there to interview the short-listed candidates in the innovation category of this year’s Salford Business Awards. The University and Salford City Council have a long association with these awards, and this was the second year running I was asked to be part of the judging panel. It is a great privilege and I always find it very interesting to hear about the various innovations submitted for consideration.

Obviously I can’t disclose any details, it’s all confidential until the awards evening in May. However, a number of new ideas fired up my imagination – ‘cuckoo brewing’ was one. This is where a microbrewery use the facilities and equipment of another (and possibly rival microbrewer) to make their own beers, which I thought was fairly innovative; there was an happiness app that enabled a real-time snap shot to be taken of the mood of an organisations workforce; and a virtual reality facility that was being used to train people what it might be like to work in confined spaces like sewers and underground environments.

The later was pretty interesting but I wasn’t completely convinced that virtual reality could replicate real life in a way to make it, well real. That was until last Thursday when I took an hour out of my day’s meeting to visit the University's Octave facility. It was a totally engaging experience. The Octave is a fully configurable, immersive holographic experience which involves sight, sound and touch that can bring together people and objects in a single virtual reality. It is one of the worlds most advanced multi-modal research systems. The facility recreates 3D vision around and beneath the user, who become immersed in virtual realty world with the ability to move and manipulate any of the objects they see. 

It was fantastic. I was able to engage with a number of experiments, including one that tested peoples responses to vertigo – and the test was that impressive I found myself inching around a narrow ledge trying to keep my balance and prevent myself falling off and into the void below. It was heart poundingly realistic. The system can recreate many different environments using any available data such as building plans, street level images, 360 degree films and it can all be put together in a totally unbelievable way. My favourite experience was being able to walk around a virtual reality construction of the University campus whilst it was shrouded in fog. The campus was situated in the surrounding urban and country environment of Salford and Manchester and beyond. It was a totally different experience (and view) to the one I had seen from the 8th floor window earlier in the week, but just as exhilarating.

And whatever it is you are doing this Easter Sunday, I hope the reality lives up to your expectations!