Bryan Orr: Virtual reality still needs work for HVAC techs
Virtual reality has officially arrived in the skilled trades — used in everything from construction management, welding tutorials, to HVAC technician trainings. But are we ready to make virtual reality our new normal?
I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED NEW TECHNOLOGY. And as a kid, I was an early adapter. My first computer was a DOS 286-based PC, and to cure my boredom, I quickly learned how to boot up basic programs from a 5.25 floppy on that machine. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “programmer,” but it has always been a matter pride for me that I can easily figure out how user interfaces work; that I knew how to make the most of new tech — usually before most people can get a handle on it.
Virtual reality (VR) is now that “new tech” for the HVAC system side of the HVAC industry. It won’t replace in-person HVAC tech instruction anytime soon, and chances are you won’t be able to start working on a real live AC unit after taking a few virtual reality courses. Yet, like all new technology, it’s all about making the most of it. In order to do that, we first need to make peace with the fact that the technology has a long way to go.
I used HVAC simulators all the way back when I was in trade school. Personally, I have always enjoyed them, though many of the early versions certainly weren’t photorealistic or immersive. Most of us in class could quickly figure out the “rules” of the simulation: where you could click, what portions of the system you could interact with and the sorts of faults the simulator could give you. This “learning the system” certainly did lead to some real education, but it also creates a learning curve on the use of the software itself — which comes easy to some and not as easily to others.
Several years ago, Interplay Learning — an online, on-demand training catalog for the skilled trades featuring VR and 3D simulations — invited me to demo their new VR training at an event. The experience was eye-opening to both the opportunities and challenges of HVAC/R education through VR.
On the positive side, the experience was more immersive than I expected. The sights and sounds were all around, and you truly feel like you are transported to another, not totally unfamiliar, world. I was easily able to identify the different HVAC system components and tools and take measurements that are really taken in the field.
Screenshots from Interplay Learning’s virtual HVAC training course.
However, there were some hurdles intrinsic to the current virtual reality technology on the market. Physically moving in the virtual space is a bit clunky. You can’t just walk where you want to go. You need to use hand controls to do so and these were not intuitive for me.
There is no tactile “feel” of tools and parts, which is such an enormous part of the muscle memory of the trade. Simple things such as attaching gauges and feeling meter leads in your hand seem a bit alien when you have the entire immersion from your eyes and ears but no feedback in the fingers.
The virtual reality system I tried had that feeling that I was used to with simulators where the “rules” of the virtual world applied and learning those rules was as big a part of the success in that context as the knowledge of repairing an HVAC system.
I can see VR being very useful in its current form in helping to introduce someone to diagnosis on equipment they are very unfamiliar with — especially in dangerous work environments where learning on live equipment may be too risky. As it stands now though, I think VR has a real role in education for introduction to new concepts and equipment as well as safety training for situations that would be too unsafe to teach in the real world.
In my opinion, VR will not replace traditional, hands-on training in our field until it is indistinguishable from real life in a tactile sense, similar to the immersive nature of flight trainers used by airlines.
In the meantime, I am excited to see how VR evolves, and I hope it continues to make leaps and bounds as it already has in recent years.
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of SNIPS magazine.