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The future is now: Virtual Reality becomes actual reality at Melbourne Water

In the third episode of our podcast series, Scott McMillan, safety manager of technology and innovation at Melbourne Water and Ben Horan from Deakin University, discuss all things Virtual Reality (VR) from virtual snake bite first aid training to developing bespoke infrastructure training tools, and overcoming technological scepticism.

This fascinating chat is a glimpse into the future of the workplace and shines a light on how VR technology is already being harnessed and practically applied by Melbourne Water to bring concept development to life, drive workplace efficiencies and improve staff safety.

The future is now: Virtual Reality becomes actual reality at Melbourne Water - transcript
Prepared by Courtney Carthy, Placard Media
Prepared for Melbourne Water
Interview date: 28 December 2018
Interviewer: Patrick Mitchell
Guests: Scott McMillan and Ben Horan


Ben Horan: I'm Ben Horan from Deakin University, and I lead the virtual reality lab there. I've been working in virtual reality for around about 10 years now, but more recently I've established a lab where we work with a range of different partners, including Melbourne Water, on some very exciting projects.

Pat Mitchell: And that brings you in, Scott. 

Scott McMillan: I'm Scott McMillan, the safety manager of technology and innovation at Melbourne Water. My job is to evaluate new technologies across the industry, and maybe outside the industry, to see if there is something we can do to make our staff and contractors safer in the workplace.

Pat Mitchell: Alright Scott, well if you can take me back, we're going back to 2016 I think it was, can you just describe where Melbourne Water was at before looking at VR, what were the issues you were looking at, what was the problem that essentially you were trying to solve?

Scott McMillan:    So a couple years ago we were what you would say a pretty good company when it comes to design reviews and trying to get engagement from our staff when we build new treatment plants and new buildings. We would get a technician representative, an operations representative to be involved in a design of a new, whatever treatment plant it may be. The problem we had, I suppose, though, is we would sit down in a room looking at 2D drawings on a piece of paper to try and find faults in that. But when you have a practical sort of work force that work with their hands, and they're out there working with the actual equipment, they were struggling to find the actual hazards until they could actually see them in front of them. And that was an issue because it was too late to then fix any of those issues. So we had this real tension between designers and operations and technicians, the designers would say well we've done everything we can to build this plant to meet your specifications, we've incorporated any feedback you've given us, but technicians and operators would say well, once it's built, why didn't they think of these issues that seemed obvious to them that they hadn't noticed in the design review.

Pat Mitchell: And what about in terms of training? I'd imagine there's a lot of safety aspects that you need to deal with in a practical sense when you bring people into the work force, you're working with a lot of contractors.

Scott McMillan: Yeah, definitely. And from that point of view, when we're building something new, at this stage it was just around when we thought of virtual reality, it was really just around that design piece, but we also had a lot of training that probably could be a lot more immersive. We wanted to get away from training that was there just to tick a box, we wanted to get a next level sort of immersion of that, and to actually make people feel like they were in the environment they were going to be working, or currently working, I suppose.

Pat Mitchell: And where did VR come into it? Are you a gamer, were you thinking of it through that aspect, or where did, how did the seed essentially get planted there?

Scott McMillan: I'm not a gamer, I suppose, which probably helped in a way, kept me a little more focused on the work side of things. I actually had been working Antarctica for 6 months building a treatment plant, a sewage treatment plant. My job though, when I got back to Australia, was to train the incoming crew that were then in Antarctica while I was back in Hobart. It was really difficult to explain to them remotely how the plant worked, it really just wasn't their background. So doing that through a landline was really difficult, they were using videos I had recorded while I was down there to go through isolation processes or daily checks of the plant, and that really wasn't great for either of us when we had to fault-find. 

So that sparked my interest when I came back to Melbourne Water, I luckily had said we could convert these 3D drawings into a virtual model, something I had seen done in a basic sense, but when we spoke to, when I spoke to my manager about it, she's very good at not saying no, I suppose, so she, Rachel Smith, said that's fine, let's give it a test run.

