Timeline: 4 Months
Hardware: Desktop VR
Services: Bespoke Development
Most pharmaceutical laboratories get involved in a process called column chromatography, a technique for purification, using the General Electric Chromaflow 400-1000 column.
Slurry methods using the Chromaflow are complex and follow multiple steps. Negligence of these rules can lead to contamination, that is possibly carcinogenic, highly flammable and volatile (i.e. damaging the lungs) due to the particles present in the slurry mixture. Also, if the area gets contaminated, the chemists in the lab need to start over, meaning materials and costs employed to obtain them are wasted. Millions of dollars could be lost due to staff’s inattention, with each slurry tank worth around $2M. In this sense, pharmaceutical companies need their employees to follow the correct protocol and risk assessment procedures while working around the Chromaflow.
VR training offers a safe space where learners can focus on the steps in a more natural flow. In fact, contrarily to traditional test-based learning, VR allows for monitoring and usage without having to interrupt the experience for the learner. For more on this, head to the ASSESSMENT AND RESULTS section at the bottom of the page.
The possibility of practicing the Chromaflow steps in different levels of difficulty allows the learners to test themselves and challenge their own understanding of the technique, developing new ways of thinking and new attitudes.
To increase productivity and job performance as well as combat hazardous negligence, we proposed a virtual reality (VR) training solution for pharmaceutical companies to safely learn how to use the Chromaflow column packing station.
Training the muscle memory in VR for the required tasks means reducing possible mistakes, safety-related accidents and the financial risk of wasted materials in the long run.
How best to replicate the movement necessary for the slurry mixing? With a realistic paddle integration, of course! We created a telescopic mop stick with the HTC Vive Puck to simulate the exact dimensions of a slurry mixing paddle, allowing the user to feel perfectly immersed. Also, this solution meant that the user’s gestures and movements could be tracked to create meaningful analytics to improve performance and reduce mistakes.
This real-life puck in VR ensured the learning of the right movements necessary for slurry mixing, mostly focusing on muscle memory since pressure feedback is difficult to replicate in VR. In this sense, it was a challenge for our team to ensure learning outcomes were maximised. With hindsight, we now know that we could have integrated, for example, a bucket with water and so create a mixed reality (MR) experience, to simulate real-life pressure feedback as much as possible.
If you’ve read our case study on Mooring Operations VR Simulator, you’ll know ropes, pipes and connecting lines are usually hard to work with when developing a VR experience. Since they move in very unexpected ways, they tend to interfere with other objects in the scene, causing some confusion in the app. This project was no different: it took attention to detail and a deep knowledge of the hardware and software from our team to solve this issue.
This project was developed in early 2019 and if you know anything about immersive technologies, you’ll know how fast new advancements come about almost every month and, even within just a year, regular hardware improvements are announced.
What would we do differently today with the hardware and software available?
A solution to this problem is having guided assistance in the simulation – for example, AI guides such as TOVI (Mooring Operations) or C.R.A.I.G. (CONVERT Simulator) from other projects of ours – instead of text upon text. The advantage of guides in the experience is that they create a more natural interaction and a more immersive experience in which the user can listen to advice and act spontaneously, resulting in memorable learning and better UX (User Experience).
With the experience we have today, we would have encouraged to have less UI (User Interface) text because a user in VR isn’t meant to read text but to experience and interact with the environment in the simulation like they would in real life. Also, within the field, it is widely known now that VR learners tend to dismiss text quickly, unless short and tailored to the experience.
The experience today, with the new hardware (i.e., mobile headsets, eye-tracking, hand tracking) would create an immersive experience favouring natural learning flows and actions. For example, the user could play the simulation in any location without being tethered to a desktop PC. The level of detail possible in VR today means the visualisation between 3mm and 1mm required by the Chromaflow process would be much better, making the experience even more realistic and productive.
In each scenario within the training, after a task is completed, the results are presented to the user along with a list of good and bad practices. This offers the opportunity to reflect on choices made while also giving direct and instantaneous feedback for better knowledge retention. Upon completion, the user is also given the chance to continue or repeat the exercise.
We used learning analytics (xAPI) to track every choice, mistake, or specific practice into Learning Locker, a type of data repository designed to store learning activity. This is particularly beneficial to monitor and understand employees’ behaviour while on the job, including possible costly negligence. Also, it guarantees a natural, uninterrupted learning experience for the user.
Finally, there was one big discovery thanks to performance monitoring possible in VR: pharmaceutical executives predicted that most of its staff’s mistakes would concern which cables to put where or even how to use the Chromaflow machine correctly. However, employees in the simulation actually kept on dragging the pipes on the floor, a signal of negligence in the process, that is a massive financial loss for the company. If it wasn’t for VR, there would have been no way to test this sort of assessment in the real-world – another example of how VR is truly a safe place to train and practice with no consequences.
HoloHub is an XR management platform, focusing on the infrastructure and user management necessary to use emerging technologies in your organisation.