Exploring the Future of Technology

by Annette Kiesewetter

CSE Software watches the trends and looks for patterns as it conducts R&D in a range of cutting-edge technologies.

CSE developers work with clients to create 3D training with real-world outcomes. Above: In this VR project, workers, vehicles, signs, barriers and other items related to road building are present in the immersive, virtual world.

What’s around the corner? In the tech world, the answer changes often. It would be easy to chase the latest thing, but there are far better approaches. “We watch the trends and look for patterns,” explains Renee Gorrell, CSE Software vice president. “When our clients come to us with their challenges, we pay attention. They aren’t always thinking about the latest technology, but they always want a solution to their problems.”

Conducting R&D is expensive. Dedicating the right resources (time, people, money), investigating and discovering, judging the outcomes and uses, and choosing what to actually integrate is a big process.

There is no boilerplate solution for clients, but patterns emerge—like with companies suffering from the skills gap. “They may be in different industries, but they all need to train accurately, efficiently and consistently—and they come to us to develop the training,” Gorrell shares. “What form that training takes could be slightly different for each client, but we know the common denominators—and that helps us address the need.”

Sifting Through Detail
Behind the scenes, CSE’s development team is always learning something new. They read articles, blogs and other publications; attend conferences and trade shows; and communicate with their network of peers. This applies not only to the development teams, but other departments as well. The actual act of conducting R&D is often on the shoulders of the developers and quality assurance testers—and don’t they love it! It’s a normal day to walk through the department and see someone wearing a futuristic piece of headgear, or find them tethered in cables making some sort of weird gestures. It’s all in the name of education, of course. What they learn is applied to client projects and products, as the technology integrated in Peoria, Illinois, often impacts someone on the other side of the world.

The simulation software CSE began developing eight years ago is built on the foundation of a gaming engine which has changed three times. Each change was due to technological advances necessary to take training to the next level. For example, the physics required in a machine simulation—how it interacts with the terrain—must match the actual machine.

“To achieve this, we needed to create a module that simulates terrain erosion and digging resistance, which is not something the typical game engine comes with,” says Jade Skaggs, physics engineer/3D developer. “We also developed a powertrain module that simulates real-time forces, from the engine to the wheels, and everything in between. These modules work together, pushing and pulling on the virtual machine, to create an experience very much like what an operator would encounter in the real world.”

VR allows users to become models in the scene, following instructions to complete the training course. The safety of the virtual environment ensures that they learn proper protocols and what can happen when directions are not followed. Unlike real-world accidents, users in VR cannot die.

AR/VR Applications
Simulations continue to get more realistic, and that has led to the next step in training: augmented and virtual reality. The development team has been researching the technology for several years, but began developing for commercial use only in the last year. Once a technology is deemed R&D-worthy, developer’s kits (if available) need to be secured; licensing and other needed hardware must be in hand before any programming can take place. The team tests different theories and finds the best use cases. The best outcomes then end up in client projects.

Virtual reality followed that path. It allows people to fully immerse themselves in the virtual environment, where they can train safely—including situations they could never recreate in real life. The R&D may begin on a completely different path, but as developers learn the technology, it ends up becoming training for heavy equipment operators to more efficiently load trucks, for example, or for a doctor to study a heart before a surgery.

Instead of full immersion, augmented reality overlays a virtual world onto the real world through the use of a headset like the HoloLens. It’s basically a computer on your head! One recent R&D endeavor involved setting an ag sprayer within the HoloLens so the user could see the inside of the cab in relation to the rest of the machine. Imagine having a full-sized machine in the room with you! That integration allowed the developer to learn about the technology and hardware. Ramp-up for an actual project, then, is minimal as the developers have already gained experience with it.

Certain AR apps utilize a mobile device. Last year, a hospital wanted clinicians to gain a better understanding of a blood clot’s effect on the body, so CSE developed a mobile app to use with printed triggers. The development team hadn’t created this particular version before, but because they had already been testing concepts, they came up with an option and delivered it within a few months.

AR and VR have drastically changed the way we think about software solutions. “Instead of developing static applications, we are creating truly immersive experiences for the end user,” explains Brandon Reynolds, mobile AR/VR team lead. “We can instill memorable training and experience without the user ever leaving their home. We now have the ability to place anyone into virtually any situation. We can solve some incredibly complex training problems with this new technology.”

Not every technology makes it past the R&D stage, however. Some tools are not ready for commercial release and may require years of refinement on the part of the manufacturer. Some are clunky, and others are just too costly. Google Glass is an example of a technology that CSE researched and tested, but the manufacturer discontinued for consumers. First released in 2013, it was expensive and had many usability issues. Google is now finding new life for it as an industrial tool, but CSE developers have not resumed any R&D, moving on to other ideas instead.

Looking Forward
Manufacturers are refining headgear and coming out with new versions. When VIVE released its new headset, VIVE PRO, the team began testing it to see what it would break. (New hardware always breaks something!) So even if R&D has already been conducted and the team knows that it works, when something changes, the R&D has to pick up again.

Technologies are also being released that complement current projects. Leap Motion is one of those—a sensor device that supports hand and finger motions. CSE’s development team integrated it with VR in a simulation, allowing users to see their hands on the screen. That helps ground the user to the environment and cuts down on potential nausea, a side effect for some people when using VR.

Other technologies on the radar include sensors to measure the users’ stress levels and voice AI. Measuring the stress of users helps when evaluating their coping and decision-making responses. This has use in many industries, from military battlefields to doctors in training. Voice recognition is becoming more than just a feature. Amazon’s Alexa device is changing the way people shop and run their homes, for example. Now think of voice in other products: instead of typing out a command, the user speaks the command; instead of reading through training materials, the user activates a module that speaks the steps in the technique or process. This not only has the potential to help bridge language barriers in a world of global products, it also aids those who cannot read. Users can instead watch visually, listen to the steps, and get hands-on training in a simulation.

The Investigation Process
The outcome of R&D is more than just software development. Any combination of computer, monitors, headgear, mobile devices, hardware, etc., have to talk to each other and “play nice.” One glitch can show up in a screen that doesn’t display the picture correctly, on a touch screen that doesn’t work, or in a string of text that doesn’t look right. The quality assurance team is equally involved in R&D, spending hours and hours looking for those glitches and challenging each other to “break” the software. They break it and developers fix it, so when the technology is chosen to integrate into a client project, the defects have been worked out.

The R&D lab at CSE expanded beyond a room and a PC several years ago—to the aisles and hallways of offices, multiple types of hardware, and even the outdoors. Much as the industrial revolution changed manufacturing, we are living in a tech revolution right now. Each piece of technology released is being replaced by another with more features and benefits. The CSE team will continue exploring, analyzing and integrating the best technologies for clients worldwide. iBi

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