Pat Mitchell: Well you don't mind new frontiers, you're in Antarctica, and then you've come back with this almost revolutionary idea.

Scott McMillan: It's totally revolutionary, let's own it.

Pat Mitchell: How did that conversation go, to say you know, this is the way we've always done it, maps, drawings, how did that conversation go saying I want to build a virtual reality?

Scott McMillan:    I think it was sort of all the stars aligned, I guess. Rachel had seen as well, the issues. I had that technical background that said this just doesn't work in the way it is at the moment, there is new technology out there but the investment actually wasn't that big. We had a project that was almost ready, and a project manager that had a bit of faith in us to use theirs. One of the problems was there really wasn't much in the way of equipment available, so we had to find a virtual reality café in north Melbourne that is designed for games, and we just went to them with a hard drive and said "can we plug this water treatment plant in" and walk around it. They thought that was a bit strange, but definitely the first step. It was a small step for us, but I think for the business they saw it as a huge step forward

Pat Mitchell: A giant leap.

Scott McMillan: Yeah.

Pat Mitchell: And then, so you started looking at projects, design projects, I'm not sure when Deakin fits into this, but this is initially just with Melbourne Water. What was it like when you first flipped the switch? I know you ran the trial together, so you had the virtual reality and you had your traditional method as well. What happened then?

Scott McMillan:    Yeah, so we would almost have to drag technicians and operators into a 2 day workshop to look through a nice thick pad of drawings, which really then changed to people coincidentally walking past an office that had a virtual reality headset, and people coming in and saying “oh can I come in and have a go”. So what went from a 2 day process, one or two day process, to a 15 minute headset, 5 minutes they used the headset, and then they could actually walk through the design with the designers sitting to the side picking up those, writing down those issues they've found.

So we went from, in one of the first ones we did, we picked up 6 design issues, then when we put the virtual reality headset on we picked up another 14. And they're really easy things to fix, in the sense of the design phase, but really hard to fix once it was built. So things like ergonomic issues, one was the control room window. We know looking into a treatment plant, you had to bob down to look at the top of the tanks. So it was moving that window up, really simple things but made huge difference for the next 30 years of operating that plant.

Pat Mitchell: Did it feel like in that moment the technology had essentially paid for itself, that all this work you'd done was already paying off?

Scott McMillan: Yeah, and that's a question I get a lot around what is the return on investment, and you can easily say the return on investment is the labor you saved just on that day of work. Technicians and operators are expensive, so if we can get them in for 15 minutes rather than 2 days, it's paid for that headset. It's a bit of a misnomer, I think, that this technology is expensive. In the scheme of operating a plant with hazards in it, it's a drop in the ocean, I suppose.

Pat Mitchell: Now, you won an award in 2017, so last year, the WorkSafe award and that was for this design project work you were doing, but it seems like you haven't stopped there. What's been the next step? How have you kind of developed the technology, how did Deakin become involved?

Scott McMillan:    Yeah, so that one was really embedding it in the business, rather than just using it as a once-off gimmick, because it had such value for people. The next step then was, yeah, how do we get into that training realm? We couldn't really find a suitable supplier that met all of our needs to get up to the next level, and we had a lot of imagination at that stage, we'd been thinking about it for about a year, and then we really thought we need to find someone so, through the Melbourne water network, we found some universities that were dabbling in this, and stumbled across Ben.

Ben and his team, who were, you know, I'd had a healthy level of skepticism at that stage of the industry, a lot of people would say they could do things they couldn't, or they didn't have the team available, so we went down and looked at Ben's lab, and he gave me a bit of a wide, varied tour. I learned how to feel contractions on a pregnant lady's stomach in the virtual world, then I think I did a jockey concussion testing program, then learned how to feed a cow with a tablet, I think it was. So it was a really strange day, but it sort of showed that they are willing to try something that no one else is, so that's where the relationship started, I suppose.

Pat Mitchell: Ben, what was that day like?

