Virtual realities

10 January 2014
By Caroline Elliott
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The Jaguar Land Rover 6-DOF (six degrees of freedom) simulator.

The Jaguar Land Rover 6-DOF (six degrees of freedom) simulator.

In the last few years it has become possible to create simulations that are much higher fidelity and more accurate than ever before – to the extent that over the next decade simulations will become the main platform for designing the world in real time: from learning and academic science, to business and commerce, to transport, weather, economy, entertainment, politics, medicine – in fact pretty much anything that involves human interaction.

Simulations enable people to test countless ‘what if’ scenarios resulting in improved efficiency and greater creativity. Consequently they are also opening up a vast new arena of extremely varied employment opportunities.

Job opportunities

Type ‘simulation jobs’ into your search engine and already the Internet will throw up hundreds of possibilities – from simulation technology specialist in the healthcare industry, to aerospace simulation engineer to West Antarctic climate modeller to software developer in simulation games development.

“Gaming in general is growing all the time in the UK and our company is growing phenomenally quickly,” says Matt Peddlesden of RailSimulator.com.

Peddlesden’s company is responsible for Train Simulator – a vast virtual model railway, which at first glance would seem like a niche product solely for rail enthusiasts. In fact it is becoming hugely popular with 11-year-old wannabe train drivers through to lawyers looking to unwind after a hard day in court. To keep up with demand the company currently has around 60 people on board.

“The teams here comprise of people who are on a year out of university right up to people who have been in the industry all their lives,” explains Peddlesden.

“We have a team that looks after locomotives and another that takes care of the routes – and within each there are sound engineers, coders, 3D artists who make models, animators and environmental artists who put the 3D models into each gaming environment. We have people that look after all the stuff like tracks and signaling, another team who spread themselves across the whole company to look after gameplay – creating ‘missions’.

“Then there’s a QA team who test everything – for this role we can take people who are fresh out of college armed with a diploma – as this position acts as a springboard to get into the industry.”

Virtual engineering tools

Another area in which simulators have come to the fore is within the automotive industry. Cruden, Dutch purveyors of racing and driving simulators, have recently supplied Jaguar Land Rover with a revolutionary 6-DOF (six degrees of freedom) simulator that is used as a virtual engineering tool by its design teams.

“The simulator is a mix of standard and bespoke. It’s extremely versatile, and Jaguar Land Rover will be using it for vehicle dynamics, NVH and ride assessment as well as control systems, aerodynamics, off-road capability and Advanced Product Creation programmes,” explains Cruden’s commercial director Frank Kalff.

The simulator package as a whole also allows Jaguar Land Rover to take decisions earlier on in its design process – so it can explore multiple directions without actually having to make the prototype cars.

Green credentials

Crucially the simulator also helps the company to reduce its CO2 footprint.

“It increases the opportunity for clean testing of more products,” says Kalff. “For example when testing tyres the company would normally have to make, say, ten sets of four tyres and go out and drive on them. Of those ten sets they’d probably only pick about three and chuck the rest. With the simulator you can test as many as you like without having to spend huge sums on manufacturing – and then wasting most of it.”

Engineers are key

Cruden used to specialise in professional flight, marine and military simulator technologies but over the past eight years has modified those products to make them suitable for the growing professional automotive and motorsports arenas, universities and research institutes and the entertainment market. Around eighty per cent of its workforce comprises some type of engineer.

“We have people from all disciplines,” says Kalff, “from mechanical and design engineering to aeronautical and automotive. As much of the programming within the motor sports field involves complex maths we also employ a lot of computer science people as well as those armed with a PhD in vehicle dynamics.”

Many of those engineers may have already had experience with a simulator to obtain their qualifications. For example, the University of Hertfordshire’s engineering and technology department has recently installed a Cruden 3CTR (three seater) simulator that allows students to develop and race their own tyre, suspension and aero models using real data in real time. As the motorsports industry becomes more demanding graduates can arm themselves with more advanced technical skills such as vehicle modeling and simulation.

Disaster research

Simulation also plays an increasingly big role in academic research into real world applications – such as large-scale disaster. Computer modeling remains one of the most effective ways to lessen the impacts of disasters and can produce valuable data that helps emergency planners modify evacuation plans.

Coventry University Technology Park is a centre for digital innovation that marries academia and business – and is home to the Serious Games Institute (SGI), which counts among its current projects research into earthquake evacuation for children.

The SGI, which is working alongside European partners, is not only looking to create a simulation but also a learning platform for both children – and their tutors.

“It’s not just about building a really good sim – it’s also about having a good understanding of how people are interacting with it,” explains Dr Ian Dunwell, senior researcher at the SGI.

“For the earthquake evacuation, the University of Graz developed an assessment engine that follows how various children are using the simulation and the mistakes they are making. The engine then takes that data and gives feedback to the user – by triggering a ‘more able partner’ facility – i.e. another child character that can take them through the sim.”

The SGI also studies the differences between a game and a simulation.

“In a real world evacuation scenario scoreboards, trophies and power-ups don’t exist – on the other hand as long as you have fidelity in the core you can ‘gamify’ the surrounding elements of a sim and the outcomes are usually more positive,” says Dunwell.

Upcoming projects

While the earthquake evacuation sim has been rolled out in Italy, with around 20 schools testing it, other forthcoming projects include ‘inspiring science’ - a large European project with 30 partners and a project on childhood obesity. As such the SGI is looking to expand its team.

“Much of creating an immersive 3D environment can be done with good off-the-shelf products now rather than with a team of computer scientists building from scratch,” says Dunwell. “Obviously there is still the need for computer science but now there is an increased role for artists, experienced designers and educational theorists. You can go in as a researcher and work up to a PhD in a relevant discipline – or come in as a developer with a strong CV and programming skills.”

A recent article in Forbes magazine stated that “the future of innovation is simulation” – and it might well be right. The simulation market is expanding at an almost frightening speed. With computer modeling already in place to help design military campaigns, organise traffic, ‘create’ food for consumption in space, allow buildings to make decisions about energy efficiency and even actually employ people, the scope for other virtual innovations is endless and will open an enormous emporium of employment.

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