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A lesson in virtual reality

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While augmented reality is finding its place in the construction of new railways, virtual reality is becoming an important tool in the training of new staff.

In fact, teachers and trainers have been looking for ways to introduce virtual reality – in its various different guises – into the classroom for some time. Better equipment and more affordable hardware is now making that possible.

When the NTAR academy in Northampton opened in 2015, one of its proudest accomplishments was the creation of a VR training room. Visitors to the college can put on a headset and examine a virtual bogie without getting oil on their jackets and, most importantly, it gives students the opportunity to explore and interrogate equipment in new ways.

But the hardware is developing apace. Shortly after NTAR opened, Samsung and Oculus released the Gear VR headset. Others have followed and although smart phones can’t yet match the performance of the full tethered systems, they are giving far more people access to an immersive VR experience for a fraction of the price.

The National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR) is keen to adopt VR and augmented reality (AR), explains Daniel Locke-Wheaton, the interim academic director for NCHSR. Split between campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster, Daniel sees VR as a critical way of bringing the two sites closer together.

When the colleges open in September, they will welcome 150 high-speed rail apprentices. In all, around 500 apprentices have been pledged by more than 40 companies. As VR and AR become common in construction, the college will have to also train people how to use it.

‘We will see the increased use of AR and VR software in roles that we don’t yet know,’ said Daniel. ‘For example, the demand now for the role of Building Information Modelling (BIM) managers who are experts at the cross application of BIM cross sector is a role and specialism which did not exist 10 years ago.’

As well as his role with NCHSR, Daniel is the principal of the Aston University Engineering Academy UTC in Birmingham. Daniel has championed VR throughout his career. He recalled creating a digital training suite in 2007 and reflected on how much the technology had developed since then. ‘We were using some displays to train and teach a student and immerse them into the environment; and it was always just scratching the surface.’

But Daniel doesn’t necessarily believe that physical learning will ever be completely supplanted by the virtual world.


Arriva Trains Wales has invested in a new immersive training suite called the CAVE (computer-augmented virtual environment). The CAVE, which is designed to help improve passenger safety, uses projectors which beam a realistic platform environment on to a series of screens. It allows the user, or users, to immerse themselves in a virtual station environment.

‘We opted for the use of the projection CAVE (computer augmented virtual environment) over VR headsets as it offered a far more productive training environment,’ said Matthew Long, one of the project managers for the CAVE.

VR has the ability to bring training directly to the learners and although these kind of fixed systems don’t have quite the same portability, Matthew said the company wanted a simulator that would allow the user to still be able to interact with the trainer and other learners.

Says Matthew, ‘We are trialling the use of VR headsets for a VR personal track safety training course that we have also developed. For the PTI training, however, we felt that the immersive environment offered a much more flexible training tool.

‘The trainer has the option to pause the scenario at any time and get the whole group working on related activities, such as flip-chart/board exercises, that enhance the learning/development. This can then be fed back into the simulated scenario through the trainee operating the sim, with the whole group benefitting from the learning.’


There are some scenarios where the future could lie somewhere between these two technologies. Daniel is particularly excited about the concept of blended reality – a further step up from augmented reality where virtual data can be manipulated and changed in the real world.

‘Blended reality learning will see the application of virtual reality and augmented reality interlaced with the real world environment,’ says Daniel. ‘We see this as a key aspect of future rail training, allowing the learner to be able to overlay augmented information across a physical environment, allowing them to virtually interrogate this data to extrapolate detailed information.’