Ben Horan: It was a great day to think back to, to have someone like Scott, who's now become a close partner to Deakin University come down with a range of ideas, and meet somebody on the same wavelength. Working at a university, you're always looking for new research challenges, and often we make them up. But having someone coming from industry saying we tried to solve this problem, we really want to do it, and we need somebody with your skill set to do so, it's really fantastic.

Pat Mitchell: And so from there, this is a couple years ago now, what's been the process?

Ben Horan: So we started with an initial project, which was to look at how Melbourne water field operators can be trained in how to prevent and respond to snake bites. So currently there are no virtual reality tours for this, and the value we saw virtual reality providing is putting people into context, as well as teaching them how to apply a bandage in the case of being bitten by a snake.

So it was quite an ambitious idea at first, but we set away working on this, and developed a snake bite VR trainer, which is now being looked at across the industry as a potential replacement or complimentary tool to existing snake bite first aid training.

Pat Mitchell: How does this work? I've grabbed the kit, how would I learn to treat a snake bite using VR?

Ben Horan: So it's a really good question. We wanted to make sure that the system didn't require an operator as well, we want to reduce the costs. And as Scott was mentioning earlier, return on investment is an important consideration. So a person can use the system being self-taught, you don't need any prior experience with virtual reality, and the system doesn't require too much connection to existing infrastructure, so it sits in a small case, it's a standalone headset, and it has a bandage. So you put on the bandage, and then you're immersed visually, and with audio as well, into two different scenarios at Melbourne Water works sites.

From here, you need to identify where snakes might be, so it's around the prevention of being bitten by a snake. Of course, we'd like to try and avoid that sort of thing from happening. However, if you do get bitten, you then go through needing to identify and answer the doctor's ABCD response plan, as well as applying the bandage to enact the pressure immobilization technique.

So, you apply the bandage to yourself once, and then to somebody else, and through that experience you get an idea of how much pressure you need to apply to get the pressure on your arm correct so it will immobilise. It was something we realized through this first project that was quite difficult for people to know how tight that needed to be, and then we incorporated that back into the virtual reality experience. So through the headset, you can look at the arm or the limb you've applied the bandage to, and it gives you feedback as to whether the pressure is correct, and you can then take that knowledge into the field.

Pat Mitchell: And Scott, have you tried it? Is it different to what, you've obviously been through that training before, what was the difference there?

Scott McMillan:    Yeah, I guess traditional first aid training is just about the aid once something's gone wrong. So, what we wanted to do, is be more leading, I suppose, rather than lagging sort of training, so we really want to focus on prevention. And this is really about avoiding being bitten in the first place, rather than it actually happening and this is what you need to do. So, the training really focused on where do snakes live, what techniques are we doing when we're in the field to minimise that as a chance of happening, minimise the chance of snake bites actually happening. It sounds like a bit of a farfetched risk, but we've actually had people bitten by snakes, and the technique that we were following during that work is probably one of the reasons the incident actually occurred.

So it's about minimizing the chances of it happening, so it's really good, I love that it's self-paced. We don't actually have to sit in the classroom and all learn at the same speed. You know, if you're a fast learner or a slow learner, you can do it at the pace that suits you. If you want to do it in the afternoon because you're a better learner in the afternoon than in the morning, that's fine. So that flexibility, training that works around you rather than you working around training, it's been a massive step forward.

Pat Mitchell: Were there any technical issues that you had to get around? I'd imagine that actually getting the pressure right and those kinds of things was that difficult?

Ben Horan: So when we started the project, we had this idea that we wanted to improve the snake bite training available to people using a virtual reality tool. Then we had this challenge, how do we provide feedback to the system as to whether a person has applied the right pressure. So, we had two different approaches that we could take, we started with option A which was to embed 4 sensors into a custom bandage, which then connected to the headset via Bluetooth. Even talking about it now, it probably wasn't the right choice, but it was one we wanted to explore anyway. It worked, but it required a specialized bandage, which meant it increased the unit cost for the system, and meant that to replace the bandage, it was going to be slightly difficult, as it was custom made.

