Flat Mountain Arts is a relatively small company in Indiana that’s using Virtual Reality in ways you might not expect. They’ve already released one game called Rhythm Mage VR on SteamVR, and are working on another game called WayWorn, scheduled for release in 2020. In the meantime, they’ve also pushed VR into industrial applications, helping older industries unfamiliar with VR tap into opportunities that only VR can provide. In this case, we’re talking about the Plastics Industry, and how virtual machinery is used to generate real sales.
When we drink from a straw or use a garden hose, we rarely think of the process involved in creating them, and for good reason, in the last hundred years, plastics have become a common part of our modern lives. So much so that we just don’t think about them anymore.
A lot of modern plastic products are created using an extrusion process. A piece of plastic with the right cross-section (circular in the case of straws and hose) is pulled through a machine and cut up into the lengths required. This involves various industrial level equipment, with names like de-reelers, pullers, cutters, and conveyors. You can tell what most of these do from their names, once you understand that plastic is involved.
These machines are essential to companies that manufacture plastic-based products, but they are relatively large, heavy, and expensive. Selling these machines the traditional way isn’t easy. You have to ship them to your destination (usually an industry exhibition), along with whatever equipment and materials you need to demonstrate them, and then laboriously demonstrate them to potential clients. All the time paying incredible shipping costs and hoping that they don’t get damaged in the process.
Flat Mountain Arts realized just how crazy that is, and they came up with a better idea.
We spoke with Brandon Alcocer, Executive Director of Flat Mountain Arts, as he was on his way to attend OC6, and had a lengthy conversation about what his company has brought to the Plastics Industry, and why the introduction of the Oculus Quest has been pivotal to this kind of VR application.
Brandon explained to us how Flat Mountain Arts has been modeling industrial plastics machinery for Versa Machinery, a manufacturer of what’s called Downstream Extrusion Equipment. Flat Mountain Arts models the machinery in Virtual Reality so that the simulations can be used as a sales tool by Versa. We were surprised to learn that this business was largely catalyzed by the introduction of the Oculus Quest a few months ago.
6DOF You said that the Quest was the catalyst behind this kind of project? Why is that?
Brandon The biggest selling point for our Versa Machinery sales app is that it’s on the Oculus Quest. This makes it all-in-one and portable. So, it’s easy to take to somebody’s office and show them your machines.
6DOF When we spoke earlier, you’d mentioned that most of these industries are run by older people, do you find the Quest less intimidating for them?
Brandon Yes, it’s less intimidating for people in general. Just the fact that you don’t need lighthouse monitors, and the fact that you can set it up quickly in anybody’s personal space, rather than having to be in someplace where you’re next to a computer that’s running all the software.
6DOF So how many of these plastics machines have you modeled for Versa so far?
Brandon Our current application for Versa has five machines in it. Four are interactive, and then there’s one that you can see but that isn’t interactive – that was just for show.
6DOF So Versa Machinery makes all these machines that go into the extrusion process?
Brandon Well, not exactly. They only make the machines that pull the plastic, and the machines that cut it. There’s a whole different sector that makes the even bigger machines that melt and produce the plastic. Basically, they have a niche market. People want to see their machines, but those machines are very expensive to ship around.
6DOF They’re large, and I’m guessing they’re very heavy.
Brandon Yes, and so putting them into a VR application was something they were very much interested in doing.
6DOF So how are the machines then shown to prospective clients? Does Versa send out Quests with the application installed? Or does it give clients a link to download the app?
Brandon They’re mostly using it in showrooms and exhibitions. So there will always be a person there to walk you through it. The application is still being developed and improved upon, and we’re still working with Versa to get it to a point where they’re extremely happy with it. They have representatives in certain parts of the United States and worldwide, and they’re looking into providing each rep with one or two Quest units and then having them go to the customers and walking them through the application so they can see all the machines.
6DOF So instead of you guys having to show up and help with the demos, they could just train the reps so that they could walk customers through it themselves?
