Tucked away in a gray state government building in downtown Baton Rouge, a vibrant world of virtual reality has come to life.
Developers and designers with FastStart, Louisiana Economic Development’s workforce training program, have created a series of virtual reality training programs for ExxonMobil Baton Rouge. The petrochemical giant asked FastStart to help build the digital modules to train its staff in the engineering processes at its soon-to-expand polyolefin plant on Scenic Highway.
The programs rely heavily on the ‘reality’ part of ‘virtual reality’. The 3D worlds capture the sprawling nature of the twisting pipelines and towers in ExxonMobil’s facilities, and they contain enough rust and peeling paint to make the environment appear real.
The FastStart team spent Monday morning in a ninth-floor studio in the Iberville building testing an ExxonMobil module that is being adapted into an educational resource for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. The module guides users through a delicate process with dozens of steps that can lead to catastrophic failures after a single mistake.
“We want them to see that real world,” said Jeff Elliott, senior manager of creative solutions at FastStart.
Driven by both FastStart and a healthy interactive design community in southern Louisiana, the use of virtual reality for training programs in the state’s industrial sector is on the rise. FastStart officials said they are talking to more companies about virtual reality, though they declined to disclose names as negotiations are underway. Some digital companies in the area are also seeing a resurgence in business.
All parties involved are optimistic that the trend will continue, assuming that a wider audience begins to hear about the benefits the technology offers.
“I think it’s still in its infancy in Louisiana,” said Brian Lozes, CEO of Kinemagic, a Metairie-based virtual and augmented reality company. “It’s just starting to gain traction in the state. I think there is still a long way to go.”
A virtual history
Companies with experience in virtual and augmented reality — which differs from virtual reality by adding digital images to real-world environments — were active here before ExxonMobil’s polyolefin expansion began in 2019.
In Baton Rouge, Pixel Dash Studios opened in 2011 and King Crow Studios followed in 2015. Kinemagic started under an engineering firm five years ago before starting its own business in 2019. Top Right Corner, another New Orleans agency, began operating in Louisiana in 2017. All four companies were suppliers to ExxonMobil.
Years ago, virtual reality wasn’t widespread because the technology was too expensive, says Evan Smith, co-founder and creative director of Pixel Dash Studios.
“They are now more cost-effective and developers have more access to the hardware,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated demand for virtual reality, although Lozes called it “the most brutal gift” as industrial customer revenues “disappeared overnight” in the early stages of the pandemic. As work-at-home programs continued, more companies saw the benefit of distance learning powered by XR, the industry term for augmented and virtual reality.
“XR training is growing exponentially every year,” said Cody Louviere, CEO of King Crow Studios. “If you look at some market data, you’ll find very quickly that your location-based training is likely to be replaced by improved things like AR, XR, and VR in general over the next three to five years.”
Louviere said the industrial sector is using virtual reality for safety training that cannot be re-enacted live, such as gas leaks.
“Some of those companies kept it close to their heart and that’s how they had that competitive advantage,” he said. “As more and more information comes out, people are seeing the benefit of XR training in general and are starting to reach out.”
Polyolefins and Pixels
While it’s certainly not the only user of the technology, ExxonMobil’s entry into virtual reality has further boosted the industry in Louisiana.
FastStart had been experimenting with XR technology “for a while,” but the ExxonMobil project provided an opportunity to put it into practice, said Mario Vaccari, the program’s project director.
ExxonMobil used a “substantial portion” of its FastStart polyolefin expansion grant to establish virtual reality training for new and existing employees, said Ken Miller, a retired engineering executive who led the virtual reality efforts of ExxonMobil. the Baton Rouge company.
The company sought out local businesses to help build its training modules. It partnered with FastStart to identify eight companies, seven of which were located in Louisiana.
“We were honestly surprised to find that the capacity was very, very high, but a surprisingly small percentage of their work came from the local area and within Louisiana,” Miller said.
FastStart worked with the companies to create approximately 20 digital training modules for ExxonMobil. It took a few months to two years to build based on the complexity of the subject and the availability of stakeholders.
FastStart and ExxonMobil identified which factory processes needed a training program and then determined which programs would be best suited for VR. From there, FastStart mapped out what those worlds would look like and then engaged outside companies for programming and interactive expertise.
The aim of the modules is to train inexperienced workers in a safe environment before embarking on potentially hazardous assignments – some of which may only take place once a year. It also aims to engage users in a meaningful, visual way so that they are more likely to retain their teachings.
“You have to get them engaged,” said FastStart’s Elliott. “The old-fashioned way of doing it in a classroom or just sitting there with a manual really falls away.”
A vision for the future
Miller hopes the modules built in Louisiana can be adapted for the company’s other locations, as well as for high school and college students interested in industrial careers.
ExxonMobil company officials agreed. The company is already using VR in some way at its locations in Baytown, Beaumont, and Corpus Christi in Texas.
“Virtual reality is relatively new to the whole enterprise-scale process,” said Kyle Daughtry, digital and extended reality architect at ExxonMobil headquarters. “We are doing well. We want to do better. We want to be able to scale these things up even further.”
Other companies are slowly but surely catching on, according to Louisiana digital companies.
Lozes, of Kinemagic, said his company has also worked with Shell and is in preliminary discussions with Marathon, Koch Industries and BASF.
What will help his company and others in the future is a faster process. Kinemagic built a platform called Stratus that incorporates 3D models and images of industrial companies to virtually mimic a factory environment. Lozes said his company no longer builds custom programs from scratch because they take too long.
“I think there’s a lot of expansion ahead of us with this industry,” he said. “Louisiana, to be honest, I think is lagging behind some of the other states in doing this. I don’t know if that’s because of the nature of the state or just because a lot of the clients we work with have their headquarters in other states. places.’
Meanwhile, Top Right Corner teamed up with the University of New Orleans to build a virtual chemistry lab, said Dan Clifton, the company’s founder and creative director.
Clifton, who has worked in New York and California, said he feels more support for virtual reality in Louisiana than in other states. He praised the FastStart program for identifying best practices for creating VR programs.
“I think people are really trying to use these new technologies as quickly as possible,” he said. “There is a lot of interest for us, especially in recent years.”