We realized then that we should try option B. Option B uses the cameras on the front of the VR headset to look at the bandage and feed that information back into the system. The bandage we're using is an off the shelf smart bandage, which has visual indicators of the pressure. We read this directly using the cameras, meaning that there is an added benefit to option B, which is we can provide people with the same bandage to take out into the field with them, and they can apply that skill more directly as well. All the projects we've taken with Melbourne Water really do have this exploratory element, where we want to tackle some of the problems that haven't been addressed before.

In the case of the snake bite trainer, it's now published in the literature, so people around the world can have a look at what we do collectively, and learn from that too.

Pat Mitchell: I guess where else would you expect that kind of thing to be made other than Australia. Is it actually scary, when you go in there, do you see the snake biting you, how real does it feel?

Ben Horan: Look, virtual reality has the ability to be very real, so we want to be careful not to scare people. However, we would like to have a simulated pressure of needing to respond to being bitten, with the doctor's ABCD response plan. So in this case, we opted for the middle ground where you have an audio signal of a yell for help, and the screen goes red, and you see a snake slither off. And that's being bitten by a snake. We really want to avoid traumatising people, but give them some level of experience that it's clear that now is the time to respond.

Pat Mitchell: And so how long, what's the roll out been, have you actually, this is now part of Melbourne Water's training manual, this is what you use every day to train people that need to be, that are going out into the field?

Scott McMillan:    Yeah, it's coming into the summer, we've really started to ramp that up. We have 5 headsets floating around the business, so maybe 100 people have used it. We've found that it's really good for, it's got quite a few uses I suppose, for people in the city that don't go out into the field much, it's really good for them to do a bit of adjusting time training.

We've also got it for field staff that can take it out on the job, and if they've got a contractor or a community member that isn't trained in this, they can experience it before they start. So, it was really important to get it portable, I suppose, a lot of these projects sort of forget about the end user. This one really focused on, we don't need internet, we don't need to be connected to the Wi-Fi, you don't have a computer you need to lug around, it's just a small briefcase with a kit all ready to go. So that's been really successful, and now we've got partnerships that are looking to use it. DELWP are looking to start using this, and we want to share it with our community groups and things like that.

So it's been really successful so far, and I think the best thing is it gets everyone's imagination going, so most people that put it on go this is really cool, but I really want to use it for X, Y, Z training, whatever the moment doesn't capture their imagination, or they've sat in a course and gone this could do with some work, this technology may be the solution for them.

I guess the important bit with it, when we talk to other companies or industry partners is, it isn't the solution for everything. If you go in thinking virtual reality is the solution to your problem, before you... sorry, you should go in with virtual reality as an option to a solution, rather than the solution to find a problem for, I guess.

Pat Mitchell: Now it's not just snake bites, though. Where else have you taken this technology for Melbourne Water?

Ben Horan: The second project we've completed with Melbourne Water was to develop a system enabling the training of operators for one of the ozone generators at the eastern treatment plant. So the difficulty here is, do you need to shut down an ozone generator in order to provide someone with training, then on top of that, how do you train two people that aren't necessarily in the same place at the same time?

So from that we, again, started out with this ambitious idea, and building on the momentum from the snake bite trainer, started to design the blueprints for the ozone generator isolation training system. Some of the requirements we wanted were to be able to train an individual user with the system, as well as having two or even multiple people in different locations around the world. Keeping in mind that in Australia we don't necessarily have the fastest internet, not yet anyway.

So we undertook this project, and now have a working system, which we then demonstrated live from China to Melbourne, mid this year.

Pat Mitchell: Well we should take a step back, what is ozone, and what are some of the issues you face when you're training someone in how to handle that chemical?

Scott McMillan: Yeah, definitely. So the eastern treatment plant is part of this tertiary upgrade we had maybe 5, 10 years ago, to start using ozone as a disinfectant. So it's a really powerful disinfectant, but it's also a really toxic disinfectant. So it's not great for humans to ingest, and you can't store it, so we actually have to generate it on site. So Melbourne Water has one of the largest ozone generator plants in the world, and what we need to do every so often is isolate those to do maintenance on them.