Brandon Correct. One of the issues with representatives is that they often represent more than one company, so they’re not going to have intensive training with these machines. They will know the main selling points, of course, but they won’t know exactly what everything looks like or how the machines operate. They’ve probably never operated one of the machines themselves. So, giving them a tool that actually shows the potential customer the machine and allows them to use it really cuts down a lot of the confusion.
6DOF But is the sales representative even necessary? I found the app a bit opaque until you guided me through it. Would it help to include more of a tutorial inside the app itself?
Brandon It could, but you’d still need somebody who’s at least a little bit familiar with VR. A lot of the customers are going to be older folks that really don’t know how VR technology functions. So just to make sure there are no incidents, we usually want to make sure there’s somebody there to help them make their way through the app. Versa is good with the notion of including a tutorial in the app, but they still want a human there to help customers use it.
6DOF General tech-savviness is an issue?
Brandon Yeah. A lot of the customer companies, they might have people who are younger and relatively more tech-savvy, but even then, they’re usually IT savvy, but not VR savvy. We’ve also seen examples of people visibly struggling with VR, even with us walking them through it.
6DOF How so?
Brandon Well, we’ve seen people who don’t even want to try anything in VR because three years earlier they had tried out something similar and they experienced a whole bunch of issues. They didn’t like being tethered, or they had motion sickness, things like that. We had people who didn’t even want to put the headset on.
6DOF Because of those bad experiences?
Brandon Yeah. I hope that other companies, whether they’re making industrial applications or games, take responsibility for how people experience VR because, at the end of the day, every time somebody has a bad experience with VR it’s going to hurt the industry. On the other hand, any success also helps the industry! At least three people who tried our application last week said “Oh! I need to get myself one of those Quests!” So, inadvertently, I’ve helped sell some Quests, and probably some games! Because what’s the first thing you do when you buy a Quest? You buy Beat Saber and Robo Recall, right?!
6DOF And it doesn’t help if people don’t even want to try out VR.
Brandon Yeah. I’ve even met journalists – in the Plastics Industry – who wouldn’t try it out because they’ve had bad experiences. Once that happens, you don’t get into the industry’s media because people are just scared that they’ll get motion sick!
6DOF When I was first getting into VR, I tried Ace Combat 7 on PSVR, and I couldn’t handle it for more than a few minutes. I got sweaty and nauseous and had to stop. Eventually, after I’d played other VR games, I tried it again, and this time I’d gotten my VR legs, and had a wonderful time.
Brandon I’ve actually read that when you get motion sick, your body processes the same sensations that you feel when you’ve been poisoned. Your body sees a movement, your head is experiencing it, but your eardrums don’t, and it’s your body’s way of helping you throw up the poison! So, when you get motion sickness in virtual reality, you’re actually simulating being poisoned!
6DOF How did the Versa Machinery deal come along?
Brandon I had worked for the machinery industry before, so I called up some of my contacts, Vera included. I told them I’ve been developing VR software for a year with my team, working on a couple of games. I explained that VR could be good for the industrial sector, to help them showcase their machinery, because the technology was now so portable. Versa was the first to give us a job for the application. We did a proof of concept on the Vive, and once that was approved, we started what was initially the four machine showroom.
6DOF You have other industrial applications, right? Other than machine demos?
Brandon We have virtual sales tools, like the Versa Machinery app, but we also make virtual training tools and virtual presentations.
Brandon For industrial logistics. Basically, if somebody wanted to bring in a bunch of machines into a factory floor or warehouse, they could visualize how the machines were going to be laid out. They can test all that out in virtual reality, so they don’t have logistical issues later. They can work out the placements of all the machines, the staff capacity, where everything’s going to be, how things will be operated. VR is a great tool for all that. We did a couple of those projects, but there’s not much to say about them due to non-disclosure agreements. Versa was just the first who let us talk about it! With the virtual training, we know that Intel has also done something like the stuff we do. Helping train people for high voltage equipment certification. That’s a field where, when you do the training in real life, a lot of people end up dying. VR is perfect for that kind of training because everything is as close to real as you can make it for training purposes, but people aren’t at risk of death.
6DOF How do you get all the machine models in the Quest? Do you have to simplify them?
