A first person shooter first helped Sentient Computing realise the potential of video game technology.

Managing Director Doug Bester was working in Atlanta, Georgia at the time, commissioning process control systems on behalf of a regional power client. It was a lucrative job, but it was the downtime spent behind a screen with his son that set in motion a new direction for his career and company. 

“We were creating these $300,000 control systems where we showed a pump or valve opening by colour change,” Mr Bester said. 

“Then at night I’d go play Counter-Strike and I’d be walking around in this amazing, immersive environment. 

“Counter-Strike in those days cost something like US$49, and I remember thinking ‘this technology is amazing! We’re charging Georgia Power hundreds of thousands of dollars for a blinking light, and here for US$49 I’m walking around and I can actually see the wind blowing in the game.” 

It wasn’t a quick transition – gaming engines priced mining uses out of the market at the time – but fast forward two decades to 2017 and Perth-based Sentient is at the leading edge of its field and building an impressive reputation. 

The company uses gaming developers and technologies to provide immersive and powerful 3D visualisation and automation solutions for its clients – a list including BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group, Roy Hill and Woodside, among others – and is showing no signs of slowing. 

Over the past two or so years, Sentient has grown its game developer workforce from three to 12, as interest in its work has picked up and video game tech has become a more realistic option for companies focused on productivity improvement. 

Meanwhile, new technologies like virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have enabled Sentient?to deliver its immersive virtual reality worlds from a competitive cost point and make the service a realistic option for forward thinkers in the mining space. 

Not an engineering platform 

One of the greatest misconceptions Sentient faces in encouraging uptake of its services is the notion of video game technology being used to replace engineering packages. 

Mr Bester said the idea of Sentient’s work was not to replace traditional engineering modelling software, but to connect and engage staff in a cost-effective, but technologically advanced, environment. 

“A sceptic may say ‘I need a full-on Autodesk engineering package to be able to do certain things’, and yes you will – gaming technology will not replace that,” he said. 

“But what gaming technology can do is improve communication and collaboration, and as we move into the future with less and less people onsite, I think it will become more important.” 

At the moment, Sentient’s services are engaged in three main areas in the resources space – training, collaboration and project planning – with each presenting productivity improvement potential when compared with more traditional means of implementation. 

Training 

Video game technology can be used to interactively train new staff in processes and procedures in a more immersive way than your traditional e-learning package, which typically involves answering a series of questions and watching videos. 

On-ground environments can be replicated from thousands of kilometres away, and Mr Bester said the interactivity of video game environments made training more engaging for employees. 

“I don’t know about you, but I think if I was going to go to site, I’d much rather get trained by walking around the site and actually seeing what I was going to be doing, as opposed to trying to remember what was said in the induction – it’s much more fun,” he said. 

“You have to make it fun, because that is more engaging. In some work we did for an oil and gas company, people actually wanted to do it. 

“That’s not normally the case in training – people don’t generally want to do it. It’s more a case of ‘OK what do I have to do to get inducted so I can start working’. 

“If you can make people want to do the training then that has to be a good thing.” 

Collaboration 

The virtual environment allows for different staff to?engage in and comment on process or project design from anywhere in the world, breaking down geographical barriers for companies and improving efficiencies in planning. 

“If you have an expert in Sweden, they can go into the environment you have created and make or review comments on what everyone’s been doing,” Mr Bester said. 

“Traditionally in the engineering space, they give you a 40- page document and say ‘right, this is what we plan to do’, then you read it when you get the chance. 

“You may skim it, but you don’t really understand what’s happening in the same way, so when I go and build it you say ‘why on earth did you put that there?’. 

“If I can give you a virtual environment that actually shows you the process, you can really understand what it is and make comments in a much more effective, collaborative way.” 

Data from process control systems, SAP, ore body systems and haulage systems can be introduced into the digital environment to show people what is happening without as much risk of data overload. 

Planning 

Video game technology can be used to show planned projects or infrastructure before it’s built on the ground. 

Mr Bester said this allowed companies to conduct assessments and establish processes ahead of time. 

“You can do your hazard identification and all of those tasks in a virtual environment before the project is even built,” he said. 

While construction-focused engineering packages can be used to create a 3D model of a planned project, Mr Bester said by creating a digital twin, all aspects of project operation could be trialled before implementation in the physical realm. 

“If you create a digital twin in a gaming space, once you have that environment you can do everything from production to shutdown to maintenance reviews – everything,” he said. 

“You can do it all and assess the information generated from the gaming space.” 

Cross generational challenges 

Uptake has increased steadily for Sentient in recent years, but Mr Bester said there were still demographic hurdles to be overcome. Unsurprisingly, his team of designers are mostly graduates, and the company takes pride in providing a path into the working world for its young staff. 

To overcome generational challenges with its clients, the company generally offers two modes of interactivity within its virtual worlds – a point-and-click for the less tech-savvy, and a more complex keyboard control system for those with gaming experience. 

Mr Bester said while the uptake conversation was often interesting, people of all ages were starting to recognise gaming technology for its capabilities as a tool rather than a gimmick. 

A recent job where a company was carrying out scaffolding work in a boiler demonstrated just how effective the digital realm could be when used well. 

“An expert was able to go into a VR version of the boiler and show everyone else what to do,” Mr Bester said. 

“This wasn’t a young gamer kid, it was an experienced shutdown planner guy, and he loved it because he could take the team through the entire process and if anyone had any questions or wanted to see they could join him inside the virtual boiler while the real one was running. 

“When the boiler stopped they were in there and able to immediately action the work.” 

As for the future, Mr Bester predicted technology like?that out of Sentient would change the game for mining industry training as it becomes more readily accepted and companies seek further productivity improvement. 

“What gaming can do is create an environment to communicate and collaborate, and as we move into the future with less people onsite, I think it will become more important,” he said. 

“You will be able to get guys onsite who have proven?they are competent, and then you will show them what they have to do for individual tasks using this technology immediately before they do them, instead of training them all at once then sending them to site. 

“The old model is just going to become too inefficient.”