Problem is, we use them, it's such a critical piece of equipment, these 5 generators, that we don't like taking them out of service unless we really need to. That brings up a few problems that, when we're going to bring them out of service, doesn't necessarily match up with when people need to try it, or when they're available to try it. So, we end up getting in that cycle of the most experienced person goes and does the job, and the least experienced person sort of never catches up.

So, one option was to buy another ozone generator, it was going to be quite an expensive investment just to train people on. But we thought let's try something a little bit different. The idea of this ozone generator isolation, in virtual reality, it just matches the exact process. And what we wanted to do is closely mimic the exact process that an operator would take in the field.

And it's done that really well, it's an exact replica of the plant, although it's a lot cleaner. Some of the operators have picked up that it's a bit too clean, but maybe that's a benchmark for success for us, I don’t know.

But it's been really successful for that next level of immersion, but we definitely need to keep going with getting more operators trained.

Pat Mitchell: Just prior to getting VR involved, was there any way to train, apart from watching someone actually do it, was there any way for someone to, without a separate machine, there was no other option?

Scott McMillan: No, not really. You would actually have to do the isolation, you could walk through it with someone that knows what they're doing, but there was no way of practicing and making mistakes. Making a mistake in that process can have some really terrible consequences, so it's one of those systems that you leave alone as much as possible. It's not a piece of equipment that we want to hang around unless we need to. So yeah, there was training, we could train when we took that out of service. But the equipment sort of chooses its own outage plan sometimes, if there's a fault rather than us being able to predict it. So, it was just an issue around lining up training with equipment outages, I suppose.

Pat Mitchell: And Ben, can you talk us through what the solution was, what the VR in terms of the ozone training module, what does that look like?

Ben Horan: So, working with Melbourne Water, we wanted to understand more about the process for isolating the ozone generator as well as the facility itself, so we could represent that in virtual reality. So using the system, you put on the headset, you'll see and hear an ozone generator plant, it has a standard operating procedure and so on. What we realised is there are important parts of the isolation tasks, such as pushing buttons, turning valves and things like that which generally lend themselves to a simple menu-based interaction. We wanted to guide people through physically, so we added another component to the system where we can track people's hands. So, using no extra hardware other than a small module which sits in the front of the headset, we can track people's hands and show them how they need to perform the process. So, going through this, they'll remember the motor movements that they've performed, and can later transfer them to the real generator.

Of course there's the component where we can do this remotely as well. So, we can have operator A in one location, operator B in another, and we can have as many as we would like sharing the same virtual space. And as far as we're aware, this is the first training system anywhere where multiple people share the same virtual space and can do this sort of thing collaboratively.

Pat Mitchell: And how did that, the first test I think you said was China and Australia, how did that play out?

Ben Horan: Oh it went fantastically, the system worked as expected. It was ambitious and it was live on stage, but it worked really well. I was in China myself, and it's quite an interesting experience to meet some of the attendees who got to use the system, meet them remotely without seeing or hearing them before that, meeting them in virtual reality, it was quite surreal actually. You have their voice, you have an avatar representing the person, you're showing them how to perform, to turn a valve on one side of the ozone generator, and not having met them in real life is quite interesting.

Pat Mitchell: And for those experts that have actually done it in real life and have also done it in VR, how similar is it?

Scott McMillan: So we had our lead operator have a look at it, and when they evaluated it, they actually found some faults in the original isolation plan that we had. So, our existing plan missed a few steps and took a few liberties, I suppose, that you could only get from having that experience. So, if you were to follow our actual process, you would have missed some steps or done it in maybe the wrong order, so it actually highlighted that there are deficiencies in our existing system, so yeah, they were absolutely rapt with it.

Pat Mitchell: But in terms of that feel, I'd imagine the most important part is that it feels the same as whatever process you're doing, it feels the same as it would in the real world.

