(Editor’s note: Atta Elayyan was one of the victims of the March 15 mass shooting in Christchurch. Friends and colleagues from across the globe paid tribute to his work in ICT and the wider community)
While other organisations are using virtual reality for pilot projects, Atta Elayyan and his team at LWA Solutions are already deploying it to deliver training systems for enterprises in New Zealand.
He said the work they are doing in this space with the Ports of Auckland around its Maritime Pilot Transfer and Straddle Truck training have been world-leading.
He said in 2017, the Ports of Auckland commissioned LWA to explore how they could use virtual reality to transform their current training processes for maritime pilots. This job is recognised as the single most dangerous role at the port, said Elayyan.
The existing processes relied heavily on theory-based methods and a set of physical training, which could not accurately simulate the dangerous environment pilots would be required to operate in specifically relating to the preparation and embarkation of ships at sea.
We had to hurdle several challenges from a technical and usability perspective, he said. A team of developers, UX designers, 3D modellers and testers came up with a highly immersive intuitive solution that successfully replaced the existing training process.
He said the technology they developed could realistically and accurately replicate the conditions pilots operate under and could map the various factors they need to consider during embarkation form the safety of a 3×3 office space.
“VR technology is now immersive enough for trainees to experience the fear of heights or vertigo and for assessors to conclude if trainees are fit for such a role,” he said.
Since the successful delivery of the VR pilot transfer training solution, Elayyan said they are now exploring how to innovate on training processes relating to driving the straddle truck, another highly dangerous role at the port.
He points out existing room simulators are extremely expensive with the only other alternative being supervised driver training which comes at a higher safety risk and operational cost.
The training solution they delivered simulated the vast majority of features found in existing room simulators at a fraction of the cost and does not require any proprietary hardware to set up.
“Although the key benefit our VR solution offers are cost savings, it has been expressed by many of the straddle drivers who have used our system that it is in fact a far more immersive alternative to room simulators given they get a full 360-degree view that more accurately represents the actual driving experience.”
VSTRAD, as the system is called, will be launched mid-year, and exemplifies how Elayyan and his team approach technology-enabled innovation.
“Firstly, we heavily invest in purchasing new and exciting hardware that we believe could be relevant to our services and make it accessible to all members of our team to tinker with,” he said.
Over the years, this has led to key partnerships with hardware providers such as Microsoft, Honeywell and Panasonic gaining us early access to their latest devices, said Elayyan.
Second, they invest in students through summer internships and tertiary education sponsorship programmes with the University of Canterbury, ARA Institute of Canterbury and Yoobee School of Design.
Every year, LWA takes up to five students to work on various RD projects.
He said VR/AR services started at LWA when they purchased an HTC Vive as soon as it was available in New Zealand. “We made it available to our team members to tinker with,” he said.
They also had early access to Microsoft’s ‘Mixed Reality’ hardware such as the HoloLens (AR headset) and the Dell Visor (VR headset). They gave these devices to the students to work on various R and D projects.
“One of the biggest challenges we faced early on when attempting to deliver VR/AR projects was our limited ability to deliver custom solutions that were visually immersive and realistic,” said Elayyan.
“We had to vastly expand the skill sets within our team to include 3D modelling, texturing, animation and sound effects.”
The team, essentially, looked more like one found in a game development studio.
“To achieve this, I began partnering with local design and animation schools and including their students within our internship programme,” he said.
It was through this initiative that he was able to build a diverse team that allowed them to expand their services to include VR/AR.The latter is now one of their main digital offerings.
Elayyan holds weekly meetings with the leadership team on both their short-term and long-term strategies.
Although strategic decisions ultimately fall on his shoulders, he said the feedback and advice given by his leadership team play an instrumental role in his decisions for LWA.
“This empowers them to do their best work as they can tangibly see their efforts contribute contribute to the success (or failure) of our decisions,” said Elayyan.
Recently, LWA Solutions was accepted into the ‘Christchurch NZ’ Amplifier programme. They were assigned a board of advisers who helped validate the direction of the business.
“By being transparent with my vision and logically breaking down my strategic decisions, I have been able to ensure I get the best possible advice from the board,” he said.
“I conveyed my strategy and vision and backed it up with sound metrics so I was able to get the board behind my vision,” said Elayyan.
“I have also consciously created a comfortable environment for criticism and have acted all the advice I have been given or given a clear explanation in situations where I have opted to go with an alternative approach.”
For the team, he recognises that passions change, so he regularly allows staff to take on roles relating to projects they are most interested in, or even create new roles for themselves.
He cites, for instance, that their VR initiative was started by a team member who assigned himself as LWA’s first ‘VR/AR Developer’ shortly after playing with the HTC Vive purchased for the office.
“Highly passionate individuals are not determined by their gender, cultural background or even formal education,” he states.
“Recognise and embrace your teams’ core strength and in turn, know when to pass,” he said, is an approach that worked for him.
He said there were several emerging technologies he attempted to invest in and pushed his team to pick up. These included cloud migration, IoT, machine learning and big data.
“None of these attempts were successful and I recognised this was because our core strength was in UX and none of the above technologies even had an interface associated with them!”
“Since coming to this seemingly obvious realisation, I have put a strategy in place to ensure we have strong partnerships in place we can rely on to help us deliver on areas outside of our core strength while tackling emerging technologies that compliment us head on.”