Brandon Well, we get the CAD models and work from those. The first machine that you saw in the demo, when we first got it, it had 24 million polygons. There’s no way you’re going to get that running on a Quest. With the Quest, we needed that to go down to around 75,000 polygons. We had to put in quite a bit of time to reduce those models. We modeled them from scratch using the original CAD models as a blueprint.
6DOF You’re rebuilding the models?
Brandon Yes. Rebuilding the models, and then in the code we also reduce them!
6DOF When you’re rebuilding the models, how much of the machines exist in VR? Just what we see from outside or do you model the actual physical machinery inside as well?
Brandon We rebuild whatever the customer wants us to have in the application. Some customers might just want us to show the exterior functionality of the machine. Like for Virtual Presentations, for example, the customers just need to see what the machines look like on the outside. For Versa, however, some of the machine insides are also modeled, so you can stick your head into the machine and see how things are happening inside it. In some machines you can see the shafts inside spinning, in others you see the electrical components inside the machine. In others, they didn’t want that. We can model as much or as little of the machines as the customer wants. Of course, the customers need to understand that the more they ask us to model, the more time consuming the modeling process will become.
6DOF How are the motions coded? Are the animations based on a physics model?
Brandon Yes, the machines physically work, we do it with Unity.
6DOF Why Unity?
Brandon Unity gives us everything we need to get what we want from Quest.
6DOF What’s the biggest motivator for your clients? Why show their machines in VR?
Brandon Return on investment. If you’re shipping machines like this to shows, you’re looking at shipping costs that are close to one hundred thousand dollars per show. There was a company that went to NPE, the National Plastics Exposition, and they spent close to a million dollars for their booth, to bring over 25 machines.
6DOF That’s for just one show?
Brandon The biggest show, but yes. I mean, it might make sense for one single show, but if they had virtually modeled machines, they could take them to any number of shows. Maybe in the first year, they’d break even on the investment, but the next year they’d be saving a lot of money.
6DOF But here’s a catch! What if I’m a cynical client, and I say these machines look great in VR, but how can I judge the build quality of the real ones?
Brandon That is one possible drawback when it comes to virtual reality as opposed to seeing the real thing. I mean, having the real machine there will always provide a superior experience, but here’s the thing; if fifty percent of your clients need to see the real thing, they’ll come to your facility, but if you can make a sale the other fifty percent without them having to travel, and without you having to ship machines across the country to an exhibition, that’ll save you money. Even if you’re only hitting a portion of your customers with the virtual reality set up, you’re still going to get a huge return on your investment.
6DOF It’s also possible that for an exhibition, one or two machines could be brought in physically, to demonstrate build quality, while the application can then demonstrate any number of other machines?
6DOF What other issues do you think this VR based approach is helping with?
Brandon Well, as I said, shipping these huge machines to shows can be very expensive. The process is also a logistical nightmare. Sometimes machines can get lost, sometimes they can get damaged. These are very expensive machines! In one case, I was told of a case where a company was setting up its booth for an exhibition and couldn’t find its machines. When they asked the external contractors, who were handling the machines about the machines, one of them said that for fifty dollars they could probably ‘find’ their machines.
6DOF Is this for real?
Brandon I’m not kidding! Some companies have taken to bringing wine along to give to workers to incentivize them. It’s crazy. There’s also the issue of demonstration materials! Every time you run one of those machines for a demo, you have to run plastic through it, and if you’re demonstrating this machine dozens of times, then you have to bring along a whole lot of plastic that you’re going to use for your demonstrations. With VR, your demonstration material is infinite. A lot of these machines also require voltages that some of these exhibitions aren’t equipped to supply, so with real machines, they have to bring along their own transformers, or rent some. The logistics really are a nightmare, and the costs are very high.
6DOF Has your background with the industry helped you develop these VR applications for it?
Brandon Because of my experience with the industry, I kind of understand what people need to learn about the machinery we’re presenting. If you’re dealing with a regular software company that doesn’t have any industrial experience, they might be great at VR, but they might not really understand what the industry needs, and they don’t necessarily feel that they need to understand, since after they develop an app like this, their next app will be something completely unrelated. I used to work at selling equipment and helping people troubleshoot. We bring a lot of our industry experience to the development process.