Innovation: Virtual reality keeps feet on the ground: Group plans to use 3-D software to solve factory snags around the world and enhance co-operative working

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THE CABLE manufacturer BICC plans to link its 20 factories round the world in a virtual reality computer system that will allow all its staff to work co-operatively as if they were all at the same site.

The company has been experimenting with video links for the past six years, and the virtual reality system will build on this. For example it has developed a camera called Cyclops - which stands for Camera (with which) You Can Look Over People's Shoulders - that is small enough to film inside machines, giving remote technicians a view of problems faced by colleagues on the shop floor.

Cyclops is being tested at BICC's technical centre in Helsby, Liverpool for monitoring unpleasant environments such as the head of a cable extrusion machine. The aim is that if the staff on the night shift at BICC's factory in Australia run into a production problem, they do not have to rouse the local technical expert out of bed. Instead, they can solve the problem in minutes by consulting wide-awake colleagues in Liverpool.

This is only a taster of the flexibility BICC believes it will achieve with its virtual reality system. In the finished system, which will be built around computers and software from Division, the virtual reality company, a three-dimensional representation of the total organisation will be displayed on the computer screen. Users will be able to move around this visualisation to locate individuals and sources of expertise at remote sites, and to be part of any work group in the company.

'As our manufacturing becomes more and more sophisticated we will be able to share expertise without someone having to get on a plane and go to the factory,' David Leevers of BICC said.

The project, called Virtuosi, will be partly funded by the Computer Supported Co-operative Work Programme of the Department of Trade and Industry, a pounds 13m effort to promote the use of computers to support group working. BT and GPT will be involved in developing the telecommunications aspects of the project.

The aim is to support, rather than change, the way people work. In the first stage researchers from the University of Lancaster will spend six to seven months making an ethnographic study of how staff at BICC's factories are currently working together. Ethnography, which has its roots in anthropology, involves sending in observers who immerse themselves in the culture of work groups and record how the people interact to complete tasks.

'The end result will be an understanding of how the BICC manufacturing organisation should be represented within the virtual worlds of the computer system,' said Tom Rodden of Lancaster University.

He said the application of virtual reality to business systems is challenging the assumption that such systems aim to be as close to reality as possible. It may be more productive to represent the organisation in terms of a telephone directory, or to show it in plan section.

'To be effective the virtual reality system needs to mirror the way people work. If they need to collaborate closely with colleagues in Aberdeen, Manchester and Milan, does it make sense to represent these sites in terms of distance or to put them all together?' he asked.

In another aspect of the project, researchers from Nottingham University are developing methods for people to interact socially in virtual reality systems as if they were face to face. For example, if workers in the virtual factory are holding a meeting, the computer screen will switch the emphasis to the meeting table. Or if someone wishes to address all staff, they will get attention by putting themselves on a virtual podium.

This part of the project also demonstrates how much more powerful a 3D representation of a meeting in virtual reality is than holding it by video conference. If you are talking to someone in a video conference, and they look away, you may be right to feel snubbed. Or it may be that another person in the remote meeting room has something to say. In a virtual reality system, the shifting in the seat, throat clearing and other cues that someone is about to speak would be as obvious to those taking part from a different site as it is to those in the same room.

This raises the problem of user embodiment, or how people are represented in virtual reality. 'We need to find out how realistic it is necessary to be to ensure that you know someone else is about to speak. There is probably no point in wasting computer processing power making the meeting appear as lifelike as possible - it won't make the system more efficient,' said Dr Steven Benford of Nottingham University.

Mr Leevers expects the BICC virtual reality system to be a synthesis of 3D computer graphics and video.

'Video gives a claustrophobic view - you can't look from side to side. The virtual reality system will allow people to browse around. When they get near a video camera on the factory floor, this will show up in a window on their computer screen, giving them a real life view of what is going on in that area.'

BICC has devised a number of measures for assessing the commercial returns from installing the system. In practical terms, the system is expected to smooth the process of comparing the performance of different factories.

'In the past the question of why a factory was not doing so well had to be handled delicately. When we can share expertise, it will be possible to discuss problems more openly and ensure that best practice is applied everywhere,' Mr Leevers said.

This is seen as particularly important in a company such as BICC, which has built up its global manufacturing through acquisitions, he said, adding that the company's style is not to impose new methods but to encourage a two-way process of sharing experience which the virtual reality system will foster. 'The virtual reality system will allow BICC to mix the cultures of its different factories and exploit all its strengths at every location,' he said.