National Highways traffic officers play a critical role in keeping the nation’s road network moving. Tasked to deliver all three of the agency’s imperatives; safety, customer service and delivery, they are on the frontline of the road network, attending to and dealing with incidents as every day as debris on the road and vehicle breakdowns, to major road traffic collisions and significant disruptions.
Needless to say, the average National Highways traffic officer does a lot of driving. The agency patrols over 3,500 miles of our roads day and night, and officers need to be able to respond to anything that might come their way. For that reason, all officers need to know and be comfortable executing an array of professional driving manoeuvres and techniques that are way beyond the requirements of most drivers. From driving safely along the hard shoulder of a motorway to navigating their way through gridlocked traffic and even performing moving roadblocks, the job requires a significant level of individual skill.
This presents a problem. Just how do National Highways provide opportunities to keep their officer’s skills sharp without causing unnecessary expense to the taxpayers or causing too much disruption to other road users? That is exactly the issue that MXT is working on with National Highways, developing a state-of-the-art Mixed Reality driver training simulator that can help prepare officers for what they might encounter on patrol.
“The challenge that National Highways have is that most of their most important scenarios are hard to replicate in the real world for various reasons,” explains Josh Thompson, MXT’s Programme Manager who is overseeing the development of the simulator. “You can set up a conventional “roleplay” situation, where you close a road or practice on private land, but this can be costly and limited. To reduce or eliminate real danger, this role play is commonly done in a “sterile” environment without, for example, traffic. Of course, you can teach the theory in a classroom, but that can’t really replicate the stresses of being out on the road. And then you can undertake a combination of the two which National Highways currently does during their traffic officer training.”
Tools for the Job: Virtual Reality vs Mixed Reality
Virtual reality has a lot going for it as a technological solution for training. A marriage between the practical realism of on-the-job training and the theoretical foundations of in-person classroom or roleplay learning, VR driving sims can be detailed enough to build skills and flexible enough to provide users with valuable experience in thousands of real-world situations. For an organisation like National Highways, which needs its traffic officers to respond to various challenges in almost any set of atmospheric and environmental conditions, VR offers a compelling mix of authenticity and flexibility.
“The efficacy of Virtual Reality training is undeniable,” explains Josh. “There’s a decent body of research showing how immersive learners are 4X faster to train than classroom-only learners. The beauty of using Virtual Reality and motion platforms (simulator rigs) for driver training like this is that it allows the user to learn by doing, but it also allows the trainer to pass on the benefits of their expertise and experience.”
For MXT, though, the challenge is how to develop a simulation that mixes the attributes of the available technology in a way that can deliver National Highways’ needs most effectively and appropriately. “There are essentially two options for setting up a simulation,” says Josh, framing MXT’s response to the brief. “At first, we looked at more a traditional solution, using flat or curved screens surrounding a user. In that instance, we found that the ability to interact with the simulation was really good because the user could use their hands to move the controls and seamlessly interact with the vehicle. But on the other hand, this option doesn’t have the immersivity or the “presence” of the user in the simulation. In fact, even using a VR headset that completely envelopes the user’s field of view has its compromises. It may help the user to feel like they’re present in a virtual world, but their ability to seamlessly interact with the physical equipment, like pedals, is now a bit limited.”
The need for users to suspend disbelief and engage fully with the simulation led to MXT putting Mixed Reality technology at the heart of their approach. Using mixed-reality VARJO XR-3 headsets to merge the real and virtual worlds; the solution literally puts the user in the driver’s seat, allowing them to interact with physical and digital objects in real time. “What MR allows you to do is split the difference and take the best of both approaches,” adds Josh. “It puts the user in the car and allows them to interact with it as they would normally, but it also allows the trainer to control a simulated scenario, whilst keeping that vital sense of presence that is key to effective experiential training.”
Mixed Reality Role-Playing
The power of this hybrid, extended reality approach is that it creates an experience that is as close to the real thing as possible. Study after study has shown that people who learn through active participation achieve better outcomes than learners who stick to more linear forms of teaching. That’s why roleplay forms a vital part of modern workplace training: from the fairly mundane first-aid inductions most offices run for their staff to the more sophisticated simulated court cases many legal firms use to prepare their barristers for the real thing.“It’s important to remember that Traffic Officers work in high-pressure and high-stress environments and training plays a vital part in helping officers navigate this,” Josh continues, highlighting the critical role immersion plays in MXT’s driving simulator. “We need to ensure the experience is as immersive as possible so that these experiential learning opportunities come into play. We need to recreate the pressures of the job and have the user believe, even subconsciously, that there is a sense of jeopardy in all this.”
To achieve this, MXT is creating a custom experience that combines an MR headset, a motion rig and immersive sound design to put the user right behind the wheel. Once strapped in, a trainee will find themselves right behind the wheel of a National Highways’ Traffic Officer Vehicle (TOV), with access to all the controls, switches and buttons found in the real thing. From there, the user can navigate a series of different road layouts and safely practice all manoeuvres and techniques they’ll need in the real world.
“Realism is the name of the game here, so we want to create an experience that approximates the real situation as close as we can,” says MXT’s Lead Programmer, Cat Flynn, outlining the team’s main technological hurdles are navigating as part of the build. “At the most basic level, if a driver needs to reverse and do that using only their side mirrors, we want them to be able to do that accurately. We need to get well into the weeds on this one and really understand what they need to do, how, and in what circumstances.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
To ensure that National Highways have a tool that can help prep their officers for almost anything, MXT has sought to make an experience as accessible and flexible as possible. This philosophy runs through the entire project. In terms of hardware, the Varjo XR-3 headsets, for example, ensure that the experience is as detailed and immersive as possible. Not only do they have a great field of view and excellent resolution, their forward-facing cameras allow for real-time streaming of “reality” that can be seamlessly blended with CGI. Additionally, MXT is collaborating with Motion Systems to create a state-of-the-art motion platform replicating the conditions inside a National Highways’ TOV.
“From a development perspective, it’s a challenge to get all elements to work in harmony,” Cat explains. “With a Mixed Reality simulator, you’re effectively both fitting a virtual world into the real one and bringing parts of the real world into the virtual.”
MXT’s in-house software has been designed with flexibility and utility, in mind, in order to deliver the right service to the client quickly and effectively. This means, for example, that the team can swiftly build accurate sections of UK road as needed, while the in-built traffic management and environmental tools allow the recreation of most conditions. The result is a training solution that is extremely malleable, able to render large numbers of different scenarios and incorporate various levels of hazard.
Right at the very heart of the project are the users themselves. While the simulation can deliver realistic scenarios that recreate most conditions, true effectiveness stems from its ability to break down the barriers between trainer teaching and trainee executing. Throughout the process, MXT is working with Traffic Officer Trainers to ensure that they feed back and shape the exact functionality they need. “Our ambition is to create a general purpose tool that allows the trainer to craft their scenarios as much as possible. What this tool will be able to do is effectively replicate real-world situations, such as an overturned lorry or other common scenes”, Josh continues. “These events are not always your average Tuesday for a Traffic Officer, but neither are they completely out the realms of possibility either, and I think the power of this tool is being able to strike a balance between the everyday experience of the user while providing enough immersion to demonstrate the importance of a job done well.”
Further reading on scenario simulation in VR for training purposes is available in the below links. If you would like to know more about how VR simulation can help your business, please get in touch.