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Posted December 12th 2016
Virtual Reality seems like the ‘Swiss Army knife’ solution to many fusion challenges. Because of its versatility, the recent developments within the entertainment industry are helping the complex science to save time and money. The technique triggers human senses and creates an almost ‘real’ surrounding which can be used to remotely handle fusion devices or train engineers. It can also inform the public about fusion.
So what is Virtual Reality or VR? In its simplest form, Virtual Reality is tricking the mind into thinking it is in a different environment. The definition of the immersion into VR is wide. Once one of the five human senses has been successfully convinced that the digital environment is real, the user intuitively reacts to the scenario. Virtual Reality is no longer just a game; it is finding ever more applications in science.
Simple screens or special glasses already allow the observer visual entry into another world. A headset with motion sensors accurately simulates head movements within this new world thus adding another stimulus to the mind. Combining the visual effect with sound also makes up a major part of the unreal reality.
“We have integrated sound into our VR experiences. It is quite useful when it comes to warning the operator when an object is about to collide”, says Delphine Keller. The scientist from EUROfusion’s French Research Unit CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), whose job it is to coordinate CEA’s Virtual Reality platform for ITER, is fully suited up for a virtual tokamak visit. Delphine, is wearing glasses, an immersive headset and has suit markers on her arms to track her movements.
“Jumping into the ‘other world’ allows you to experience the real size of the objects. You want to catch them with your hands”, says Keller. The operator can, for instance, be trained to solve tricky tasks. “They will store souvenirs in their memory as if they were carrying out the operation for real”, explains Delphine.
To prove the feasibility of the application, Keller and her colleagues successfully simulated an intervention on the divertor of WEST, EUROfusion’s almost finished French tokamak. Instead of glasses, four large projection screens employing the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment supplied by the French Centre de Réalité virtuelle de la Méditerranée, provided the visuals. The CEA experts also controlled a virtual character in real time via a motion capture system. The software came from CEA-LIST, a department that has been specialising in Virtual Reality for decades.
The reasons for the rise of VR in science lie within the developments made in the video gaming industry, such as high-power Graphical Processor Units and open-source applications. “We need to be constantly aware of the evolving entertainment technologies. This field is growing fast and has a huge community of developers. Fusion science and engineering will surely benefit from their ideas”, adds Delphine.
It’s not that Robert Skilton is wearing glasses and motion trackers throughout his entire working day. At the same time, using visualisation and simulation tools is nothing new to him. The Lead Technologist from RACE, the new facility for Remote Applications in Challenging Environments on the Culham site, has gained experience during his decades of remote operations on the Joint European Torus (JET). “In 1996, we started to integrate the by then state-of-the-art visualisation and simulation tools into the control systems of the robots”, says Skilton. Remote Handling is one of JET’s core capabilities as ITER’s predecessor. It is a technique that enables an operator to do manual handling tasks without being physically present at the work site and is therefore crucial for fusion experiments whose interiors are a hostile environment to humans.
The ITER Organization is well aware that slipping into a virtual tokamak has many advantages. First of all, components can be adjusted well by checking the finished, although simulated, device. Obstacles can be identified before they become a reality and cause delays and extra costs. Virtual Reality also has the benefit of adding extra senses to the human body. It’s like getting another, much more flexible, pair of eyes. Additional mechanical camera views explore what is usually concealed due to strange angles. They can even enable the operator to look “through” an object.
Alongside CEA and others, the ITER Organization has also called upon the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) for support. The Research Unit from EUROfusion and its Japanese partner will deliver equatorial launchers which will help to heat and stabilise the hot plasma. The proximity to the plasma creates a challenging environment with temperatures and strong radiation. Humans may not enter here, but robots can. The Remote Handling Study Centre from DIFFER teamed up with the company Heemskerk Innovative Technologies (HIT) to provide ITER with optimum designs for Remote Handling. HIT has added force feedback to its Interactive Task Simulator.
“We can simulate all the processes in the real hot cell here”, says HIT remote handling-expert Jarich Koning: the control and force feedback of the robotic arms, the image from the limited set of cameras along with cables that slowly swing back and forth all provide a detailed level of information. “We can almost completely mimic the progress of the actual maintenance. You can’t get this kind of insight from static designs”, says the Dutch expert.
Because it must face up to various challenges in terms of maintenance, designing, engineering, training, studying and entertaining, fusion has been at the forefront when it comes to exploring the features of Virtual Reality. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy was one of the first laboratories which used the, at the time, new computer simulations for its Remote Handling Facility.
According to Tom Mainelli, a future market analyst and expert for Devices & AR/VR from the International Data Corporation, it won’t be long before other areas will jump onto the bandwagon into another reality: “VR will fundamentally change the way many of us work.”
The potential applications afforded by VR as a future standard tool in complex science and industry are increasing. Various scientific fields are collaborating in the search for feasible solutions, such as the European Spallation Source, a large scientific project based in Lund (Sweden). Their engineers are currently working with RACE experts to develop VR simulations for operations in the Active Cells Facility.
“We should definitely make good use of high tech to present a high tech research like fusion”, says Tamás Szabolics from the Wigner Research Center for Physics. Two years before the mobile game ‘Pokemon go’ was launched, the software engineer from EUROfusion’s Hungarian Research Unit created a fusion app. Visitors at Wigner’s booth at the 23rd Sziget Festival were able to scan a book with their mobile phones and have additional videos and information displayed on their devices. “People were amazed by the flashing plasmas and impressive tokamak interiors”, he continues. The engineer enjoyed coding the programme. “Now that I have the experience, I will be able to enhance the app by adding 3D models”, he says. Unfortunately, the VR fusion app is not yet available.
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