Scott McMillan: Yeah, and that's probably one of the gaps that virtual reality can't mimic yet, it doesn't actually have any of that force feedback. But you realize when you put the headset on that you can trick your brain more than... your brain can replicate things that are missing more than you realize.

So you walk up to the valve that you need to turn off next, and it's glowing yellow, and you actually put your hand out and you actually turn it. With that sound of the ozone generator running in the background, it does feel pretty real, the only difference I suppose is you can put your hand through it, you can walk through the generator if you want, but people generally fill those gaps, their mind plays tricks on them that helps make it feel more immersive, I suppose. It hasn't been an issue so far.

Pat Mitchell: Now when you first used VR for designing, going back to 2016, you said that almost paid for itself the first time it was implemented. Has training been a similar kind of experience?

Scott McMillan:    Yeah, the hardest thing we've found is to calculate the savings, the tangible actual return on investment. The one thing we've seen is the increase in engagement people have had, people can see we're genuinely trying to do something to make their life a little bit better, a little bit safer. So, the cost, to recoup those costs is really hard to calculate, but when we look at having to bring a crew of 10 people in from quite remote Melbourne, quite far out of Melbourne, into a regional office to have a snake training course all at the same time, that time in itself probably pays for that investment. The other one is we're then taking people off the road unneedingly, I suppose. There's no longer that need to drive around town to attend training, the training comes to you. So, from a safety point of view, that's a side benefit I guess of it that's difficult to quantify.

Pat Mitchell: And you spent some time in Antarctica, do you wish you had this kind of stuff back then?

Scott McMillan:     Yeah, and they actually, they came to the, some of the managers of the Antarctic division came to the launch of this multi-user training system, and then they actually invited us to come down to Hobart to have a look. So, it wasn't quite Antarctica again, but they really saw benefit in this technology, and they probably will be adopting some of it through talks with Ben and Deakin. So, they saw the absolute benefit, and everyone that came through had been, most of those people who had been to Antarctica saw straight away the benefits, quicker than any other company we've shown.

Pat Mitchell: And what's been the response? Just generally, do you have other companies that have come to you and asked you about it, or what's been the response from other companies?

Ben Horan: Yeah, look, I think there are a wide range of companies in industry who have a similar problem to Melbourne Water. It's not with the ozone generator, but it's the ability to be able to train on a system you may not have access to at that particular point in time, or where there are people in disparate locations. So, we have received quite a lot of interest, we're certainly interested in taking it further and looking at solving some of the challenges that Scott spoke about in terms of the real time haptic feedback, so we can feel the actual valves as opposed to just turning a virtual one. At this stage, we're continuing to work with Melbourne Water and other projects, and are looking forward to continued interest from the outside.

Pat Mitchell: And from a Melbourne Water perspective, you've really been leading this. Does it feel like everyone will eventually catch up to you, or be inspired by what you're doing, what's really next?

Scott McMillan: Yeah, I think I've probably taken on a bit of an unofficial industry liaison role for this, I suppose, and it's been really good. So, we are a government institution, sharing that knowledge with other organization should be part of the job. So, there's the level crossing removal authority, the rail industry, the power industry, telecommunications industry, they're all really interested in adopting this. I think they appreciate that there's another use case out there, another company. So, we plan on keeping on going and paving the way, we've got a lot of support from the internal business, from the Melbourne Water board and managing director down, so we're just keeping on going with that, and happy to share that information, I suppose, as it comes up.

Pat Mitchell: And Ben, where do you see this going next?

Ben Horan: Look, I think we'll continue to learn as the projects evolve. It's certainly a cutting-edge space, but the feedback we're getting across the board is that this is new, hasn't been done before, and I think we'd like to keep our research element very much in the R&D, and continue to push things forward, and as Scott was mentioning, continue to share them with the wider community, and hopefully others get on board and help to push this forward too.

Pat Mitchell: Ben, Scott, thank you very much.

Ben Horan: Thank you.

Scott McMillan: Thank you.