Timeline: August 2021- December 2021
Hardware: Mobile VR (Meta Quest 1 & 2 and Pico Neo 2 & 3)
Services: Bespoke Development
Openreach builds and maintains the UK’s digital network, connecting homes and businesses across the UK. Driving strategic programmes through innovation is no easy task, but Openreach is always one step ahead looking for experiences to improve their employees’ skillset and ultimately benefit their customers as well. In fact, an innovation centre in Suffolk is set to play a key role in training the next generation of telecoms, after a bespoke training area was approved as part of redevelopment plans.
The new innovation centre at the Openreach 4Acre site in Suffolk is an ambitious and innovative plan to integrate new technologies effectively in their organisation, following the core objectives of the innovation centre: training, collaboration and development.
How can Openreach’s employees and visitors from across different locations meet and interact with models, files and presentations to further productivity while minimising travel costs? How can employees and site visitors be part of a unique collaborative experience for improved teamwork in a one-of-a-kind environment?
How can Openreach’s employees that need specific cable chamber training be able to visualise this extremely hard-to-access environment safely? The answer to these questions is quite simple: virtual reality. Let’s dive into the two different solutions we devised together with Openreach.
As a multiplayer experience, the board room functions are a virtual hub and meeting room for virtual reality collaboration and interaction. In fact, the ultimate plan for Openreach is to expand the “board room” experience to connect other and multiple Openreach locations, making the immersive board room its virtual centre.
Within the board room, the administrator can regulate the meeting experience, which screens to use, for example, for a presentation or any displaying images (e.g. 360 images and videos) to add for a productive meeting in VR.
Right in front of the presentation wall, a whiteboard allows for collaborative brainstorming and note-taking, replicating useful tools you can recognise from in-person meetings to make sure the collaboration within the board room is as productive as possible.
Once launched, the application prompts the user to join a room with a unique and secure code they were sent via email prior to the schedule. Creating a meeting is easy thanks to a web-based login where the administrator can send invites and set permissions for each meeting. After typing in the code, the user is welcomed by the bright and atmospheric “board room”.
For example, the site models and 3D models on the central table can be changed, depending on what will be discussed in the meeting. Each user can manipulate buildings, draw on the 3D models and switch to floor plans, all to facilitate collaborative design. The users can even visit the models on the table at scale 1:1 to really capture what it will be like in real life. Due to its central location within the virtual room, the user is naturally drawn to the table as a focal point. This ensures a natural flow within the environment and an engaging experience for the users entering the scene.
Cable chambers are one of the hardest environments to access, there’s usually one entrance, one exit and even getting down to one is extremely complex and consequently, are not your typical environment to experience. This makes the Openreach Cable Chamber VR experience one of a kind.
In our VR cable chamber simulation, 4Acre Site visitors can safely interact with the environment and learn about cable chambers while working together on a simulation task focused on teamwork. All the characterising elements of a cable chamber are included in the virtual environment: the dark enclosed space, the water flowing while working on repairs underground and, of course, the cables.
Within the experience, users can also visualise Openreach’s network in action, with cables displaying the flow of signal (e.g. the internet) “moving” through the cables. They can even simulate a flood and must work together as a team to solve the issue and stop the flooding within the cable vault. To make it extra challenging and a better learning opportunity, we added the ability to turn all the lights off and work in complete darkness.
This simulation will be a central part of Openreach’s new innovation centre as this specific environment is not present on site. However, this VR replica ensures that people will still be able to learn about it safely. One of the biggest advantages of choosing a VR simulation over 360 video is that the environment is fully interactable and elements in the scene can be used, only seeing something rarely benefits learning. In this sense, the cable chamber training will function as a complementary experience to the innovation centre overall.
Our Creative Director, Nick, walks you through the simulation in VR.
All captured in real time on the Meta/Oculus Quest 2 to demonstrate exactly what the experience is like in VR.
Multi-player experiences only seem easy to program and develop. However, the reality is different. Content developers are usually faced with multi-player connectivity problems. Imagine the interconnections needed to make objects in the scene interactable while also ensuring that, for example, objects can be passed from user to user, so, a user must take ownership on the object so other player do not interact with it while the player is using it. It seems simple, but all these actions need to be programmed for the experience to flow smoothly for everyone.
From a design perspective, two elements challenged us the most: cables and water. If you’re familiar with some of our other case studies, you will know cables in VR can sometimes cause some problems. The physics of ropes and cable movement is particularly challenging to run in VR and allow a smooth experience. To combat this, all the cables were hand animated and rigged in the same way you would a snake. It does limit the flexibility of the cables but allows for quicker gameplay and interactions over the server.
Akin to cable physics, water simulation is also difficult to realistically replicate in Mobile VR. It takes a great deal of computing power from the headset to simulate fluid physics and is often best left for cloud rendering over real-time. Even then, that can cause problems, take a look at Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings where in even just one shot with water would have taken 25 years to render on a single computer! Knowing this, we opted to create and deform a simple mesh and animate it moving up through the floor. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are best suited for the job.
This project is in its first phase of development, which means more will be implemented after testing with Openreach to improve performance and experience, according to their needs. Next phases also include Digitalnauts digitally scanning the 4Acre Site.