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Eye on Innovation: NNSY’s Technology and Innovation Lab Uses Virtual Reality To Go Beyond the Limitations of the Real World

By Kristi Britt, Public Affairs Specialist | Oct. 14, 2020


Have you ever thought it possible to, at one moment, be standing inside Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s (NNSY) Technology and Innovation (T&I) Lab, the next moment soaring through the cosmos high above Earth? It may seem like science fiction – but this is possible thanks to virtual reality (VR) being implemented at America’s Shipyard.

                The NNSY T&I Lab is one group at the shipyard utilizing VR, testing the limits of the technology and how it could greatly benefit the Navy’s mission. Nuclear Test Engineering Division (Code 2340) Assistant Shift Test Engineer (ASTE) Joey Hoellerich and the team inside the lab have developed a unique training simulation to test how the workforce could use VR.

                “Our simulation places users onboard the USS Innovation, a spaceship navigating the stars. It allows the users to test the waters of VR, getting them acclimated to the headset and controllers while also putting them on a mission to repair the ship,” said Hoellerich. “They are provided instructions for how to take apart and repair a plasma pump and it’s up to the user to use the controller to get the work done. Step-by-step and piece-by-piece, they disassemble and reassemble the pump, only then can they continue their mission onboard the USS Innovation.”

                What’s the next mission? It’s to view two simulations created for the VR space by the T&I Lab – a simulation of a submarine pulling into Dry Dock 3 and a virtual tour of the lab itself.

                “The Dry Dock 3 simulation was originally created by myself and Pipe Shop (Code 960) Mechanic Kris McKenzie as a way to compare 3-D scanned data and 2-D drawings for planning purposes for Code 300,” said Code 2340 ASTE James Keim. “We originally created a 3-D model so we could represent all the pieces of the evolution in motion, like conex boxes, dumpsters, equipment, etc. If adjustments needed to be made during project planning, originally teams would use 2-D drawings, which was difficult and time consuming to ensure drawings were redone to reflect those changes in the evolution. We made a 3-D model digitally for the project as well as a 3-D printed replica of the dry dock for future projects. But we got to thinking, how else could we expand on this idea with the technology we have on-hand?”

                Keim continued, “We took the 3-D model we’d made and developed an animation in 3D Studio Max. It took a couple of weeks to make but we were able to show the full evolution of the submarine pulling into dry dock.”

                “From there, it only took a small file conversion for me to drop it into a VR setting,” added Hoellerich. “Simulations like this are fairly easy to complete thanks to the hundreds of scans being completed by engineers on base. They are able to develop these digital spaces that can be turned into a virtual, interactive space. And we can fit in ways to interact with items and expand on the experience for the user.”

                The Dry Dock 3 simulation places the user directly into the action as a submarine pulls into the dry dock, allowing the user to navigate certain points within the simulation for different views of the evolution to see how everything flows together at the speed they wish. For example, the user can be stationed directly at the nose of the vessel in dry dock at one moment, and then teleport atop one of the cranes the next. There’s even a way to access a server room within the submarine with multiple racks and a computer station that the user could tour and get a feel for the space.

                The T&I Lab also created a simulation of their own facility that was created thanks to another technology – the FARO Focus Area Laser Scanner. “The scanner was able to pick up millions of individual measurements and mesh them together to create a solid geometric shape or space. This process helps save us a substantial amount of time to produce a virtual space,” said Hoellerich. “Where it took James weeks to create a virtual animation, the scanner only took us a couple of hours to scan the entire lab and create a model that folks could tour. We’ll have the same obstacles and objects in the room like we do in real-life, like our desks, chairs, and technologies. We can even include functioning objects to interact with, such as potted plants and even people. There are so many spaces within NNSY and onboard vessels that we could develop in VR for folks to tour and see firsthand what’s inside without leaving the lab. It’s a great training tool that could do a lot of great things for the shipyard and the Navy.”

                This VR simulation is just one way NNSY is using the technology to benefit the mission of the Navy. Currently, several codes around the shipyard are also using VR for training purposes.

“For instance, the Lifting and Handling Department (Code 700) has been using VR simulations to practice crane operations at the shipyard. The user would use this function to ensure they understand what they need to do in the cockpit of the crane before sitting down in the driver’s seat in reality. It’s really cool and really helpful to those in need of training or refreshers in their daily operations!”

 Hoellerich continued, “This is just some of what’s being utilized here, many other shops and codes are testing the waters as well. We in the T&I Lab want to help whoever is interested in taking those first steps into VR. Together we can share ideas and help propel America’s Shipyard into the future.”